A few days ago a wise friend and an ex colleague of mine handed me an article on activity-centered design by Donald Norman. It is something everyone who ever have designed (or is planning to) anything, from a door handle to online learning platform, should read it through. Norman writes:
“The historical record contains numerous examples of successful devices that required people to adapt to and learn the devices. People were expected to acquire a good understanding of the activities to be performed and of the operation of the technology. None of this “tools adapt to the people”nonsense — people adapt to the tools.”
In a way this is nothing new for me. I enjoyed reading the article mainly because Norman is a one of the big names in design research and now he is writing something I have been preaching for some years in my own little social, academic and design circles. I am not claiming that I got these ideas before Norman. I am claiming that they have always been embedded in good design practice.
I really think that all projects done in my research group are good examples of activity-centred design. I will now focus a little more to the design of Fle3 learning environment, as it is the most well known tool made by us. In the beginning of the project we decided to design and develop a tool that supports progressive inquiry learning model (PI-model). We knew that PI-model is reformative model of learning. We also knew that there were very few schools or classrooms that were already operating even close to this model. So, why should we design a tool for an activity that hardly exists? The answer is: We need this tool because it may change the current activities – they way of teaching and learning in schools and universities. Norman writes:
“People do adapt to technology. It changes social and family structure. It changes our lives. Activity-Centered Design not only understands this, but might very well exploit it.”
if we were and are doing activity-centered design, how does it effect on Fle3? Many ways. I’ll try to explain.
When designing Fle3 we were naturally doing it with teachers, educators, pedagogical researcher and pupils. We use to make references to participatory design. We wanted to learn from the people who will be using the tool and we did – a lot. On the other hand we use to be very firm when it came to design decisions. The primary rule use to be: “if the feature proposed do not support progressive inquiry we are not going to implemented to the tool”. Here is the activity-centered design.
You may guess that we declined many proposals made by the teachers, pupils and researcher. Here are some examples of these: automated tracking of student’s activities, quiz tool, automated grade books, learning material repository, chat, 3D avatar world, video conference, MP3 player. We just couldn’t see how these tools wold support the activity of progressive inquiry.
Now the question is what is then the problem if there are features that do not support the activity but are otherwise nice to have? The challenge is that also the “nice to have tools” are guiding people’s activities and unfortunately our human’s time is finite. If we do quizzes, fly in a 3D world or listen to music we do not do progressive inquiry. Same time all the “nice to have features” aare making the tool more complicate to use for the actual purpose it is designed for. The tool will end-up to be to be a violin with an alarm clock nailed on it.
So what we are now looking for is that people will adapt to the technology designed by us. But we also hope that people start to redesign it. The decision of releasing Fle3 under GPL is critical. Without it the tool could never be an object of slow, evolutionary folk design – the most powerful design process.