Activity Centred Design

Don Norman proposes activity centred design as a better approach for designing. The logical methods of organizing into taxonomies and classifications does not support activities, which is what users carry out while using software.

Taxonomic structures are appropriate when there is no context, when suddenly needing some new piece of information or tool. That’s why this structure works well for libraries, stores, websites, and the program menu of an operating system. But once an activity has begun, then taskonomy is the way to go, where things used together are placed near one another, where any one item might be located logically within the taxonomic structure but also wherever behaviorally appropriate for the activities being supported.

Provide The Context

However it is unfair to say that logical reasoning is the culprit. It is an oversight on the part of designers. It is important to realise that users carry out actions on a piece of content after it is discovered. Taxonomy is very effective in providing navigation and discoverability of content. However, once found, the software should provide the context to the user. Supporting the activities is part of providing the context. The context is a direct result of the purpose of the user to use the software, visit the website, use the car dashboard or visit the city library.

Once the purpose is established, the context(s) can be identified. Although it is entirely user centric, more factors contribute to the context. If it is the software, then the layout design, the usability design, the usage patterns and more importantly tracking the usage history are part of providing the context. Some of this can be gathered when the requirements are being identified, and some has to be built when the software is being used. Usage patterns can be developed for certain users and corresponding contexts can be provided.

The Desktop

Will it help if the desktop is activity centric rather than application centric? How many end users want to know and want to be worried about installations and uninstallations of applications? The common man uses computer to carry out activities. Each type of the user has to carry out different activities, the home user, the employee, the student, the teacher, the developer, the marketing personnel – all have different use of the computer. Why is the desktop same for all of them? Why is the desktop not engineered according to their activities?

A solution is to change the interface – the desktop manager. It should carry activities like browse the internet, check email or write a letter rather than shortcuts to applications. This tells the user to carry out his/her tasks rather than start and close applications. The activities and underlying tasks can vary per user.

The challenge here is to take something as generic as a desktop manager and specialise it for a user, and still stay generic at the core. This requires deep understanding of the users types and their possible activities. It is also important to not limit the user to certain functionalities, but to be flexible so that it can be customized per user.

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Copyright Abhijit Nadgouda.

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