Monday, February 11, 2008

Expressing the Role of the User by Creating an Archetypal Character

Identifying an average user of the Internet, is at best implausible, and, more probably, impossible; but this does not exonerate systems designers from trying. The previous section described how a research method was devised to establish purpose, for the design of a novel IS, but mentioned at the outset how it is the wants or needs of the end-user that must always be the overriding purpose of any such system. Consequently, the method, although sufficient for ensuring compatibility between system and organization, was not enough to guarantee end-user satisfaction. As work began on prototype development, it became apparent that identification of end-users of the system needed further clarification.

Discussion revealed that the organization had very clear perspectives on some members of the public that take an interest in the heritage. They could be described as those that already made use of its services, its current customer base, and a very concrete understanding of their needs and wants already existed. Accordingly, there was a feeling that the customer, or potential user, was already known, and did not therefore need to be discovered, nor included in either development or system-testing. However,because the PastScape project was exploring an untapped area, its resulting application had the potential to reach a whole new customer base, customers whose identities were not yet discovered. Although internal belief and external reality may have been a perfect match, there was no evidence to assert this possibility, and without a concrete external user to target, the system risked only satisfying an internalized viewpoint, without necessarily improving the organization's dissemination of information. Furthermore, there is always a danger, with such an internalised viewpoint, that the wrong emphasis can be placed on decisions; for example, regarding which particular dataset should take advantage of a new, and potentially advantageous, system.

Internet 2010

Many organizations are structured in such a way that different sections, divisions or departments have responsibility, and therefore ownership, for different elements of the organization's data. This carries with it the possibility that a dataset will be chosen according to some sort of purely internal motivation, rather than for the benefit of an intended user. In an attempt to resolve this issue satisfactorily, i.e. to promote wider internal acceptance of the principles of user-centred design, two different approaches were established. The first was to compose a "typical" user; the second was to explain the correlation between the potential new system and certain current business practices. These two approaches are outlined here:

The Intelligent 12-year-old

Because the perfect typical, or average, user does not, unfortunately, exist, early usability experiments for this project were conducted with the involvement of a variety of potential user-group representatives. The test- subject volunteer force (some 48 people, half of whom were males, and the other half, females) was composed of equal ratios of: heritage professionals; computer experts; lay people with no expertise in either heritage or computing; and, children aged between 9 and 11 years. However, in everyday discussions with EH staff it was impractical, to say the least, to try and explain that every element of the system was being designed to disseminate information to this convoluted cross section of society. Thus, all four types, and both genders, became assimilated into a single, easily explained, "intelligent 12-year-old". From the moment that this creation took life, explaining or rationalising any element of the system, to almost anyone, took on a new and surprising simplicity and clarity. Most people seemed to naturally understand what was meant by an intelligent 12-year-old, had no problem seeing why such a character had arisen from our collection of test subjects, and, perhaps most interestingly, accepted that such a persona was appropriate, as an "average" user of the Internet with a possible interest in heritage matters.

From Data to Information

The second approach taken, to demonstrate the importance of a target audience, was to clarify the functionality of a usable system by relating it to more easily recognised, non-IS, business functions. It was necessary, at various stages, to attain approval from people within EH who were well acquainted with dealing with the public, and whose natural responses revolved around familiar business processes, usually from a non-IT viewpoint, but often with an informed knowledge of web or IS principles. Drawing on the results of the initial analytical method, and through discussion with internal staff, a picture was revealed of some of the business practices that were already being used to disseminate database information to the public, and to other heritage professionals. The area of the organization's business structure that was most relevant to the project at that time, centred around EH's National Monuments Record Centre (NMRC) where members of the public could request heritage information. An enquiry would elicit a search by a team of in-house professionals, using various national databases and archives, and the results would be supplied to the enquirer. Essential to this process, which is of course an information system, are: the existence of data; an understanding of the data; an interpretion of the user's requirement; and delivery of appropriate information. Appropriate, of course, to the end-user. This, the process of turning data into information, is illustrated in Fig. 8.1. Within the NMRC, the in-house professionals perform this complex task by interpreting what the user wants, being able to understand the terminology and structure of the data, and then by presenting a suitable end-product.

Taking this already-understood process, or service to the use, and equating it to what a good IS should provide, was a useful ally in the explanation of the new interface, especially to those who were regular users of the Internet; many web-sites fail to provide this absolutely essential service, instead simply making raw data available. Such sites are not truly information systems, they are data storage systems with multiple-user access.

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