User Design

A précis of the main messages from the Carr-Chellman and Savoy, (2005) chapter on User Design. I’ve been considering their notion of insufficient research into user-design, the assertion that what has been done is poorly done, and their approach to improving the gap in this field.  Also covered will be a definition of user-design and closely related theoretical models such as user or learner-centered design, and emancipatory design. Briefly covered will be a negotiable alternative to the extremes of user involvement in a concept of ‘Third space” – Participatory Design.

Main Messages:
Within the field of User Design, there is almost no research pertinent to instructional systems. Additionally there are significant gaps and problems within research of the closely related fields of user centered design, learner centered design and emancipatory design. Partly because of the extreme difficulty inherent in the approach and, just as importantly, the lack of political will.  I also believe that a commitment to research in User Design won’t have anything like an ROI that would gain support from any organisational leaders.

This is particularly relevant  in light of the current thinking about the most appropriate methodologies to teach “the Millennials”1, in secondary education. This is currently still a spoon-fed environment where the students have no input as to what is studied, not even why, when or how. They are deemed to have insufficient ability and expertise to make decisions on what to learn and how to be part of the learning design. So expecting User Design to have any part in producing educational material or scaffolds for use in secondary education is stymied from the outset, research supporting User Design or not. Carr-Chellman and Savoy discuss a reason behind this in a paragraph considering obstacles to User Design. The relinquishing of power by the current ‘deciders’ of what is to be taught is unlikely. Students rarely if ever make input to the nature and content of their lesson and course structure. In part this might be determined by the end point of secondary education; the exam system.  Should students be elevated to partnership in producing curriculum material it may be felt that there is unreasonable advantage to them when assessment is required.  Certain levels of attainment are needed in order for students to ‘progress’ through the echelons of education. This requirement and structure have been in place since it served industrial age society and will require radical rethinking to change this mind set. (after; Gilbert. J.2005)

Yet, having said this, the teachers of the most successful classes (as measured by the results in the HSC) have an approach of allowing students some autonomy in their study. Student autonomy approach coupled with the associated difficulty in a User Design approach may warrant some middle ground work such as that of participatory design.

Research can be improved (according to Carr-Chellman and Savoy) with a clear shared language around User Design concepts, in a similar way to requiring a vocabulary to support pattern design methodologies. This will go some way to removing any confusion with other but closely related methodologies such as User Centered design or Learner Centered design. Additionally it will more sharply focus the specific goals of User Design and the broader political considerations than would be in place with the other methodologies listed here. This is imperative for further significant research.

Other stumbling blocks will be removed by a shift in values.  Whereas traditional research models have been value neutral, Carr-Chellman and Savoy believe Participatory Action Research (PAR) will, with its focus on organisational improvements through and via the community involvement will be of benefit to User Design research.

These considerations are important to raise the user from any lesser participation level up to full partnership within the process with the associated elevation in power and control and input as the professional designer participants and ‘owners of the design process.

Methods and Methodologies.
The prime focus of the chapter is to define User Design. This might be best described the higher end of a continuum of methodologies which, to varying levels, involve the final user of the designed system.

User as recipient: In a method of ‘the professionals know best’ the final recipient of the designed learning experience is just that; a receiver (supposedly beneficiary) of the finished end product. To deal with as best befits their situation; such as it is in secondary education. The official learning requirements and activities are handed down from official “Boards of Studies”, situationally reconstructed by teachers and finally ‘delivered’ to students.

User-Centered design puts more focus on the end recipient and empowers them to engage authentically in the process by which the end product is created. This does require a shift in thought that the professional is only as equally important as the recipient who will have to deal with the outcome and hence add value to the organisation through it’s worth and usefulness. There is flexibility present in this methodology from having the user as a participant – to the benefit of the organisation primarily and the user secondarily – through to the end user being the genuine focus of the design process and also best to befit from the process. The balance here is between stakeholders (such as the owners or managers of the organisation) the participants and users. That balance is well described in the ‘Continuum of empowerment in user participation levels” in Carr-Chellman and Savoy.

Where as User Centered design puts focus on the input value of the end user, Emancipatory Design takes the mission of empowerment beyond the user being of value in the design process, to create situational transformation or to otherwise alter some significant and often historically intractable aspects of society.  Here it is beginning to merge with political constructs and away from mere design of end user systems or instructional artifacts.

User Design is different from but has aspects of these methodologies. Obviously, user focused, but it elevates the user to full partnership status with the professional designer and other stakeholders, along with the associated rise in value and decision making capacity in the process that is design. This leads to greater buy-in from the final recipient through genuine ownership of the creation process. The assumption is that the experience of the end user is as valuable an asset as those the professional designers bring to the design activities. It is important to note it is more than simple user-based design and certainly more that just high level user involvement. There must be an underlying assumption of the value of the user as designer. This is where negative issues of User Design stem from. The user/designer may have no or little capacity to engage with professional designers, personality differences in individual user/designers will have impact on the process, there may not be a common language or common ground to work from. But, while User Design embraces the inherent conflict the ensuing lengthy negotiation and iterative processes make User Design a lengthy and resource costly process.

Sensible middle ground might be found in Participatory Design, within the Third Space in HCI (Muller, M.J. 2003)

This design methodology proposes practices that are neither the workers (user) domain nor the professional designers domain, but an inbetween region that shares attributes of both.  This allows for exchange leading to new insights and mutual benefit. The similarities with User Design come mostly in the underlying assumption of the process, both rely on challenging assumptions, learning reciprocally and creating new ideas which emerge through negotiation and co-creation of identities, working languages, understandings and relationships… across and through differences. Leading to a better, useable and functionally valuable end products, be that lesson plan, course structure or end user artifact.


Carr-Chellman, A.A. & Savoy, M. (2003).  User-design research.  In Jonassen, D.H. (Ed.), Handbook of research for education, communications and technology, 2nd ed., pp. 701-716.

Mahwah , NJ :  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gilbert, J (2005) Catching the Knowledge Wave? Wellington. NZCER Press.

Muller, M.J. (2003). Participatory design: The third space in HCI. In Jacko, J. and Sears, A. (eds.), Handbook of HCI. Mahway NJ USA: Erlbaum.

Leave a Reply