Representing user perspectives in IT systems

Taking into account user perspectives when designing technology means that the technology should fit around their concerns and perceptions. This process is generally called “user-centered design” (see for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User-centered_design). Why is this important? It can lead to more simplicity, fewer errors and more satisfied users. There are other advantages that go deeper – such as gaining new insights into what users really require.

The key components of a perspective can be described as follows:

Concepts: how do we describe and visualise the world?  For example, when we prepare documents online, we think of objects such as text and diagrams. These are the concepts. They also include applicable operations (create, edit, save etc.) and the workflow of producing a document. Similarly, when we look up an online map, the concepts include streets, buildings, green spaces etc. Going shopping among physical shops also involves a workflow with applicable operations.

Concerns: what kind of things are important? (including goals, values etc). For example, academics are often concerned about collaborative documents being easy to produce and manage, as well as meeting paper submission deadlines. A user with low literacy may be concerned about completing an online form correctly without assistance. Differing concerns cause key concepts also to differ. For people with mobility restriction, concepts such as “easy walking area” or “slow traffic” on a map may be key, while drivers with busy schedules might look for “fast traffic”.

Representing user perspectives in IT goes way beyond usability or UX (although that is important). In my view, it should satisfy the following requirements:

1. It should be about the actual actions of the IT infrastructure the user is depending on to satisfy their goals. To what extent are the user concerns actually guiding the infrastructure resource allocation and priorities? This is particularly an issue with healthcare systems and privacy.

2. The infrastructure that the user depends on should be transparent and accountable. The visibility should be adjustable depending on the perspective of the particular user.

3. It’s not just about end-users or customers, but also about staff roles within an organisation. For example, a system administrator will have different concepts and concerns from those of a software developer (although both roles now increasingly interact together in the field of “DevOps”). So “the things that matter” then include: “does this help me to do my job effectively? does it cause more complexity and stress? does it reduce errors or create more potential for errors? does it support creativity?”

4. It’s not just about design; it’s also about models based on a user’s perspective. Models allow automated decision-making and prediction. Examples include statistical predictions based on user preferences. These could be said to represent some aspects of a user’s perspective. But I am thinking here particularly about qualitative models. These are models that represent the user’s concepts and concerns in a symbolic language. The language must be human-readable and machine-readable. These topics take us into the field of knowledge-based systems, which I will talk about in a later post.

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