I recently attended an event that was hosted by the Inclusive Digital Economy Network. The network, led by the University of Dundee, comprises of a variety of groups who wish to collectively ensure that people are able to take advantage of digital technologies.
The event was led by Prof Alan Newell from Dundee. Alan gracefully introduced a number of keynote speakers; the vice-chancellor from City University, the dean of Arts and Social Sciences and representatives from the government and the funding body: the EPSRC.
One really interesting part of the day was the use of 'theatre' to clearly illustrate the difficulties that some people can have when using information technology. I had heard about the use of drama when I have spoken to people from Dundee before but this was the first time I was able to witness it. In fact, I soon found out that I was going to witness a film premiere!
After the final credits had appeared, I was surprised to discover that two of the actors who played central roles in the film were in the audience. The film was not the end of the ‘theatre’ event, it was the beginning. The actors carried out an improvisation (using questions from the audience) that was based upon the roles we had been introduce to through the film.
The notion of drama and computing initially seemed to me to be a challenging combination, but any scepticism that had very quickly dissipated once the connections between the two areas became plainly apparently. Drama and theatre relies on characters. Computer systems and technologies are ultimately used by people. The frustrations that people encounter when they are using computer systems manifest themselves in personal (and collective) dramas that might be as small as uttering the occasional expletive when your machine doesn't do what it supposed to do, to calling up a call centre to harass an equally confused call centre operative.
The lessons of the 'computing' or 'user' theatre were clear to see: the users should be placed centre stage when we think about the design of information systems. They may understand things in ways that designers of systems may not have imagined. A design metaphor that might make complete sense to an architect may seem to be completely nonsensical to an end user who has a totally different outlook and background. Interaction design tools such as creating end user personas are powerful tools that can expose differences and help to create more usable systems.
I remember a couple of important (and interesting) themes from the day. One theme (that was apparent to me) was occasional debate about the necessity to ensure that users are involved with the design of systems from the outset to ensure that any resulting products and systems are inclusive (user led design). This connected to a call to 'keep the geeks from designing things'. In my view, users must be involved with the creation of interactive systems, but the 'geeks' must be included too. The reasons for this being that the geeks may imagine functionality that the users might not be aware exits. This argument underlines the interdisciplinary nature of interaction design (wikipedia).
Much of the focus of the day was about how technology can support elderly people; how to create technologies and pedagogies that can promote digital inclusion. Towards the end of the day there was a panel discussion from representatives from Help the Aged, a UK government organisation called the Technology Strategy Board, the BBC, OFCOM and the University of York.
Another them that I remember relates to the cost of both computing and assistive technologies. There was some discussion about the possibility of integrating internet access within set top boxes (and a couple of comments relating to the Digital Britain report that was recently published by the UK government). There was also some discussion about the importance of universal design (wikipedia) and tensions with personalised design (which connects to some of the themes underpinning the EU4ALL project).
Another recollection from the event was that some presenters stated that although there is much excellent work happening within the academic community (and within other organisations) some of the lessons learnt from research are often not taken forward into policy or practice. This said, it may be necessary to take the recommendations from a number of different research projects to obtain a rich and complete understanding of a field before fully understanding how policy might be positively influenced. The challenge is not only combining and understanding the results from different projects, but communicating the results.
Projects such as the Inclusive Digital Economy Network, from my outsiders perspective, attempt to bridge the gaps between different stakeholders and facilitate a free exchange of ideas and experiences that may point towards areas of investigation that can allow us learn more how digital technologies can make a difference to us all.
Acknowledgements: many thanks are extended to the organisers of the event – an interesting day!