Zowie! Tweets for Week Ending July 25, 2010: Platforms, Models, Mobile, Customization

Zowie! Tweets of Week Ending July 18, 2010: Tweetjam #acmjam, adaptive case management, Herbert Simon, EMR/EHR Usability

Herbert Simon’s Well- vs. Ill-Structured Problems, Adaptive Case Management, and Clinical Groupware

Short Link: http://j.mp/9bm9Gp

Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize-winning economist (and fellow alumnus, I never fail to mention) helpedĀ found the fields of artificial intelligence and cognitive science. He “was one of the most influential social scientists of the 20th century” (Wikipedia). I attendedĀ his lecturesĀ at Carnegie Mellon University, where his ideas about attention, bounded rationality, and satisficing provided grist for many research projects and Ph.D. theses.


Herbert Simon’s Autobiography: Models of My Life

Prof. Simon distinguished between well-structured versus ill-structured problem solving, in some ways prefiguring a debate within the business process management (BPM) community about adaptive case management and predictable vs. unpredictable, Ā formal vs. ad-hoc, easily vs. barely repeatable, and structured vs. unstructured work and processes. For some flavor of this debate see my trip report to the recent Process.gov conference, which featured a track on adaptive case management.

Herbert Simon offered his well-structured vs. ill-structured dichotomy in his 1973 paper ā€œThe Structure of Ill-Structured Problemsā€ (Artificial Intelligence 4: 181-201., not available on-line, however there is a wealth of online material quoting from Simon and commenting on his ideas). I used Simon’s distinction in the section Informal & Unstructured vs. Formal & Structured Care Coordination in my post Clinical Groupware, Care Coordination, and EMR Workflow Systems: Key Ideas, when I wrote:

ā€œ[There is a spectrum] between well-structured and ill-structured cooperative problem solving, and the kinds of groupware needed to facilitate computer-supported cooperative work in healthcare. Both kinds of cooperative problem solving require clinical groupware. EMR workflow systems fare especially well on well-structured care coordination problems. [They] handle both ends of the spectrum well: a workflow engine to handle routine group workflows and an office view to handle non-routine group workflows.ā€ (Clinical Groupware, Care Coordination, and EMR Workflow Systems: Key Ideas)

I’m interested in comparing and contrasting different kinds of clinical groupware. Why? Well, my intuition is that as EMRs and EHRs evolve into, or are replaced by, clinical groupware alternatives, no single kind of clinical groupware will serve every purpose. Well-structured versus ill-structured processing and problem solving seems like a good conceptual spectrum along which to compare different sorts of clinical groupware systems.

In particular,Ā clinical groupwareĀ supportingĀ patient-physician encountersĀ in the medical office must help users to deal with both well-structured patient encounter workflows (the thirty-second otitis media encounter) and ill-structured workflows (the more complicated, less routine collections of interacting medical problems).

After the next paragraphĀ are passagesĀ from Simon’s 1973 paper, quoted inĀ a chapter onĀ medical artificial intelligence by oneĀ of Simon’s Ph.D. students, Harry Pople’s “Heuristic Methods for Imposing Structure on Ill-Structured Problems: The Structuring of Medical Diagnostics.”Ā  Chapter 5 in Szolovits, P. (Ed.) Artificial Intelligence in Medicine. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.Ā  1982. (I was a research associate in Prof. Pople’s Decision Systems Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, home to the INTERNIST-I and CADUCEUS medical expert systems projects.)

Simon described the work of an architect in terms consistent with today’s goals of adaptive case management, to provide tools to support knowledge work. However, Pople quotes Simon in the context ofĀ another kind of knowledge work, medical problem solving. The analogy between architect and clinician is intriguing. Used as a verb, “to architect”Ā means “to plan, organize, or structure.”Ā Future EMRs will need to do a better job of helping their physician users to plan, organize, and structure patient care processes. Much of this blog is essentially an argument that EMRs and EHRs must become more like business process management and adaptive case management systems to most effectively accomplish this. But enough about what *I* think, what did Herbert Simon think about well-structured versus ill-structured problem solving?

It will generally be agreed that the work of an architect–in designing a house, say–presents tasks that lie well toward the ill structured end of the problem continuum. Of course this is only true if the architect is trying to be “creative”–if he does not begin the task by taking off his shelf one of a set of standard house designs that he keeps there.

The design task (with this proviso) is ill structured in a number of respects. There is initially no definite criterion to test a proposed solution, much less a mechanizable process to apply the criterion. The problem space is not defined in any meaningful way, for a definition would have to encompass all kinds of structures the architect might at some point consider. … even if we were to argue that the problem space can really be defined–since anything the architect thinks of must somehow be generated from or dredged from, his resources of memory or his reference library–some of this information only shows up in late stages of the design process after large amounts of search; and some of it shows up, when it does, almost accidentally. Hence, the problem is even less well defined when considered from the standpoint of what is actually known at any point in time than when considered from the standpoint of what is knowable, eventually and in principle.

We can imagine a design process that proceeds according to the following general scheme. Taking the initial goals and constraints, the architect begins to derive some global specifications from them-perhaps the square footage or cubic footage of the house among them. But the task itself, “designing a house,” evokes from his long-term memory a list of other attributes that will have to be specified at an early stage of the design: characteristics of the lot on which the house is to be built, its general style, whether it is to be on a single level or multi-storied, type of frame, types of structural materials and of sheathing materials, and so on. … Design alternatives can also be evoked in component-by-component fashion. The subgoal of designing the heating system may lead the architect to consider various fuels and various distribution systems. Again, the source of these generators of alternatives is to be found in his long-term memory and reference facilities (including his access to specialists for helping design some of the component systems).

The whole design, then, begins to acquire structure by being decomposed into various problems of component design, and by evoking, as the design progresses, all kinds of requirements to be applied in testing the design of its components. During any given short period of time, the architect will find himself working on a problem which, perhaps beginning in an ill structured state, soon converts itself through evocation from memory into a well structured problem.

Herbert Simon’s last line is key. Ill-structured problems can become well-structured problems. If there are, indeed, two different kinds of clinical groupware, one for ill-structured, ad-hoc, creative cooperativeĀ problem solving and one for well-structured, formal, routineĀ cooperative problem solving, thenĀ they need to work together well.

Consider an analogy. Prior to the automatic transmission, driving a car was physically and cognitively (due to distraction) demanding. Cars that automatically adapted to changes in terrain were easier to drive and needed less skill. Similarly, today, EMRs should speed along well-structured workflows in high gear. When encountering a sandy hill of ill-structuredness, they should, gracefully, without driver distraction, shift into low gear–then back to high gear and high speed at the next stretch of level and smooth pavement. High speed/high gear corresponds to executing process models that offer the right screen with the right data or order entry options to the right person at the right time in the workflow. How? Though execution of a BPM-style process model of routine, predictable workflows. Low speed/low gear corresponds to falling back on adaptive case management-style tools for dealing with unexpected, and therefore not modeled, circumstances.

Of course, analogies are like cars; they break down if driven too far.

I thought about titling this post “What Would Herbert Simon Say about BPM and Adaptive Case Management” or “What Would Herbert Simon Write about the Need for Different Kinds of Clinical Groupware” or even “What Would Herbert Simon Tweet….” Ultimately his thoughts on these specific topics are unknowable. However, Herbert Simon’s comments about problem solving and structure are even more relevant today than in 1973.

We are the verge of creating automated environments to partner with clinicians in managing and solvingĀ ill-, and well-, structured patient care processes and medical problems. Our degree of success will directly determine the usability of the EMRs, EHRs, and clinical groupware and therefore the success of the entire EMR, EHR, and clinical groupware adoption enterprise.

Zowie! Tweets of Week Ending July 11, 2010: Intuitive vs Intuitable EMRs, EHRs, and Clinical Groupware; Easily vs Barely Repeatable, Structured vs Unstructured, Formal vs Ad-hoc Processes

Zowie! Tweets for Week Ending July 4th, 2010: Independence Day, #BPM, #EMR, #EHR, Clinical #groupware, Structured, Unstructured, Visible Work

Intuitive vs. Intuitable EHRs: Do We Need Smarter Users or Smarter User Interfaces?

Short Link: http://j.mp/aU8192

  • Question: Do We Need Smarter Users or Smarter User Interfaces?
  • Answer: Smarter User Interfaces.

Pundits often call for more ā€œintuitiveā€ EHR and EMR user interfaces. If I may be pedantic, they probably mean ā€œintuitableā€ user interfaces. Usability experts note the difference.

Peter Bagnall puts it pithily:

NaĆÆve designers often talk of making things intuitive. What they really mean is intuitable ā€“ able to be understood through intuition. A thing canā€™t be intuitive unless it happens to be one of those rather rare and special things that contain a brain ā€“ like you, me or my dog. (Easy, Intuitive and Metaphor, and Other Meaningless Words, my emphasis)

And Michael Zuschlag:

ā€œIntuitiveā€ (technically, it should be ā€œintuitableā€) means the user can use the UI without having to consciously stop and figure the UI out. Learned habituated responses are performed without conscious thought, so intuitive includes more than instincts. (Comment on The Only ā€œIntuitiveā€ Interface is the Nipple. Do You Agree?, my emphasis)

And finally Jef Raskin, of Apple Macintosh fame:

One of the most common terms of praise for an interface is to say that it is “intuitive” (the word should have been “intuitable” but we will bow to convention). (Intuitive Equals Familiar, my emphasis)

I also usually bow to convention. I understand that meanings are determined by communities and usage, not dictionaries and word police. However…

Not this time. Not now. Not this post. šŸ™‚

If EHRs and EMRs Only Had a Brain ā™«

One of my many degrees (ā€œmany degreesā€ being relative, I once read the obituary of a man who collected 13 non-honorary degrees before shuffling off this mortal coil) is an MS in Intelligence Systems, a combo of artificial intelligence and cognitive science. Intelligent systems ā€œperceive, reason, learn, and act intelligently.ā€ That many EMRs cannot, is at the root of their relative lack of usability.

Consider the distinction between intuitable EMRs (EMRs that are ā€œfigure-outableā€ by their users) versus intuitive EMRs (EMRs that figure out their users and do something useful with that insight). Intuitable usability corresponds to what I call shallow usability. It’s the ā€œsurfaceā€ or skin of an EMR.

In contrast, intuitive usability (used “correctly”) corresponds to what I call deep usability. It is about how all the components and processes deep down behind the user interface actively work together, to perceive user context and intentions, reason and problem solve, and then proactively anticipate user needs and wants. Deep usability is like having the hyper-competent operating room nurse (to whom Iā€™ve compared workflow-driven EMR user experience) handing you the right data review or order entry screen, with the right data and options, at the right moment in your workflow.

To perceive, reason, and act (let alone learn) EMRs need at least a rudimentary ā€œbrain.ā€ When many folks think of medical artificial intelligence, they think of medical expert systems or natural language processing systems (rule-based, connectionist, or statistical). I’m a fan. I took courses. I programmed them. They have great potential, some already realized.

However, the most practical candidate “brain” today, with which to improve usability by improving workflow, is the modern process-aware (and context-aware) business process management (BPM) engine (AKA workflow or process engine). I used to give an annual three-hour tutorial called ā€œWorkflow Management Systems: Key to EHR Usabilityā€ on this topic at the old TEPR conference (I believe TEPR stood for Towards the Electronic Patient Record).


Intuitive EMRs need to represent user goals and tasks and execute a loop of event perception, reasoning, and helpful action. BPM process definitions represent goals and tasks. During definition execution, goal and task states are tracked (available to start, started, completed, postponed, cancelled, referred, executed, etc) and used to coordinate system-to-system, user-to-system, system-to-user, and user-to-user activity.

BPM engines “perceive” by reacting to not just user-initiated events, but potentially other environmental events as well, an example of complex event processing. For example, a patient entering or leaving a patient class or category, going on or off a clinical protocol or regime, moving into or out of compliance, measuring or needing to measure a clinical value, or a clinical value becoming controlled or not controlled, are all complex events that can and often should trigger automated workflow.

Process mining can analyze detailed traces of past behavior to suggest improvements to processes (BPMā€™s “process optimization process”), rudimentry learning if you will. BPM is even beginning to incorporate intelligent agent technology.

There is also a debate going on within the BPM and ACM (adaptive case management) communities relevant to designing EMRs that balance process-centric and human-centric EMR, EHR, and clinical groupware design. We (healthcare) need the executable process models of traditional BPM to automate and facilitate predictably routine patient care processes (including effective, efficient, and satisfactory interaction at the EMR user interface) *and* adaptive case management techniques for dealing with less predictable processes that cannot be modeled in advance.

Context-Aware, Process-Aware Intelligent EMR, EHR, and Clinical Groupware

EMRs, EHRs, and clinical groupware need context-aware intelligent user interfaces. Context-aware information systems are adaptive, responsive, proactive, and capable of autonomous action.

  • “Adaptive systems: these learn their userā€™s preferences and adjust accordingly….
  • Responsive systems: these anticipate the userā€™s needs in a changing environment.
  • Proactive systems: these are goal-oriented, capable of taking the initiative, rather than just reacting to the environment.
  • Autonomous systems: these can act independently, without human intervention.” (Predicting Context Aware Computing Performance, my emphases)

Learn, anticipate, goal-oriented, initiative, independentā€¦none of these describe the behavior of todayā€™s typical EMR towards its users. As a consequence physicians must compensate with a torrent of clicks (so-called “clickorrhea”) to push and pull these EMRs through what should be simple patient encounters.

Contextā€“aware EMR user interfaces are also examples of intelligent user interfaces.

“The requirements imposed by human-computer interfaces … exceed the capabilities of conventional interfaces which often fail to reflect the semantics of its users’ tasks and problem domain properly. Intelligent user interfaces aim to cope with these serious semantic problems and help users to access information or solve complex tasks by being sensitive to a user’s knowledge, misconceptions, goals, and plans.

Main issues addressed by intelligent user interface research are the following:

  • How can interaction be made clearer and more efficient?
  • How can interfaces offer better support for their users’ tasks, plans, and goals?
  • How can information be presented more effectively?
  • How can the design and implementation of good interfaces be made easier?” (my emphases)

Clinical groupware is in the best position to become this next generation of context-aware intelligent clinical information systems. Why? Because clinical groupware is groupware. And the most sophisticated and mature groupware today is the modern workflow management system, represented by the business process management suite.

To achieve contextual usability clinical groupware needs to ask itself the same questions journalists ask themselves to write compelling and useful news reportsā€”who, what, why, when, where, and how? Automated answers to these questions drive context-aware automatic behaviors, such as offering the right screen at the right time and place or accomplishing useful tasks in the background without need for human intervention.

What, pray tell, “drives” this anticipatory behavior? An executable process model. In older terminology, a workflow, or process, engine, executes a collection of workflow, or process, definitions, relying on user input and context (the who, what, why, when, where, and how) to select and control definition execution. If the engine encounters inputs for which there is no model, then fall back on general purpose adaptive case management techniques for tracking goals and tasks, making them visible and actionable by physician users. Traditional BPM technology automates the predictable routine. Adaptive case management supports dealing with unpredictable exceptionsā€”the high value-added knowledge work that diagnoses and treats the complicated cases.

Usability canā€™t be ā€œaddedā€ to EMRs, EHRs, or clinical groupware. It has to inform and influence the very first design decisions. And there are no more fundamental early design decisions than what paradigm to adopt and platform to use.

No matter how “intuitable,” EMRs without executable process models (necessary to perceive, reason, and act, and later systematically improve), cannot become fully active and helpful members of the patient care team. Wrong paradigm. Wrong platform.

Truly “intuitiveprocess-aware clinical groupware, on the other hand, has a brain, variously called a BPM, workflow, or process engine. This is the necessary platform for delivering context-aware intelligent user interfaces and user experience to the point of care. Right paradigm. Right platform.

In the spirit of advice from my Speech teacher about effectively and efficiently beating dead horses (“Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.”) …

  • Question: Do We Need Smarter Users or Smarter User Interfaces?
  • Answer: Smarter User Interfaces.

P.S. Follow me on Twitter at @EHRworkflow.