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’Play’ model of information system design makes teammates of users and designers


"Play" or back-and-forth dialogue between users and designers can lead to IT systems that are more responsive to the subtleties and ambiguities of users’ different perspectives, say Penn State researchers.

And because it makes users and designers teammates during the development process, the "play" model also can reduce the multiple upgrades and updates that plague enterprise-wide or "Newspeak" solutions, says Frederico Fonseca, assistant professor in the School of Information Sciences and Technology (IST).

Too often, system designers aim for the "killer application" with the assumption that it will work well for every user and address every business or organizational need. But users are not homogeneous, and enterprise-wide or "Newspeak" solutions don’t take into account users’ different perspectives. The consequence: updates and upgrades are needed.

"For example, departments in banks interpret the term ’loan date’ differently," Fonseca said. "One department views it as the date when the loan was applied for, another when the loan was approved and yet another when the money was released."

Rather than forcing bank personnel to accept one definition, IT designers should create systems that can accommodate the different definitions. Such systems would have broad organizational use, thereby avoiding multiple systems or the "Tower of Babel problem."

"Users can interpret the same set of data differently, and systems need to be able to handle that," Fonseca said.

That argument is explained in a paper titled "Play as the Way Out of the Newspeak-Tower of Babel Dilemma in Data Modeling," presented by Fonseca and co-author James Martin recently at the 26th International Conference on Information Systems in Las Vegas. Martin is a professor emeritus of the Penn State psychology department.

The researchers draw on the work of several philosophers--notably Heidegger and Gadamer--to support their contention that "play" or back-and-forth dialogue between designers and users can reveal the subtle inconsistencies between users with different perspectives.

Sometimes the "play" yields a common understanding or fusion of views, and the IT designer’s job is made easier. Other times the dialogue leads only to acknowledgment of differences or inconsistent views.

"The communication itself is as important as finding common ground," Fonseca said. "Because fusion isn’t always reached, a successful IT system has to reflect inconsistent or incompatible views."

Designers also have to recognize that when users have difficulties with systems, users aren’t the problem. "User error" is a misnomer, Fonseca said. The problem occurs because the system is designed as "one size fits all."

Next for Fonseca and Martin is to apply their theory to developing methods for the design of information systems.

Margaret Hopkins | EurekAlert!
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