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Toward a Unified Theory?

by Lisa Battle and Duane Degler
New thoughts relating to previous ISPI articles:
     Knowledge Management in Pursuit of Performance: the Challenge of Context
     Around the Interface in 80 Clicks

When asked to think about how our ideas may have changed since we wrote these articles, our first thought was that not enough time has gone by to provide new insights. And yet… we juggle a growing number of competing pressures, such as less forgiveness from users for poor design, more accountability for user performance, greater diversity among users, changes in technology and interface “standards,” and always less time to analyze and design. What lessons do we continue to learn?

Single interfaces can’t easily support “all the people all the time.”

We increasingly see the value in providing multiple views, designed around a common framework but adapted for the unique needs of key users based on such things as context, language, culture, and physical abilities. One driving force that reinforces this approach, particularly in the US, is the legislated need to create interfaces that are accessible to people with disabilities (known as “508-compliant” because they need to conform to conditions laid out in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act). We have found, for example, that making an interface supporting auditory readers for the blind may decrease usability for sighted users (and vice versa). Thus, one of the ways we promote the support of all users is the creation of different views that adapt to their specific needs. With sufficiently holistic design thinking, we can support a wide range of needs for flexibility, such as internationalization, levels of user experience, and multi-layer context profiles.

If you aren’t thinking about these issues now, you will be soon.

User expectations will continue to move toward more adaptive interactions. Legislation and commercial pressure will reinforce user demand. We also need to engage closely with technologists to share the vision throughout the development lifecycle.

Technology best practices are heading in the same direction.

Fortunately, just at the time designers are looking for more user-centered interactions, technologists are focused on separating the presentation, the program logic, and the code, and making each layer more flexible. For example, XML is being used increasingly to apply different presentation formats to the same data. The goal is to create a configurable central application with different views/interfaces (what we described in part as an adaptive knowledge interface). Designing with multiple views as a goal also makes an interface potentially more “future-proof” because it can be easier to evolve without massive re-coding.

It is not solely a technology issue: implications for design practice are significant.

In order to make the most effective architectural choices and gain the greatest design efficiency benefits, you have to consciously include all these requirements and opportunities into your design thinking from the start. It calls for an extremely holistic approach to design! The user performance analyst/designer must deploy more powerful techniques to elicit the user’s requirements across a broad spectrum of context and culture. We must then make the design rationale more explicit – and communicate it clearly – so it can be translated effectively into views and styles for presentation.

We need to think about how to do it faster.

If we are to succeed in supporting our wide range of users and contexts, we must be able to more quickly understand their needs and design for the implications of those needs. We are refining our techniques in order to integrate inclusive, thoughtful design with the increasing move toward rapid application development and iterative, modular implementations.


Go back to the associated articles:
     Knowledge Management in Pursuit of Performance: the Challenge of Context
     Around the Interface in 80 Clicks


Copyright, Reuse and Citation

The content of this article may be referenced with the appropriate citation information included (see below). The entirety of the article must not be reproduced without written communication with ISPI (www.ispi.org).   Also, I would appreciate your notifying me if you intend to use these concepts or images, as I am curious to know where they prove valuable.

To cite the material, please include the following information. I recommend the format: 

Battle, Lisa and Degler, Duane (2002). Toward a Unified Theory?  An update to the articles:
Knowledge Management in Pursuit of Performance: the Challenge of Context. Performance Improvement (EPSS Special Edition). ISPI, 39(6), July 2000. 
Around the Interface in 80 Clicks. Performance Improvement (EPSS Special Edition). ISPI, 40(7), August 2001.
Online: www.ipgems.com/writing/pcdupdate2002.htm.


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