Distributed cognition theory posits that our cognitive tasks are so tightly coupled to the environment that cognition extends into the environment, beyond the skin and the skull. It uses cognitive concepts to describe information processing across external representations, social networks and across different periods of time. Distributed cognition lends itself to exploring how people interact with technology in the workplace, issues to do with communication and coordination, how people’s thinking extends into the environment and sociotechnical system architecture and performance more broadly. We provide an overview of early work that established distributed cognition theory, describe more recent work that facilitates its application, and outline how this theory has been used in health informatics. We present two use cases to show how distributed cognition can be used at the formative and summative stages of a project life cycle. In both cases, key determinants that influence performance of the sociotechnical system and/or the technology are identified. We argue that distributed cognition theory can have descriptive, rhetorical, inferential and application power. For evidence-based health informatics it can lead to design changes and hypotheses that can be tested.
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