Monday, 16 February 2009

JISC Developer Happiness Days

I attended the JISC Developer Happiness Days in London this week, an event organised by JISC to bring together developers and users of education software to exchange ideas and learn some new technologies. The very first Lightning Talk I attended on Tuesday was Paper Prototyping, a user-centric based approach to graphical user interface design using sketches, post-its, paper and scissors. The approach is simple, common-sensical and appealed to me because of my personal belief that an ingredient of successful software projects is a high level of user-developer/designer interaction. It provoked a lot of discussion between developers I spoke to afterwards about whether it would be useful in their projects and it got me thinking about DataShare and other JISC funded projects I have been involved with as a developer in the past year.

The Edinburgh DataShare repository to date has struggled to attract users, a situation common for many institutional repositories it would seem. However, to my mind, with repositories the most important users are the repository manager and community levels administrators (interaction by ordinary end users, who submit items, is brief and probably not so important). Admins are not only site/community administrators but are usually heavily involved in the ingest process (depositing orphaned items for example), so their usage coverage tends to span the whole application. They are the users that will really suffer when the usability of a system is poor. For this reason they should be central to the design process.

At the event, I also heard the view that stakeholders, not end users, are the key to successful projects - keep the managers happy and everyone is happy. Certainly, the stakeholders should be involved in defining what the system should do, but if they won't be using the system their input on how the system is implemented is not so useful. On the Tuesday there were 'UberUser' sessions, where students, lecturers, researchers and administrators could talk about existing application problems (that developers could potentially work on for the Hackathon competition). Combined with paper proto-typing this seems a much more sensible approach.

On the other hand I heard the following view expressed at one of the lightning talks: "Don't ask users what they want, ask them what problem they would like solved." In other words leave the implementation to developer/designers and people who understand web interface usability methodologies. Furthermore, at the repository community meeting on Thursday the question was asked why current repositories are simply digital versions of a library (i.e not Web 2.0) : "We did what the librarians asked," was the response.

As I am not a usability expert, and don't have particularly strong opinions about how GUIs should look and behave, I would personally feel uncomfortable with this approach. In any case, if the librarians that attended the Repository Fringe in Edinburgh last year are typical it would seem that if librarians and repository developers got together for a few paper prototyping sessions now the repository world would look a lot different.

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