User-Based Design

Map Location
H, 4
Thread Location
Page 37

Amy Edick

Related Artifacts

Abels, E., White, M., & Hahn, K. (1998). A user-based design process for web sites. Internet Research, 8(1), 39.

Annotation: This article went over the second leg of the experiments on userbased design. I think this article was important to include because it went over actual user-based input that was being used. It showed the stages and what it takes to include it.

Abels, E., White, M., & Kim, S. (2007). Developing subject-related web sites collaboratively: The virtual business information center. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 33(1), 27.

Annotation: For some reason, I am always drawn to case studies. They seem to work no matter what topic you are using. I picked this study because it went through the process that is involved with user-based design.

Hippel, E, V. (1995, May). User learning, “sticky information,” and user-based design. Retrieved from 32867610.pdf?sequence=1

Annotation: This article goes over the working between the manufacturer and the user when creating the product needed. They make a good point that “user needs” change so much that it is hard to put out a product that is at the same level for everyone.


Jerry Robinson

Agreement Description

User centered design (UCD) is intended to stand in stark contrast to more traditional technology oriented perspectives on design that pay minimal attention to the actual users. The goal of UCD is to make ICTs and information systems intuitive, usable, and useful to the individual users. However, given the nature of the library environment and what has been said throughout this atlas it is questionable whether UCD is fully applicable in the library context. This thread challenges the notion that focusing on the user throughout the system design process is always optimal. It also calls into question whether UCD truly helps to create an environment that is conducive to knowledge creation and knowledge sharing.

What is User Centered Design?

Foundationally speaking, user centered design is a systematic and intentional effort to create information systems that fit the intended users within a specified context of use. More formally, UCD is any design approach that incorporates information about the people who will actually use the system into the planning, development, and implementation phases of design (“Usability Professionals’ Association,” 2011). In 1999 the International Organization for Standardization issued ISO 13407 on human-centered design processes which provides general guidelines for incorporating “user-centeredness” into the systems development life-cycle. These guidelines include:

  1. Gathering information on the context that the system will be used in (who will use it, for what, and when), the user, and any organizational or individual user criteria that will serve as the means of judging system success
  2. Designing iteratively
  3. Evaluating system design through usability testing or some other means of comparing the product to previously defined successfulness criteria (“Usability Professionals’ Association,” 2011).

UCD Constructs

Ivari & Ivari (2006) conducted a review of the information systems literature to analyze the use and meanings of the term “user-centered design”. This study was prompted by a perceived inconsistency in the meanings that have been ascribed the term historically. The outcome of the study was the identification of the foundational elements of any user centered design technique. The authors inductively derived four dimensions of user-centeredness from the literature: user focus, work centeredness, user involvement, and user personalization (Iivari & Iivari, 2006). They also illustrated how every user-centered design approach can be viewed as a unique blend of these four dimensions. User focus is defined as seeking to identify and represent users in the planning, design, and evaluation stages based on general human factors principles, sampling and segmenting the user population, or the use of personas or fictive characters. Work centeredness can be defined as seeking to understand and represent the work environment or context of use for the system to be developed. User involvement is enabling the potential users to play an active part in the design process as informants, consultants, and/or designers. System personalization involves making the designed system flexible and customizable enough to be manually or automatically adapted to each individual user (Iivari & Iivari, 2006).

The Goal of UCD

User centered design focuses on the individual, the problems/tasks to be addressed by the individual, and his/her interactions with computers/systems and their interfaces across all phases of systems design. The implicit goal of user centered design is to increase the likelihood that individuals will frequent the system being proposed or developed. Perhaps one of the most well-known models in the information systems literature which attempts to predict acceptance and use of IT by individuals is the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM). Two major constructs within TAM are perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use. Perceived usefulness refers to a person’s subjective belief that using a particular system will improve his or her job performance. Contrastingly, perceived ease of use refers to a person’s subjective belief that he or she can use the system with minimal effort and few errors (Davis, 1989). When design teams and usability experts employ UCD methodologies and techniques they are doing so for a reason: to increase the chances that intended users will be satisfied with the system and utilize it. More specifically, the incorporation of user and work context information into the design process is intended to increase the stakeholders’ perception of usefulness and ease of use which impacts actual use according to TAM. One could reasonably argue that the TAM undergirds UCD and that UCD approaches assume the same usefulness, ease of use, and actual use relationship that TAM conveys.

The Goal of Libraries

When discussing systems in the context of companies, government or military departments, e-commerce websites, or other defined boundaries UCD makes complete sense. However, in the library context it is inappropriate to think along these lines since the overall goal is not to increase usage of systems by individual community members. In libraries the focus is on members collectively and the goal is to facilitate knowledge creation among those members both individually and within the community. It would be a mistake to import perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use from the context of individuals interacting with systems to the context of group or societal knowledge creation where the use of technical systems is often not required. However, blindly applying UCD in the library context does just that. This does not imply that user centered design is never appropriate in the library. The community that the library serves is composed of individual members who sometimes utilize catalogs, websites, and other library interfaces in their individual efforts towards knowledge creation. It is important to have library information system interfaces that make sense, are easy to use, and actually aid library members in finding information artifacts. The problem comes when user centered design is seen as a primary mean of making the library a hub for knowledge creation. Knowledge creation in the library context goes beyond individuals using computers to access artifacts. It includes collaboration, interaction, communication, and other socially oriented activities that do not necessarily require the use of computing or other technology. Focusing on individuals in an attempt to increase or maximize system use is one thing. Progressing from user-centered design to greater facilitation of knowledge creation is completely different and somewhat illogical. It assumes that creating a usable and useful system automatically leads to knowledge which ignores the fact that knowledge creation often is emergent and occurs within a social context between two or more people.

The Conundrum of Complex Systems: Assessments of Usefulness in Emergent Knowledge Creation Environments

Dervin & Nilan (1986) described the traditional and alternative paradigms that undergirded information need and use literature between 1978 and 1986. According to these authors, the traditional paradigm viewed information as objective elements that go through a system and users as producers and consumers of what goes into and comes out of that system (Dervin & Nilan, 1986, p. 16). On the other hand, the alternative approach sees information as constructed by humans. The focus is on the user rather than the system and researchers explore how people make sense of information within specific contexts as well as the incentives that motivate them to use or refrain from using information systems in those contexts. User-centered design is encapsulated within this latter paradigm. Again, at the individual level this perspective is appropriate. However, when the unit of analysis switches to the group or society rather than the individual level as it does in the library environment a problem arises. As the number of humans constructing knowledge increases it becomes more difficult to encapsulate the diversity of processes and interactions that lead to knowledge creation within one system.

In line with the traditional perspective described by Dervin & Nilan and mentioned above, Taylor defined information systems as a collection of activities performed on messages fed into and retrieved out of a system by the user. The activities are intended to make the system output more useful than its input (Taylor, 1982). He also discussed how in the traditional library context the reference interview between the librarian and a member can be seen as a value added process. The librarian’s ability to garner responses to and address the following questions (in addition to what the member desires to know) often influences the perceived value of the reference interview outcome by a member: Why do you need to know?; When do you need to know?; In what form do you need to know it?; What do you already know?; How will this help you?; What are you expecting to find? (Taylor, 1982, p. 344)

Any set of either manual or digital activities that is able to obtain and make use of answers to these questions could be considered truly user centered. The reference interview (assuming that the librarian or other reference person conducting the interview is indeed an expert) could be seen as a value added process that is user-centered. However, present day technical systems still cannot elicit and interpret responses to the questions above, particularly when information needs are diverse and value assessments for information services are member determined and highly subjective. Currently it is not possible for technical information systems to accurately sense and make use of context in the same way that humans can. Earlier it was stated that user-centered design is applicable to the individual level of analysis only. This means that individual users are the subject of analysis and the assessors of the system value. Complex systems in environments such as libraries can create problems because of discrepancies between different member perspectives on what is useful, when, and in what format. Value assessments by the final user are subjective and individualistic. In the library context there is a diverse range of information needs and value assessment that often occur at higher levels of analysis than the individual. Therefore it is impossible to obtain a universal assessment of either actual or perceived value of the information and/or services provided by a system. The different decisions and actions that members use information for can be even more divergent than in a large organization where there is a core mission or purpose. In a large company there may be different departments, users, and uses of information but there is also an underlying goal of making money, providing health services, educating students, etc. In the library context where the overarching goal is to facilitate knowledge creation there is no standard for what is considered knowledge and no underlying criterion for successful knowledge creation. Success for one member or member group may be identifying potential resources for a research project where another member or group’s criteria for success is identifying the steps to start a business, finding literature that is simply pleasurable, or collaborating on ways to revitalize a local neighborhood. In this environment user centered design breaks down because individual members are not necessarily the primary unit of analysis.

If User-Centered Design is Inappropriate, What is appropriate?

Some reiteration is needed here: user-centered design is not completely inappropriate in the library setting. Although knowledge creation often goes beyond the individual level of analysis individual members use computerized systems to search for and retrieve information.

To address some of the issues discussed above a shift in thinking is required more than anything. Library information systems must be designed based on a broader goal than maximizing the number of individuals who use them. The goal of system design in libraries should change to match the goal of libraries and librarians. Right about now the reader of this thread is probably asking how this can be accomplished. Several high-level suggestions come to mind that mirror much of what appears throughout this Atlas. Our perspective and vision for libraries must change from collections of artifacts to hubs of knowledge creation and exchange. Instead of focusing on better library websites and system interfaces it is time to start thinking in terms of integrating CSCW and CSCL tools into the library environment. Doing this will expand knowledge creation (rather than information access) beyond the physical confines of the library building and truly align system development and use with the goal of libraries. We must stop thinking in terms of better systems that improve users’ access to information and start thinking in terms of systems that facilitate collaboration, communication, information/knowledge sharing, and community building. Start thinking less in terms of individual system users and more in terms of collections of members and member groups. To a certain extent we must throw away the notion of user-determined value and start to think in terms of member defined and created knowledge. We must avoid design methodologies that are based on predictive reductionistic models of system use and start to let the library members collectively determine when, where, how, and why they will use the library and its resources. Given the number of studies that look at improving library website interfaces such as (Blandford & Buchanan, 2003; Bordac & Rainwater, 2008; Comeaux, 2008; Gasson, 1999; Trinidad-Christensen, 2006), it is time to look beyond the usability of technical systems and see how the library as a collection of value-added processes can better meet the needs of its members individually and collectively. Whether or not those processes involve technology that is user-centered is less important than whether or not they empower library members to create, share, and apply knowledge.

Conversation Starters

  1. To what degree (if any) should UCD principles guide the development of technical information systems in the library context?
  2. The goal of librarians is to improve society by facilitating knowledge creation within their communities. The implicit goal of UCD is to increase the likelihood that individuals (often called users) will find developed systems intuitive, usable, and useful. Are these two goals compatible? If so, how?
  3. If we assume that the library is a collection of value-added processes how can we integrate technical systems into this collection in ways that will enhance the ability of members to create and share knowledge rather than simply gain access to artifacts?

Related Artifacts

Blandford, A., & Buchanan, G. (2003). Usability of digital libraries: a source of creative tensions with technical developments. IEEE Technical Committee on Digital Libraries Bulletin, 1(1).

Bordac, S., & Rainwater, J. (2008). User-centered design in practice: the Brown University experience. Journal of Web Librarianship, 2(2), 109-138.

Comeaux, D. J. (2008). Usability Studies and User-Centered Design in Digital Libraries. Journal of Web Librarianship, 2(2), 457-475.

Davis, F. (1989). Perceived Usefulness, Perceived Ease of Use, and User Acceptance of Information Technology. Management Information Systems Quarterly, 13(3).

Dervin, B., & Nilan, M. (1986). Information needs and uses. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 21, 3-33.

Gasson, S. (1999). The reality of user-centered design. Journal of End User Computing, 11(4), 5-15.

Iivari, J., & Iivari, N. (2006). Varieties of User-Centeredness. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 39th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences – Volume 08.

Taylor, R. S. (1982). Value-added processes in the information life cycle. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 33(5), 341-341.
Trinidad-Christensen, J. (2006). User-Centered Design of a Web Site for Library and Information Science Students: Heuristic Evaluation and Usability Testing. Information technology and libraries.

Usability Professionals’ Association. (2011). What is User-Centered Design? Retrieved 4/22/2011, 2011, from

*This supplement did not appear in the original printed Atlas, but is being considered for inclusion in future editions. What do you think about the supplement and the topic?