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Reflections on the user centered design (UCD) perspective in research on wireless applications

Ubiquity, Volume 2003 Issue April, April 01- April 30, 2003 | BY Michele Visciola 


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In order to play an influential role in research and practice, UCD communities should implement new methods and tools into current practices and advance the boundaries of the field.

In order to play an influential role in research and practice, UCD communities should implement new methods and tools into current practices and advance the boundaries of the field.

Which Assumptions are the Most Challenged in Current UCD?

When new ideas and visions emerge from collective thinking and from a better understanding of current limitations related to technological achievements, the challenge remains as to ascertain how to put these ideas and visions into practice. That opens new research issues. My argument in this paper is that this principle is applicable also to the development of User Centered Design. UCD, of course, may contribute to the improvement, consolidation and verification of ideas and visions in the field. Yet, in order to be certain that UCD perspective is widely accepted and can properly influence the direction followed by technology and service development, we should be able to demonstrate that the approach will be useful and that it can be successfully implemented in relevant projects.

Consider, for instance, the design of Web sites as a recent example of the new challenges brought into UCD practices (4). The learning of enabling languages, programs (e.g., HTML, FLASH) and content management platforms for the design of interfaces is quite affordable to a vast majority of people who are not necessarily required to be skilled in information technology and science. This is a fairly recent phenomenon. Far more people today than in the past have the opportunity to produce content and represent knowledge in the digital format. Furthermore, this is something that might have opened new opportunities to trigger "participatory design" (5) processes and/or "co-evolution" (6) within organizations.

Intranets and local services, which reflect autonomy and show a closer relationship with local needs, might have grown on the basis of UCD methods and tools. However, at the time of the Internet's growth, this was not the rule. As a matter of fact, it was the exception. The "empowerment" given by enabling languages, programs and content management systems was used more as a way to reduce the time to go online rather than to improve communication processes within a given community. Moreover, the enlargement of the plethora of Webmasters to a multitude of professionals specializing in marketing and content contributed to stressing of the creative side of projects more than usability.

A growing set of recommendations and arguments is used to ensure that usability engineering tools have a place in a variety of projects. However, limiting the UCD approach in Web-based projects to usability testing and evaluation is considered a too narrow approach to be really influential (7). Therefore, in order to add value to the development of services, much more should be done than to simply offer evaluation methods. UCD should embrace any contribution, both theoretical and practical, which may help promote the participation of users in the innovation process. Too often we tend to forget that innovation processes are first cultural and social and then technological (8). To go straight to the point, I believe that UCD approach should be considered as a unifying area, open to skills and competencies other than those traditionally involved in the field. One of the primary goals is to cultivate a managerial culture that is able to motivate UCD in the majority of IT projects.

In the following paragraphs, I highlight three issues that show the necessity to develop the UCD approach further so as not to succumb under the pressure of research demands stemming from goals set by ubiquitous and pervasive computing or from visions of innovation such as those emerging from collective behaviours and thinking.

1. UCD culture takes root in mature design environments. A common tenet of software engineering practice is that one sign of an organization's maturity is its capability to establish and follow a set of highly structured processes. According to a related principle, the highest levels of capability and maturity are those where UCD is fully integrated in current practices. However, by following these principles, very few, if any, software companies in the world would be considered mature. On the contrary, there is growing evidence that UCD finds insurmountable barriers in mature organizations, where processes are highly structured and products' life cycles are highly phased (9).

2. User requirements derive from motivation studies. Despite the well-known scientific paradigm of bounded rationality and continuous evidence that we do not find it easy to keep a coherent set of beliefs and preferences (10), most innovation projects derive wisdom from motivational studies. As a consequence, it is quite common that functional requirements are mistaken for user requirements. Different methods are needed to disentangle these different levels of requirements. In other words, we need to understand better how to fill the gaps between marketing analysis and UCD approach to innovation. For instance, how do we assess the willingness of people to use ambient intelligent systems such as context aware systems?

3. Our individual and social life are directed by goals I find illuminating the distinction between autotelic and exotelic patterns of behaviour that Csikszentmihalyi (11) uses to describe some of the features of creative activities. In short, an activity becomes autotelic when it is an end in itself. For instance, the reading of our preferred novelists is a pleasure in itself and we do it for its own sake. On the other side, activities are exotelic when we do them not because we enjoy them, but because they move us toward some later goal. Most of the activities in normal life are of the exotelic type. Yet, they are only one part of our social life. New ethics of work are emerging (12) that bring forward the merger of autotelic and exotelic behaviours. The implication I see is that UCD should ensure that systems and products beyond being usable and useful also should be enjoyable. Of course, this means that new levels of analysis are necessary and that, perhaps, we need new tools for our projects.

Emerging Research Issues

In the following section I will describe emerging research issues that, while not completely new for the UCD approach, are perhaps more relevant and surely more challenging than in the past.

Social Issues. Open architectures and infrastructures for wireless communication and interaction are expected to make new communication paradigms feasible and to facilitate navigation in the human habitat. However, open architectures also open unprecedented questions that do not have easy answers. For the development of a sustainable and acceptable wireless environment we need to pay more attention to social issues and social values. Privacy, reputation, trust, credibility, perception of security, identity and social boundaries are all at stake and central to the design of communication/interaction devices interfaces. They have all cultural relevance and cannot be neglected.

Consider, for example, the phenomenon called "stigma" (13), i.e. markings or behaviours that locate individuals in a particular social status. As Howard Rheingold brilliantly pointed out, stigma can mark both positive and negative social connotations. A number of social and technical barriers must be overcome so that mobile ad hoc communities can self-organize cooperatively. No one will freely exchange data from a Personal Area Network with a group or community unless he or she feels secure about privacy and trust. In ad-hoc networks made by people, trust means a distributed reputation system.

How much can UCD help to tackle these social and cultural issues outside of the research environments? How can we ensure that they are properly considered by the innovation design? Which UCD tools can enable trust, confidence and perception of security? There are not yet proven answers to these questions. Evolutionary design. UCD fosters concept-driven design, the top-down approach, and, at the same time, participation in the design processes and cycles, or the bottom-up approach. This has been always a difficult combination; it will be even more so for future communication and interaction systems. In wireless communications, politics (i.e., social acceptance of innovation) is as important as technology. Innovation without passion and control on the user side is not easy to imagine and not desirable. Cohesion in the group is a determinant factor that must be cultivated and maintained through an evolutionary approach. In my opinion, this means that the direction of innovation cannot be easily pre-determined and that people must be prepared to participate in assuming the responsibility for the correct use of technological resources.

The questions are: How can cohesion in the groups be ensured in innovation scenarios? Where is the balance between design and education? That is, how much education and training would we allow for ensuring the acceptance of the top-down part of UCD approach? Which are the driving factors that might help emerge responsibility and involvement in cultural and technological innovation? Again, these are new questions that call for fresh ideas.

Communication and Interaction Devices. Communication and sentient technologies (i.e. sensor networks) will be merged at a large extent. As a result, mobile appliances likely will change into devices for both communicating and for interacting in the environment, giving place to a variety of potential services. This has the potential to augment cooperation, social control, and the individual capability to pursue one's goals, all at the same time. Which are the best tools and new practices that could be put in the foreground so as to leverage the awareness around this issue? What are the central issues for individuals in a world pervaded with potential surveillance devices? The issue of control is at stake as well -- to what extent might a population of users accept loss of control in a world where services adapt themselves to the user's needs and circumstances? A description, maybe a simulation, of needs and behaviours is necessary in order to understand better how to amplify a responsible human control on one's own environment.

Networks and new communication paradigms. Internet and hypertext generated new paradigms of communication such as the "peer-to-peer" and the "many-to-many" forms. It is very likely that wireless technologies will lay the foundation of other paradigms. I already mentioned ad-hoc networks. Further paradigms are foreseeable, such as the so-called cluster paradigm (data are directed to unoccupied ambient terminals and/or to terminals that fit better the type of content) and the sticker paradigm (14) (data stick on the user and tell her/him where they are available according to a set of negotiable rules).

These new paradigms convey new research issues for UCD. I can see at least two sets but I'm sure there are many more. The former set pertains to the pragmatics of design. Which are the most reliable methods to study the human side of new communication paradigms? And then, how to let new and desirable forms of communication emerge? The latter set concerns the ethical aspects of innovation involved in the making of new forms of communication. We do not know which are the desirable forms of communication and do not have many clues on how to assess them in the long run. Information and data likely will be automatically stored as soon as they are generated. These data can be transformed and placed in different forms of memory vis-à-vis those we get from our personal experience. Where will the boundaries be between our real memory and our prosthesis?

Cultivating communities of practice. One special form of communication that takes place in stable networks is cooperation. Stable social networks are called communities. Communities are "far-flung, loosely bounded, sparsely knit and fragmentary". Yet, any community can be described along at least five stages of development (15). They are: Potential, Coalescence, Maturing, Stewardship and Transformation. Communication and group behaviours are different in many dimensions (which can be used to characterize the features of a given organization culture) along the five typical stages. Wireless systems can help the achievement of a maturity level. However, the effectiveness of a wireless system (e.g. for supply chain management or e-learning) may largely depend on the level of maturity that characterizes the community when it is implemented. Studies are needed to better model the interrelations and variances between the communication features and the development stage of a community of practice.

Seamless Interaction and Multi-Modal Communication. As stated previously, communication devices should be designed around the concept of seamless interaction; content and data can be consulted and displayed in the devices that better fit a user's situation and goals (extended services and seamless information integration). This means that the design has to consider the multiple interactions of different devices that can be used under different circumstances. A central issue that needs investigation is that of universal access: Does the interface have to be the same in all devices? And, which of the new compatibility thresholds among the various input/output modalities will ensure a fluid multi-modal interaction. Finally, a strategy for prototyping may be needed in order to compare different ways of orchestrating data-flow among various components in an intelligent ambient (multi-modal communication and interaction systems plus multi-modal devices).

Hardware and software. Appliances, devices, terminals and software applications are usually designed asynchronously by different teams. This is mainly due to the distribution of labour in the market and to marketing strategies. However, this also represents a limitation both from the user and design perspectives (16). Industries might be called to accept common communication and cooperation protocols in order to facilitate sharing of information and the achievement of the same design values. UCD can play a role in accomplishing this difficult task.


UCD methods are challenged by current and future research agendas on wireless technology. In order to be fully accepted and to play an influential role within research and practice communities, UCD communities should set new frontiers and investigate the utility of new methods and tools that could be implemented easily into current practices. However, UCD is also called to promote cultural changes at managerial levels. This is one of the main goals to be achieved in the next years. Research results are needed in order to envisage new methods and managerial tools as well as a new hierarchy in the methods already applied that satisfy the general goals outlined in the emerging visions of technological innovation.


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2) ECCR -- Scenarios for Ambient Intelligence in 2010 -- ISTAG 2001
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4) Visciola Michele -- Usabilità dei Siti Web -- Milano: Apogeo. 2000
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(CA): Morgan Kaufmann Publishers. 1998.
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-- Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2000
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15) Wenger Etienne, McDermott Richard and Snyder William M. -- Cultivating Communities of Practice -- Harvard Business School Press. 2002
16) Pering Celine -- Interaction Design Prototyping of Communicator Devices: Towards Meeting the Hardware-Software Challenge. Interactions. Nov-Dec 2002.


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