9.657 human-centred design

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Tue, 26 Mar 1996 18:49:28 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 657.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: Willard McCarty mccarty@phoenix.princeton.edu> (84)
Subject: Human-centred design

HUMAN-CENTRED DESIGN: A new paradigm for the 21st Century?

University of Toronto

Previously published in the <cite>U of T Magazine</cite>, March 1996.
Re-published by permission.

On a recent trip to Spain, going into a local bank and finding that my
American Express traveller's cheques were not readily cashable -- at least
not without a hefty commission -- I decided to try the automatic teller
machine. I inserted my bank card, typed in my PIN and the pesetas appeared.
A few days later in an Andalusian village I needed more cash but every time
I looked the banks were closed -- knowledge of exactly what is open when in
Spain is to a certain extent local knowledge. Is it possible, I wondered,
that my card could unlock the outer security door? I inserted my card and
"abracadabra!" I was in. This was somehow more amazing than the ease with
which I could access my account -- after all the ATM was part of the
international banking system. But the lock on the door? It was part of the
system too. Someone had thought this process through. I was impressed.

Then it ate my card. It was time to rethink the glories of modern technology
that opens new doors, but when they close in your face, you re finished. In
general these systems are robust and reliable, i.e., they work as you expect
and seldom malfunction. We begin to rely on them and change our behaviour
accordingly, banking on Saturdays and in the evenings, for example. But what
about resilience, the ability of the system to adapt gracefully under
pressure or cope with errors? Eating my card was completely lacking in
grace. Electronic technology is notoriously non-resilient or brittle -- it
works or it doesn t. Human beings are a major source of resilience -- they
solve problems, they put facts in context, they are creative and ingenious
and they cope with uncertainty. In the recent film Apollo 13 it was the
ingenuity of the engineers and the astronaut who was dropped from the
mission for medical reasons that brought the stranded travellers back to Earth.

The drive in organizations towards deployment of expert systems that aim to
capture human intelligence and replace workers with machines continues
apace. The substitution of bank machines for tellers is a case in point.
More reliable -- maybe; but more resilient -- certainly not. When I returned
to Canada I discovered that in my enthusiasm for the bank machine I had
forgotten about a payment that would be deducted automatically. If someone
who knew me had been servicing the account, they might have noted the
foreign activity on it and, given that the University payroll was due in two
days, simply held the payment. But to the machine I was just another
overdraft. A trivial example but it illustrates how resilience can be taken
out of a system. Organizations are now beginning to experience the down side
of downsizing and the real costs associated with shedding people -- the loss
of flexibility, creativity, loyalty, to say nothing of organizational memory
and the broader social consequences.

How have we come to this point? Technological design (and organizational
design for that matter) is rooted in the dominant model of western science
based on objectivity, predictability, repeatability, quantifiability and
reliability. The models of humans and their behaviour in studies of
human-machine interaction have largely been technical or reductionist. There
have been great expectations at each stage that what Michael Polanyi,
scientist and philosopher, 30 years ago called the tacit dimension of human
and social experience, i.e., we know more than we can tell, could be
captured explicitly. Many would argue (myself included) that this is both
practically and philosophically impossible but the history of the attempt --
in the artificial intelligence community, for example -- has opened by
provocation a need to discover and engage the full richness of human beings
in their working and being. Part of our tacit knowledge is our resilience;
our ability to muddle through, tinker and adapt when things go wrong.

One response is human-centred design -- a puzzling term for those outside
the field who might well wonder for whom if not for humans technologies are
being designed! This tradition that emerged in Britain in the late 1970s is
now central to a number of high technology projects in the European
Community. In the words of K.S. Gill, a British computer scientist and
proponent of human-centredness: "this is a new technological tradition which
places human need, skill, creativity and potentiality at the centre of the
activities of technological systems." The goal is to enhance human skill
rather than diminish it, to encourage creativity and ingenuity while at the
same time building systems that are at least as economical as conventional
ones. For those who believe that humans are more than as yet unsolved
algorithms and that communities are more than markets, human-centred design
offers a powerful alternative.

Does human-centredness offer a new paradigm for the 21st century? It's still
early days but an approach to technical design whose goal is to support
human knowledge, creativity and ingenuity rather than attempt to replace it
provides flexibiblity, resilience and the potential for community well-being
not found in other models. It s worth thinking about.

Back to Spain. As I turned from the locked door I was glad that I had
resilience -- my Visa card and those traveller's cheques were still in my purse.

Dr. Gale Moore was head of social sciences for the Ontario Telepresence
Project and is currently research and education specialist for the social
sciences at the University of Toronto Library.