an excerpt from the “User Centered Revolution 1970-1995”

from Diane Nahl’s page at

User-Centered vs. System-Centered Approaches

The term “user-centered” arose in the minds of librarians and information specialists who wanted more services for end-users, patrons, clients, students, and the public at large within the information environment. They saw the status quo as “system-centered,” that is, insufficiently responsive to user needs and realities. One early observer notes the “growing movement” at the time for user-oriented systems to shift from “source-controlled” to “receiver-controlled”(1). The expression user-centered has become, a maxim, a principle, and represents a new paradigm for defining, measuring, and explaining the behavior of library users, database searchers, and Internet navigators. A search of the literature of the past two decades yields dozens of articles and some books bearing in their title or abstract, one of the following expressions of this new orientation:

* user-centered

* user-friendly

* user-based

* user-oriented

* user-responsive

* client-centered

* human-centered

* people-centered

Two themes emerged in reviewing literature with a conscious user-centered focus: (1) methods of application that seek to alleviate specific user needs, and (2) the integration of theoretical justifications and accounts that researchers have proposed for transforming the information environment through user-centered interventions.

It is worth noting at the outset that the system-centered approach in the design of information facilities routinely advises a testing procedure with actual users within the design process, before features are finalized. However, this technique has proved to be inadequate primarily because user-categories have been based on designers’ intuitions rather than on research about how users actually perceive, think, organize, and intend during the information seeking process. As pointed out by Walther and O’Neil in the early days of online users, “Intuition and good judgment on the part of the designer seem insufficient for specifying the features which an interface should possess” (p. 115). Despite this attempt to give users a greater weight in the interface design equation, system-centeredness has remained essentially the same. The reason for this is clarified in the discussion of the advent of the user-centered paradigm and its essential characteristics. In speaking of this basic shift, one commentator points to a distinction between the concept of information as “like a brick” while users are like “empty buckets into which [information] bricks can be thrown” (3)(p. 160). According to Dervin, the invalidity of this metaphor is shown by two outcomes: the “nonuse of information” by both professionals and the general public, and the user-oriented case studies of how people acquire and assimilate information in their daily lives and occupations.

Reviewing the data, Dervin concludes:

The important point here is, when it comes to understanding how and why and with what effect human beings pay attention to, process, and use something that an outside observer calls information, we must start by understanding what the user (or potential user) calls information. Information processing and use are, within the context of relativistic assumptions about information, sense-making activities. The emphasis here is on the word “making” for it denotes that the perceiver of the information is not an empty bucket but is actively making sense” (p. 164-5).

Information as an “observer construct” has had to give way to information as a “user construct” since the “empty bucket has evolved into a thinking, self-controlling human being” and “information changes from brick to clay, moved and shaped in unique ways by each perceiver” (3)(p. 169). Since making sense of the world is part of the human condition, knowledge-building is therefore a “personal information seeking” activity:

Questions asked have dealt with locating self and others (Where am I? Where are they?), with finding possibilities (What can I do?) and evaluating possibilities (Will it work?), and with assessing aloneness (Is anyone listening? Doesn’t anyone else agree? Am I the only one?). Perhaps the most important aspect of the findings to date is that they support the premise that looking for information relativistically is a more powerful entry for understanding information needs and use” (3)(p. 170).

Looking at information seeking relatively requires one to recognize that situation-specific factors are more important to users than general considerations. For example, users’ interests and involvement (“issue oriented”) are better predictors of information-seeking activity than users’ education or experience. When individuals see their situation as giving them options for decision or movement, they are more likely to engage in information seeking than when they see themselves under total constraint (3)(p. 171-2). Another reason that information is “relativistic” is that “the effect of the information received is the use created for it by the user.” In other words, the situation-specific, momentary information need determines what information will have impact at that time. Research in this new “relativistic information framework” can help systems designers make the shift to this user-centered orientation.

Replacing the Centrality of the System

In the early days of the new paradigm there was not yet a full appreciation of the need to remove the centrality of the system. User-centered consciousness was not fully awakened until one saw the necessity of designing systems through understanding users. The following is an example of an early attempt to promote “an empirical approach to user-centered design:”

The problems which accrue to the human user by virtue of being made a component of the system — of the user actually being placed on-line to the computer — were largely ignored until very recently. A user protest led to calls for a shift of emphasis from the elegance of algorithms and computational efficiency to the discovery of ways to make the on-line user interface more acceptable to the user. (2)(p.114).

As it turned out, more than “a shift of emphasis” was required. For instance, Walther and O’Neil define the flexibility of an interface as “the factors inherent in the interface program which would make it easier or more convenient for the user to express his commands, given that the commands had to follow a specific syntax” (2)(p.116). However, this orientation remains part of the system-centered paradigm since it passively accepts the priority or fixity of the system, though it recognizes that acceptability and convenience to users is to be taken into account. Another example is in the earlier attempts to use empirical or objective measures of user satisfaction. Researchers often turned to existing “attitude measures” such as the semantic differential (4) which provides subjects with a series of bi-polar scales upon which to rate their attitude toward aspects of the system:

The results indicate that the users of the flexible version [of the online editor], irrespective of any other factors, rated their version as more tolerant, more flexible, more like a person, more friendly, and more pleasant than the inflexible version” (2)(p.117).

Future development of the user-centered paradigm will view such attempts as insufficient. Attitude scales have three inherent weaknesses relating to the object being rated, the timing of the rating, and its content. These problems need to be remedied by utilizing different techniques that avoid them.

First, the object to be rated by the user needs to be the user’s experience, not the system. Thus, not, “On a scale of 1 to 7, how easy is this editor to use?” but rather, “On a scale of 1 to 7, how much confusion did you experience with this editor?” Second, the act of rating needs to be in close proximity to where the activity occurs, not at the end of a session, or even later, but concurrently, during the activity itself. Thus, more than a single probe is necessary, since a user’s experience may vary greatly from one minute to the next, depending on various difficulties. Third, the content of the rating category must originate from the user’s mental structure rather than the experimenter’s. Otherwise, measures such as attitude scales, survey questions, census data, and personality tests represent system-centered accommodations to user protests of user-unfriendly systems.

More recent statements of user-centered system evaluation and design continue to promote the centrality of users (5) but there is a shift in emphasis away from treating users as a method of determining baseline measures for design standards, toward “application-based evaluation procedures.” This represents an orientation toward operational effectiveness rather than design efficiency. In this view, system redesign can be motivated by how inconvenient it is to learn rather than how effectively it can perform under ideal conditions.

Criteria for User-Friendliness

Wallace has proposed a framework for evaluating the user-friendliness of a system (6). The list includes the following types of measures:

* users must be given options for preferences

* online system operation and assistance should be available at beginner and more advanced levels

* system behavior has to be transparent to users

* warning messages must be benign or light-hearted

* system design must take into account the physical and psychological needs of users

* system use should require no special skills

* the general language of novices and their routine level of communicative skills should not be surpassed in instructions or explanations

* the system should behave in a uniform way to allow users to anticipate functions

* a variety of types of problem-solving should be available for particular operations

* learning by doing should be the preferred mode of instruction and presentation

One project that implemented these and additional user-friendly features is known as ELSA, “An Intelligent Electronic Library Search Assistant” (7). Four design concepts guided the development of ELSA:

* using labels that are transparent to users (e.g., buttons with the names “Run Search,” “New Search,” and “Show Full List”

* providing assistance with controlled vocabulary (e.g., a synonyms list)

* actively helping users explore topic areas (e.g., providing suggestions for narrower topics and screening out more distantly related items)

* accommodating different styles of interaction (e.g., an option to type in search items or select them with the mouse from a list)

Another historical example is the user-centered redesign of the MELVYL system in response to empirically discovering the answer to the question, “What do users really want?” According to Farley (8), the process of collecting and maintaining a comment database optional to users, has uncovered bugs in the system as well as numerous user-unfriendly features that could form the basis for redesign. Today, with Internet networking of libraries, MELVYL has learned to “compete in attractiveness” to users who are more sophisticated and computer literate, though still novice searchers.

The development of intelligent search assistants such as ELSA would not have occurred without the climate created by the user-centered revolution that gave it scientific legitimacy and made research grants available for user studies. The first phase of the transformation concluded when user-friendliness became a legitimate scientific research issue. An important thrust came from the human-computer interaction field populated by engineers, programmers, and applied psychologists.

Toward Human-Centered Design

In a whimsical mood, one of the architects of the user-centered revolution in the area of systems design and technology, describes a still common attitude regarding the introduction of new technology:

One of the things that stands out when talking to long-term users of poorly designed systems is that these people take great pride in their skills. They had to go through great difficulties to master the system, and they are rightfully proud of having done so. … Rather than ease the situation for those who follow, it becomes a sort of initiation rite. The hardy survivors of the experience claim to share a common bond and look with disdain upon those who have not been through the same rites. They share horror stories with one another” (9) p.176.

Norman reveals that he “got attacked by hundreds of professional programmers across the country” when he wrote an article criticizing the UNIX system as user-unfriendly: “If I didn’t approve of UNIX, they told me, I had no business using it. Besides, who was I anyway to criticize computer software? In other words, you weren’t allowed to criticize unless you were a professional. Being a mere user of the stuff didn’t qualify” (9)(p.177). However, a new paradigm was in the ascendancy, and is achieving full victory. The user-centered revolution not only gives users more clout in the design equation but works to make users the central point of focus and interest for planners, backers, designers, engineers, and trainers of information systems.

Understandability and usability are two principles that apply equally to design and documentation issues. According to proponents of “cognitive engineering,” (10) understandibility of instructions depends on providing a good conceptual model of the task or system. Good models are those that allow users to predict the effects of their actions. Users will invent false models when the appearance of some system features (the visible setup) does not match the functions desired (10)(p.16). The designer’s model is formalized by the design process itself. The user’s model evolves through interaction with the system. The system image consists of the visible structure or appearance of the interface (controls, keys, instructions, labels, visualization aids or interface metaphor, etc.). All communication between designer and user takes place through the system image. If the system image does not make the design model clear, users end up with a wrong mental model as evidenced by symptoms such as inability to predict, difficulty in using, having a shallow understanding, and inability to solve problems. One of the key factors in helping users develop an accurate conceptual model is to provide immediate feedback for every action or choice made.


6 thoughts on “an excerpt from the “User Centered Revolution 1970-1995”

  1. One thing I don’t understand about this is why this idea of
    user centrist is considered ground breaking and a new
    paradigm, when in reality every tool or technology invented
    in human history has been made with human users in mind.

    From the earliest tools made in 4000 b.c. for harvesting
    crops or hunting game, these tools, these technologies were
    created with the intention that they be used by man. We
    could do nothing else, we can’t help but make something that
    is human user focused. Now I do understand that when this
    article says user centered it is referring to the end user
    of the technology as opposed to the designer or the
    maintaince guy. But truth be told are they not users as
    well? Is the programmer or the systems opporator not a user?
    Yes, they use the technology for a different purpose than
    the consumer lets say, but both are users of the technology.
    Thus no matter how the technology is designed or invented,
    if it is invented by man, it can only be human user centric.
    I think what can be gained from this article is we as a
    culture and a society are finally recognizing the importance
    and the prevanlence of something that has gone on for
    thousands of years. This is just my opinion but it’s
    something intersting to think about.

  2. The most important point of this article is that the reason it is so difficult to create a user-centered system is that the people creating it have to keep the user in mind at all times. Sure, it is easy to create a system that the designer knows how to use. They know the ins and outs of how the system works, so it is all common sense to them. Even though technically they are also users, they must create a design that the end user can easily use.

    This leads me to the point of marketing and selling products. A company can easily put a product together without doing much user testing. Microsoft, anyone? This leads to a system that is hard for the everyday user to use. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Apple specifically markets their computers as being user friendly, and this is one of their main selling points. Generally, if you have two comparable products where one is user centered and the other isn’t, you will probably purchase the user centered product.

    Lastly, there are varying degrees of user friendliness. First, you must determine who the user is. Additionally, just how simple should the system be? Is there a point at which a system is too user friendly and too simple? At MIT they have developed a new programming language called “Scratch.” It is designed for young people to learn how to program. This may be appropriate for a young person who wants to create a simple program and learn the concepts behind programming. However, a developer who creates much more powerful programs using a language like C++ may find this too user friendly and too simple. Typically, with more simplicity comes less power.

  3. I agree with the reading in the fact that systems should be easily usable for novices while also having enough options for experts to feel stimulated. There really isn’t a surefire way to predict who exactly will be the users, so I think it’s important to prepare for any and all people to use it. Wallace’s user friendliness framework incorporates many important components of making a system usable. Simplicity really is the best whether in usability or interface design. Novices need a “safe” environment to get more experience in using different systems. If the expert is really an expert than it shouldn’t matter if something is slightly dumbed down, because they will have the skills and insight to bypass the easy parts.

    There are obvious benfits to making a system human-centered. As in the machine should be serving the human user and not be too complicated to be instantly useful. It should be the user’s decision whether they want to take the system to the next level or not. The user either already knows what they want or need time to figure it out and I think this is the best way to please both parties.

  4. Answering Linda’s question as to whether a system can be too friendly and too simple, I would have to unquestionably agree. Simplicity in user-centric design seems to be born from overall complexity of the system and by simplicity I mean ease of use to the end-user. Let’s take two similar mediums, point-and-shoot (P&S) cameras and prosumer DSLRs. Hand anyone a P&S camera, like a Nikon S640 and the two most prominent buttons on the camera are ON/OFF and the shoot button. With my S640, I have asked many people over various outings, of all ages and demographics, to take a portrait for me, all without instruction, and none have ever faltered at figuring it out almost instantly. When I go out with my Nikon D300S on the other hand, I have yet to ask a single person who has been able to take a picture without asking me how it is done. So what is the difference?

    The D300S is infinitely more powerful but with that power comes infinitely more rotary dials, command buttons, switches and selection pads that confuse most people. To the photographer though, the D300S and its consumer sibling the D90, are marvels of ergonomics and usability with the various dials and switches being placed precisely within reach. Would the normal user complain of their complication though, most definitely. A similar argument can be made of airplanes and jet fighter aircraft. I have some 200 hours logged in small civilian aircraft mostly Cessna 172s and 182s and have enough time in simulators that flying instruments only is secondhand. Could I fly, nevertheless start an F-16 let’s say though… probably not. I have the manual for one though, and it is a marvel of systems design. The point I am making with all this though is that not including poorly designed systems, ease of use is negatively related to system complication and overall power; at least at this present moment. It is why any system that is “worth its salt” requires training for its use. A farmboy in Kansas may start by flying Piper PA-25, dream of being a F-22 pilot, go to the flight academy where he will train on a T-3A Firefly and then move on to a T-41C Mescalero then to a T-6A JPATS if lucky move on to the T-38 Talon and finally into a F-16 where he will learn fighter maneuvering tactics and if selected spend 5 weeks training in simulators before he is able to climb into a F-22. But didn’t he know how to fly the whole time?

    User-centered design is rather peculiar as a topic; it makes one wonder when will complexity be able to rise without ease of use falling. For some reason I do not think that will happen until brain interfaces arise or interfaces can interpret language, and by that I mean launching a program or starting a system and the program/system asking you what you would like to do today and you either verbalize or enter in plain language what it is you want to do. Until then, we will have to learn systems, and designers will simply need to make them as usable as possible to cut the learning curve as much as they can. There is simply no such thing as walking into a new system and being able to work it unless it is either very simple or designed like something else that is common knowledge.

  5. In the technological world it always seems difficult to please everyone in terms of how things work. With every system, there are always people that feel like they have better ideas for how something should work. This becomes a major problem in the world of information design because there are so many people wanting different things. Because of the diverse wants and needs of users, designers have to create systems in which all users will be happy. The article offers the idea of customizability as a way to please a large amount of users. This allows the user to create his/her own personal design system. This is really affective for advanced users. The skill and experience levels also present many problems; the most obvious being for beginner users. How easy is it to use the first time? How long does it take to get used to? Advanced users also have their problems– Designers have to make sure that the program is not only easy for beginners, but also has the ability to provide for even its most advanced users.

    This article presents a major problem in the information design, the user-centered approach. As this article explains, the more system-focused a design plan is, the less it will be user friendly. The system-based design has been affective in the past because it tends to focus more on how things work and tends to have fewer errors. What this doesn’t account for is human error. A system-based approach is created with the user in mind, and therefore leads to many problems for their users, especially the newer users. The major problem becomes that your system-based designed is more functional, but your user-centered design is more appealing and easier to use. The article argues that overall, the best plan of action and the future of information design s to move to human-centered designs which will be used to increase the functionality of user-based designs. Hopefully this will create systems in which they are easy for all potential users to process information quickly and efficiently.

  6. I find that because information is situational, then user-friendliness is as well. What is information for some people, isn’t for others. Accommodating for users who all seek for something different can be very tasking, which I think lies in part as one of the difficulties in designing user-centered systems. This also delves into the far-reaching diversity of users. What is aesthetically pleasing to some, but not to others? What is easy? What is hard? This isn’t to say that it is impossible for a system to cater to all parties, but I find it a lot harder when the users are so different.

    In combating this tough task, I think that the article suggests a solution that can further delve into the minds of users by abandoning or minimizing objective measures. Focusing more on the “content of the rating” from the user rather than the experimenter is merely one way of getting in the heads of users. A constant focus and study of users from all levels of development can only further the efficiency and effectiveness of systems.

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