Principles of User-centred Design

The user as the measure

When I talked to her she was understandably nervous. The time after the war was bad for them. Still, once I'd convinced her I was sincere, she explained to me that part of the mystery with which she'd been entrusted. You see, the functionalists had many strange incantations, and though much of their liturgy is preserved in the secretive societies of the engineers, there were parts considered superfluous by the engineers, she and her kind were the repositories of that information. When the country was breaking down, and the rebels were close to taking the centre of faith, the priestesses' were each given a fragment of the liturgy, a germ of the lore which they were to carry into the new world, and attempt to seed in the society whenever the way was clear, the hearts receptive, and the message needed.

The ritual she described was strange. It asked things I thought I would never do, things wrapped in the mystery of numbers and statistics. She came off too strong, no wonder she hadn't found anywhere to take her seeds. She was too much, too heavy. Still, I was attracted to her dedication. Surely she could not be so determined if there was nothing of value here?

I stayed some time, grilling her, forcing her to describe the rituals in detail. I drew the secret out, piece by piece, I discovered the power hidden in those rites. When I was finished, she was drained, I had pulled out everything which was in her, everything that would help me make these rituals live again. She was just a little girl then, still a virgin to those types of exploration. I know it was necessary for them to use her, for my to rape her, but why, why couldn't we have found some other way to preserve the knowledge? I didn't see her again after that night. I'm told she got pregnant and died in the ghetto. But it was okay, wasn't it. She fulfilled her purpose, I'd carry the flame forward, the precious rituals were saved.

Sure, it was wrapped in archaic language, sure, even the ideas were a little archaic, but the ritual was strong, the slow trod of intonation would inspire, not the soaring, crashing inspiration of the Aesthetes, no, this was a throbbing, forceful inspiration pushing up from the floor, supporting rather than buoying. I didn't change the words much, a little tinkering here and there which let it fit with the rest, which let it join the chorus.

The chant of methods is powerful, of course, progressing as it does up the scale of liturgical mystery.

Assumption isn't that sexy, but, of course, it's the one most people deal with. It's hard to get excited about something that everyone does, almost automatically in most cases. We don't deal with it to any great extent, it was known before, and it's powerful, but almost everyone guesses what the user's going to do, Assumption just asks for a little bit more formality.

Programme is a little more advanced, of course, my little friend probably knew it, we're pretty sure she was one of the "virgins" talked about in the chant, people who had committed themselves to a life of task analysis and design, people whose lives were about service to others. We teach it, and by far it's the most popular course we've got. It's simple, direct, doesn't require much extra work, just take a piece of paper, sorry, the "sacred book" to the user and discuss what they want to be able to do, and what they want. Tends to have a swack of benefits. Most of them don't really "commit" themselves to it. That's not today's style, they pick it up or drop it as they like.

Standards is slightly more advanced, it relies on the formalisation of experience which is represented by numerics which describe a possible reality. The classes on it don't get as much attendance as you might think, most who are interested in it going to the engineers. It really doesn't require that much more commitment, but most of the designers today, they are put off by it, they want to go from first principles, directly from the needs of the user, to figure everything out by themselves. Still, for those who can believe in it, it's powerful. Normally they use it in combination with programme, and they are our backbone, they design quickly, and they can churn out normalised, functional designs far faster than the virgins.

It was that last path that caught me when I first heard her describe it, when I first grilled her on its nature. She didn't know, I pushed her a little too hard on that, I think. She wasn't one of the grand masters, how was she to know the ways of statistics? Pure faith in numbers. The numeric analysis and modelling of the user. The ritual of averages. We discovered those later, grilled others who were carrying around these fragments until we had enough shards to guess the shape of the pot. We now know that it was the creators who made the formal models for standards, and we've been working feverishly to discover their rituals by attempting to recreate those few tables which have survived. Now we finally think we're able to teach it, to let those few who are interested in the mysteries to join us, to train for true faith. It's a difficult path, we need to deal with hundreds of users, and analyse their needs, and abstract those through the partial rituals we've recovered. But if you're looking for a challenge, this is the way to go.

Then we have the other three courses of specialisation, really, we don't interfere with them, they don't bother us. The Commission guards against over analysis, that's when one of us get too deep into analysis and forgets the user. Yes, that's been known to happen, the higher-level studies will occasionally veer off into engineering or numerics, the Commission makes sure those people are eliminated. The Critics are another safeguard organisation, they pretend to be users, and examine the work of the centre to find those who should be recommended for examination by the Commission. Finally, there are the Angels, well, no, that's not their real name, they're really called Participatory Group, but they are generally called the Angels. They are those who have taken the user's input into the process far beyond what the average designer is capable of, they allow the users to work on the design, sometimes even to complete the whole design themselves, which means that often the designer is paid little or nothing. It takes a special kind of person for that, and they're a small group, committed to their work, incorruptible by all accounts, the Angels of the order.

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This work is Copyright (c) Mike Fletcher 1997