Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Importance of Recognizing Underlying Perceptions

Every software developer, HCI designer or usability specialist is aware of the importance of making any system appropriate, or fit, for its intended purpose; and that the intended purpose of any system is ultimately that which the end-user wants or needs to do with it. On this basis, and before the PastScape project itself was born, a bespoke requirements-capture method was devised, incorporating several well-known analysis and survey techniques. The aim of this exercise was to try and identify useful and practical mappings between the business needs (problem domain), and the technological hardware, software and processes that were, or soon would be, available to the organization (solution domain). Although there was an expressed intention to develop a novel ICT application, and a desire to make use of VR and Internet technologies, at this early stage no specific thoughts were formulated about what shape any resulting project would take, nor to what end. Instead, the research method was designed to establish whether or not there were any business areas that could, at that time, benefit from the implementation of new ICT systems or approaches.

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From the outset the pre-developmental research involved considerable consultation with a wide variety of staff, including senior personnel (directors), IS (Information Systems) staff, as well as specialists and users in other areas of the corporate structure. The input provided by such a variety of people, and their very different perspectives, inevitably proved to be extremely useful, and enabled a comprehensive and realistic overview of the organization to be established. The output included plans, descriptions, flow-diagrams and discussions of all of the organization's major functions; IT capabilities; divisions and departments; external partners; financial restraints; and its corporate and strategic visions for the future. The investigation was helped by the fact that, because this was effectively blue sky research, there were few negative pre-conceptions associated with it, and thus staff involvement in the early stages was fairly spontaneous and enthusiastic. The perceived potential, offered by the very latest innovations in technologies such as the web and VR, was great, and certainly worth a degree of investment in both time and effort.

There was also, however, a flip side to this particular coin. As a consequence of the fact that the project began with a clean sheet, and because the initial analysis focused on an examination of business functions, it was difficult to explain to those involved what it was that was being asked of them; interviewed staff, understandably, wanted an idea of what was to be developed so that they could temper their responses accordingly. Intuitively, they were trying to ensure that their input was itself "fit for purpose". This led to a degree of uncertainty that seemed to be counteracted by "playing safe", i.e. responses tended to be high-level, in accord, particularly, with the deliverables of an organization-wide IS strategy study that had been completed only a matter of months earlier. Whilst this may still have produced a fair overview of the IS elements of the organization, it meant that some "reading between the lines" was necessary to identify areas that could benefit from new technological systems, approaches or ideas; quite reasonably, no one wanted to consider the possibility of areas that "could do better", especially after so much time, money and effort had so recently been put into a substantial IS study. Furthermore, although the staff respondents were enthusiastic and helpful during the analysis process, finding someone to take firm internal ownership of the project, a "champion", proved to be a difficult task. Retrospectively this seems fairly predictable because, during the early stages, no one had the faintest idea what it was they would be championing!

Fortunately, belief in a positive outcome, combined with the continued help and goodwill of staff (including some with enough faith to take at least limited ownership), enabled the process to continue. Ultimately, the research method revealed a commitment to increase the dissemination of heritage information, stored predominantly in computer databases. It also revealed that, due to various constraints, this commitment was not being addressed as quickly as the organization wanted. Combining this factor with the earlier intentions to make use of VR and Internet technologies, it was decided to try to develop a system that would allow users to explore heritage data, via VR models, on the web. The only missing factor seemed to be who exactly these mysterious, obliging, "users" were!

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