Keynote Address given at the Co-designing Conference,
Coventry University, 13 September 2000
I will start by telling you something about our Institute. Some of you who are not directly involved in information design may not know much about it. Please bear with me while I give some background, so that you understand some of the issues that I’m going to talk about, and the framework within which I work. CRI was established in 1985 as a not-for-profit research group. Bruce Archer mentioned in his opening address that there is often a thirty-year gap between research and thinking in a field and its general application within the community.
In 1985 this was very much the case in the field of communication. People we met from industry and government were using communication models, ways of thinking, research findings, and so on that those of us researching in the field had long since discarded. We were surprised to see that the old habits of thinking were so persistent, in fact were the mainstream ideas in the community. One reason the Institute was set up was to bridge that thirty-year gap. It wasn’t the only reason—but the huge gap between what we understood of communication processes and what people in commercial and government work understood by them was an important factor in our establishment.
Mainly, though, our remit was, and still is, to help people communicate with each other. A lot of our work has been with the corporate sector and large commercial and financial organisations whose communication practices, both internally and with their publics, are performed desperately badly—but they would like to do it better, usually for economic reasons. Our concern, though, is very much with the people who work in those organisations and the people they communicate with, by helping them communicate with each other better. To that end, we’ve completed over two hundred model co-design projects, each contributing to our corpus of knowledge and providing our Members with models to follow.
In preparing this paper I went back over some of our work. One always thinks, of course, that one makes huge leaps of progress, but I was surprised to find that in many ways the pattern that we had developed at the beginning, although we have refined it substantially, has actually remained relatively stable over fifteen years.
Having accumulated a vast body of case history material, experience,ways of thinking, methods of research, and so on, we’ve decided to make it much more broadly available through our publications program in both communication and information design.
Our intellectual traditions
Without going into too much detail, here are a few pointers to the intellectual traditions and thinking that have guided our work and which will inform our publication program.
Firstly, collaborative design methods involve the active participation of the eventual users of a design. This is not a new idea. The first conference on participatory design was run by the Design Research Society in the UK in 1971.
While many would look at the work reported in those papers and say, ‘How crude, how primitive’, nonetheless the seeds of the kind of work we’ve been involved in were there. Primarily, there is a concern for the people who have to suffer the consequences of the designs we create. The very least we can do is meaningfully involve them in the design process.
Secondly, we take what’s sometimes called a constructionist view of communication—not to be confused with a constructivist view.The constructivist view, which we don’t hold, says that our minds construct our social realities; the emphasis is on cognition, perception,and private schemata. The constructionist view, on the other hand, says we construct our social realities through communication; the emphasis is on dialogue, conversation, and public language.
Third, Our philosophical ideas derive from the later Wittgenstein:the Philosophical Investigations (1953) in particular. I could spend a great deal of time talking about this, but just very briefly, our interest is, if you like, very much at the surface of things. We do not believe in, or work to find, deep causation. We work on the things that we can observe, the things that catch our attention. We don’t offer any theories of mental functioning. We take little notice of the research from many areas which seek to place both design and communicative activity as something that goes on in people’s heads. Our concern is for what goes on between people. This leads me to the third point. Some have thought that, because we are concerned with observable actions, we must be following a behaviourist tradition. There is a subtle but crucial distinction between action and behaviour. We are concerned with what people do—how they act in the world, not how they respond to stimuli. We work within the humanist tradition. Above all else our duty and our role is to respect other people.
The material we choose to deal with is the ordinary stuff of everyday life. Our concern is with what people have to put up within daily life—the sorts of things that go on between people and organisations at counters and call centres, on forms and notices—the prosaic, the ordinary, the everyday occurrences that happen between people. My primary concern as an information designer is to focus on making that information accessible and usable. As part of the humanist tradition, I focus not on the object that I create but on the relationship that I enable. This, then, is the Institute’s major intellectual position.
Information design stages
I shall now give you a generalised picture of what an information design project might look like—but please don’t take this as prescriptive.
I’m not suggesting that this is the only way to do it. Any attempt to organise information is usually a synthesis, a construction: you do certain things on some projects, other things on others, and so on. But I identify—as many of you in other areas of design can identify—a number of stages in the process. First, though, for those of you who are not information designers: the sorts of things that information designers design are forms, timetables, wayfinding systems(our fancy way of talking about signposting), documents, labels, websites, and, more recently, entire information systems. Within contemporary information design, there has been a shift away from the Bauhaus tradition of creating and mass-producing copies of a single object, towards developing entire information systems by generating rules—very exciting work.
For a more detailed discussion of this, see Transitions in information design.
Below is an extract from a typical project showing two of the investigations we would undertake at the scoping stage. In most projects we undertake over 20 different investigations as part of the scoping stage.
I’ll have more to say on that later because there’s some very interesting issues to do with where the boundaries lie of a design project, and in our case, of course, an information design project.
I’ve been struck by the absence of any mention of baseline measurement so far at this Conference. Much design work, as one of the speakers said, is redesign rather than design from scratch. An important part of redesign is to ask: where are we right now? what is the current performance of this design? what is happening in the world now which we don’t want to happen, or we’d like to change? where do we want to go? what do we want to achieve here? It doesn’t matter if we change our mind at some point, but if we don’t know where we currently are and where we want to go, we won’t know when we’ve arrived. Often in design projects the urge to get ahead and redevelop doesn’t leave space for actually asking those questions. But baseline measurement is an essential stage. We are all familiar in our own different areas with the activity of developing prototypes, the next stage in the process; but in fact, it’s only after one has done the scoping and baseline measurement that one is in a position to write the design brief at all. Also, there is a sense in which all design activity is generative; that is, it leads to outcomes that none of us foresee—it opens things up and provides new possibilities. This is why benchmarks are so important—they guide us through the processes and possibilities: we know we’ve got there if we know where we were going to begin with, and we’ll know if we change direction because we knew where we started from. As well, baseline measurements make great before-and-after politically potent stories: ‘When we started it was like this, but look at it now—it’s great’. You can only do this if you benchmark. When we conduct baseline measurement studies we find out about each of the criteria listed below. These criteria are more than quantifiable baseline measurements. They are the very framework for understanding communication, the absolutely fundamental things without which communication and information design will not work.
- The material must be respectful of the people who are going to use it. Everything I have said so far fits into this criterion.
- The material should be attractive. Yesterday there was a paper on delighters in design. Things do have to be attractive for all sorts of reasons. One of the reasons is that making something attractive is an indicator that someone actually cares about the material.
- It has to be usable. We apply strict benchmark criteria to judging whether or not information is usable. Typically, we require anyone using information to be able to find, understand, and act on at least 80% of what they look for. We are now at a stage in some of our work developing government regulations where these minimum usability requirements are built into the regulations.With the medicines information or sexual harassment information I will show you later, our expectation is that everyone using it should be able to find and use appropriately at least80% of the information they look for.
- It has to be efficient. The bottom line is always with us, ever present —organisations wants to know if the money they have spent on a service has added to the bottom line, or reduced expenses.
- It has to be physically appropriate. Many objects we use, including simple things like forms and so on, can be physically difficult to handle. We once did a study looking at difficulties that older people had inserting paper into an envelope with a window face and getting the window face to line up. This can be a major task.
- It has to be socially appropriate. By socially appropriate, let me just give you an example of something socially inappropriate. Our taxation office refers to you and me not as citizens, nor as tax payers, but as clients, and they describe themselves as offering a service, much in the way that a lawyer or a prostitute does. But it’s a service that I cannot reject: I can’t stop them from putting their hand in my pocket; I can’t look for an alternative tax office. I don’t mind paying tax; but to refer to me as a client in that context is unacceptable. It’s a misrepresentation of the relationship. I am not a client of the tax office but a citizen contributing to society through their office. Similarly, calling someone who applies for social security a ‘customer’ is socially inappropriate. As I mentioned earlier, we ask people what relationship they have with their texts and documents, rather than assume it.
Developing prototypes is what most design education and most designers focus on. For us it is just one stage in an overall process, albeit an important one. Scoping and baseline measurement data inform the prototype development process. Creating the prototype is where the special skills associated with traditional design education come into play. In information design, as in other design areas, technical skill, aesthetic sensibility, and imagination are vital at this stage. Later, I will show you some examples of prototypes under development. But the brevity of my remarks here should not be taken as an indication of the lack of significance of this stage. It is just that most of us know more about this stage than any other, and there is probably no need to elaborate. In co-designing work, the challenge is to integrate the prototyping stage of design properly into an overall process.
Conversation and refinement
The diagram below uses the term ‘testing’ rather than ‘conversation’. This is to make the process easily Intelligible to our clients who in the main are not interested in the subtle distinction we make between conversation and testing, and find the term ‘testing’ more familiar in this context.
It is at this stage in the process that the value of the baseline measurement becomes obvious. The same criteria that we used in the baseline measurement stage get used here. In this stage we take a prototype out of the studio and into the world of the people who will have to engage with our designs once they are published or manufactured. Using the benchmark criteria as a guide, we ask people to engage with our design. We watch what they do and join them in conversation to find out what is wrong with our designs so that we can improve it by refinement. Some of you may think that I am really talking about usability testing but calling it something else. This is not so. If you look at the measurement criteria we apply, you will see that usability is too narrow a term to encompass the full range of criteria. Moreover, we do not consider that what we are doing is testing; we tend to think of it as a special type of open-ended conversation or dialogue. However, this stage can involve some numerical work; for instance, below is a data set from a project concerned with redesigning a telephone bill.
The project was undertaken in 1987–8, just at the time when high-speed duplex-printing laser printers were being introduced into billing production environments. This particular bill was developed to cope with what was then, and remains, a problem within the telecommunications industry: namely, that people have great difficulty in making sense of the information on their phone bill. To illustrate this, I’ve singled out one particular dataset which shows the progressive improvement in the bill as it went through five rounds of testing and refinement—asking people to carry out tasks on the bill, such as ‘Show me what you would do if you had an enquiry about your account’ and talking to them about their difficulties, and then refining the design accordingly. Interestingly, it took five weeks, one week per round, to complete this stage of the project. All the prototypes used in conversations were prepared on laser printers. Had we attempted this type of prototyping and iteration with earlier print technology it would have taken at least twice as long.
Stage six is again something you would all be familiar with from other areas of design, although there are some interesting differences in the ways we implement now compared to the ways in which we implemented in the past. Today we increasingly specify the rules for an entire system rather than for the appearance of a single object.
Opposite is an extract from a single page of a thirty-page set of specifications. It is one page of a document which specifies the rules for building insurance notices—an elaborate system, which illustrates what I was saying earlier about designing systems for creating document rather than designing particular documents. It requires a different way of thinking to traditional design where you can focus on the look of a particular thing within a particular frame.
When we first worked with industry on communication problems, we automatically assumed that companies knew what was going on. We would come in at the scoping stage and ask, say, ‘How many errors do people make when filling in this form you want us to redesign?’ Usually, they didn’t know. One government department assured us that there were no errors on their grant application form—none whatsoever. When we probed a little deeper we found that the person in the mailroom would go through each form that came in, and if it had an error on it she sent it straight back to the student who had filled it in. It wouldn’t get past her unless it was completed properly, so the people who were assessing the form thought they were getting error-free returns.Lots of things like that happen. In our experience, few organisations monitor effectively. For example, a great many organisations carry out customer satisfaction surveys, but in our view most of them are a waste of time and money because they do not provide the fine detail of data that is needed to bring about useful change.
Tasks and skills
Now I want to talk about the kind of tasks and skills that go into the process. This is where we start looking at the Co-designing aspects of information design. Again, a lot of this will probably be familiar to all of you. But you can see how, within the type of projects we’re working on, collaboration with everyone at a very early stage is of the utmost importance. Again, don’t take these examples as definitive or prescriptive; they are simply illustrative of the kinds of things that happen. One of the things we do is to put together teams of people, with a variety of different skills,and get them to work on these problems with each other,and of course with the organisations and the people those organisations serve. You’ll frequently see the word ‘collaboration’. Instead of using the conventional term ‘usability testing’, the Institute talks about collaboration, refinement, and conversation. As far as we’re concerned, we do not test documents, and certainly we don’t test users; instead, we ask people to help us come up with a solution that they will be able to use in whatever way is appropriate for them. We don’t see people as users, as audiences, as targets. Many of the definitions that have come from research traditions such as human computer interaction or rhetoric predefine the relationship which exists between people and information. We prefer to move a little more cautiously: we ask people what kind of relationship they have with the information rather than anticipate it.
This next diagram gives you some insight into the kind of effort that goes into this work—the amount of time these various tasks take. I’ve taken this data from a large number of projects for which we have accurate figures. Some of these percentages might surprise you, especially the 4% on prototype development, particularly if you were trained in traditional design practice. Prototype development would probably be the major thing you were taught as a student, and you would not have been taught much about any of the other things. But there are more surprises to come. If you add up all the percentages on the right, you will find that they come to only 50%. What takes up the other 50% of the effort?
The remaining 50% of the time is spent on the politics. Superficially one can look at the diagram of the information design process and imagine it to be rational, even scientific. But it is in fact profoundly political—people’s interests, people’s power relationships,and so on are an intrinsic part of any information design project. Often, I hear designers say at the end of a project, ‘It would have been a great project but for the politics’. But ‘the politics’ is no excuse. Good design must take account of the politics, and dealing with the politics involves a great range of issues. Here I will deal with one of great importance—representation.
But, Before dealing with representation itself, I shall describe a particular design solution that exemplifies the problem of what can be called ‘shifting boundaries’, setting a vivid context for understanding what I mean by ‘representation’.
Canary Wharf station on the London Underground is a triumph of architectural design. It is, if you like, a complete design. It has brought a complete solution into existence. It has reached the edge—its boundary—and within that it provides a complete solution to the design of a tube station.
|Here is a beautiful, brushed stainless steel door, one of many in the magnificently designed station.|
|Here we see a close up of a handle on a door. That door handle is a pulling handle.|
|And here, awkwardly sticky-taped to the top of that same door, is the sign ‘Push to Open’.|
|Further, the door had to have other notices stuck on it because though it is so beautifully and harmoniously designed, no-one knows what it’s for.|
|And so it goes on…|
The architects’ problem boundary was not quite where it should have been for a complete design. Their boundary did not extend as far as the people who would go through that door. One could argue that during the scoping stage, the full scope of the project was too narrowly defined, necessitating a later prosthetic fix with sticky-tape. But such extending of problem boundaries is not just a technical matter of appropriate procedures at the right time, it is also a profoundly political process of representation. The people likely to use the building for this function were neither considered nor consulted. When you consult people about something that they’re going to have to put up with in the future, and these people have never been asked for their opinion or their advice before, you are engaging in the politics of exclusion, albeit unthinkingly. When you bring their opinions into the decision-making process, what you’re actually doing is bringing in a formerly unrepresented constituency to be represented around the table in the decision-making process. That is not an act of usability testing or research, it’s a political act, because you are saying, ‘Those who have exercised power in this area for some time must now give some of that power to someone else’. And of course these things do not happen easily. Power is not something that is relinquished easily. Control is not something that people like to abandon.
Everyone has views about other people and what they’re like. In many situations these views are political—an expression of power relationships, self interest, and a claim to speak on behalf of others as their representative. Negotiating with groups of people with set opinions is an intrinsic part of the information design process, indeed any design process, because this is very much a part of reality. In one project, we had to get agreement on baseline measurement issues from doctors, pharmacists, nurses, other health professionals, and consumer groups. These disparate groups were at first kept separate to avoid fruitless confrontation, because each group had a strongly held professional view about the other groups: doctors had opinions about what doctors knew and could do and what pharmacists didn’t know and couldn’t do; and so on. Each separate group was given a list of possible performance criteria that we might apply. We collected a great deal of opinion about people’s views about each other. But the fascinating thing was that the performance criteria from the different groups were almost entirely the same. There were hardly any differences when it came to deciding what they wanted to achieve.
Another example relates to sexual harassment information, which we developed with the ANU [Australian National University]. The ANU had developed comprehensive procedures for dealing with sexual harassment, but they were finding enormous difficulty in making this information not only available to students but also usable by students in an appropriate way. As you are probably aware, most of the emphasis in such activities traditionally relates to the harassed person. We took the view that everyone involved needed to be informed; thus one of our objectives in this was as much to address people who are at risk of harassing as much as those who feel harassed. This is an example of shifting the problem boundary. At the beginning, there was much agreement among the various groups about what everyone should know about, and what the procedures were, so that by the time we got to the baseline measurement stage we knew quite a lot about what everyone wanted, and we quickly got agreement on a set of performance requirements for the two documents that we agreed to develop. The first document was to be a brochure handed out during orientation week as part of an information kit for new students. The second was a comprehensive guide to the University’s sexual harassment procedures. Everyone agreed that the first document, the brochure, should enable students to:
- know that the University community has clear and strong rules about sexual behaviour.
- discriminate between acceptable sexual behaviour and behaviour that constitutes sexual harassment.
- be able to seek help and advice or make a complaint about sexual harassment
- know that some types of sexual behaviour are criminal and will be dealt with by police.
- know the potential consequences of sexually harassing someone
- know their rights and obligations.
Then we developed a prototype, designed to satisfy the above list. Below is the first inside fold of the brochure which boldly proclaims on the front cover SEX RULES at UNI…
…and suddenly the politics erupted.Those who were deeply concerned about issues of sexuality and power told us, with much vitriol, that the title Sex Rules at Uni was misleading and ambiguous. Claiming to represent students, they went on to say that the brochure was:
…offensive to students. Unlikely to be taken seriously. The text in general is much too simple, talks down to students, could use more complex language. It sounds authoritarian, paternalistic, inappropriate language…
There was a letter to the Vice Chancellor demanding that the project be stopped, and a committee be set up to do the work ‘properly’. This reaction was not entirely unexpected. But when we took the brochure to actual students, as part of the conversation and refinement stage, we found a very different reaction.
Unsolicited, in one-on-one conversations, a number of new students told us that they were greatly reassured by the brochure, because it made them less anxious about dealing with this type of problem. When we specifically asked whether they found the content ‘offensive’, ‘authoritarian’, or ‘paternalistic’, all said no. Indeed some of them looked at us as if to say ‘what a silly question’. Part of our remit was to try and reach students who were at risk of being harassers. Previous brochures which had sexual harassment in the title did not interest these students. Hence the ambiguity in the brochure’s title. Observation of students going through their information kit found that a number of students did ventured beyond the cover of the brochure and read the inside. However, here, too, worrying politics intruded. Because the brochure spoke even-handedly to all students, the individuals and groups who saw themselves as representing the sexually harassed saw the brochure as inherently biased towards harassers, who in their view had no rights whatsoever.
I’m happy to report that, after much negotiation, refinement, and the presentation of the results of our conversations with students, the final brochure was widely accepted and is now used by both students and staff. These examples give you an idea of where some of the politics lie.
Letting voices speak
In a very different type of project, we were concerned with a useful but dangerous medicine, used to treat HIV-positive people. It’s part of a cocktail of medicines which keep the immunity system from collapsing. However, because it’s a drug which is still being developed, and also because there are known serious side-effects, how the medicine is taken is extremely important. Appropriately taken,it holds AIDS at bay; inappropriately taken, you can die. Dangerous stuff. We found that the voice of the person with HIV was most important in this area. However, the official regulations regarding patient information about medicines says that patient information must be written to a certain formal structure and has to follow the product information, which is the document the pharmaceutical company submits to the regulator. Because the product information doesn’t contain information about the patient, the consumer information doesn’t contain such information either; it only contains information about administering the drug. We had to find other vehicles for getting the patient’s voice in. In this document you can see how we’ve brought in the voice of the person taking the medicine. There’s simply no way of doing that unless you collaborate with all the people concerned.
Co-design, in summary
In the face of all of this, there is nothing really remarkable about co-designing. It’s the obvious,the only, way to design anything. How could one possibly do it any differently? Why should one want to do it any differently? As designers, we introduce something into the world; therefore we have a social and moral obligation to involve the people who are going to have to put up with it. It’s an act of courtesy; it’s an act of politeness. I sometimes feel, by the way, that some of these remarks make me a sort of Professor of the Bleeding Obvious. So why do we have to formalise, through all these diagrams, what is a simple act of courteous human behaviour? Well, I think we have to accept that the fact that we have to develop these methodologies—and I’m not against them—is a symptom of the fact that we live in a society where our two great institutional systems, capitalism and bureaucracy, actually do not care about people. Now, I’m not suggesting that the individuals in these organisations do not care about people—that is manifestly not the case. What is the case is that the primary purpose of capitalism and bureaucracy has nothing to do with being nice to people. Capitalism is concerned with making money for shareholders, while bureaucracy is concerned with control. Whether they are concerned with being nice to people at the same time is another matter entirely. Capitalism and bureaucracies happen to care now, at this historical moment, because at present people have economic and political power. No doubt, if capitalism discovers a way of making money without being nice to be people, and it can make more money doing so, you can be quite sure that every usability lab and every user-friendly design in the country will disappear. People like us must seize the moment, we must develop these things to a point where we cannot go back, we cannot retreat. We need to see what we do clearly, within an historical context. Because it might not last.