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Friday, October 12, 2007

Sterile Design Environments vs. Fertile Design Environments

When you've been at something as long as I have, and witnessed first hand the desktop revolution growing up from the first dos machine to the internet and world-wide web, you arrive at the point where you feel you can form some opinions about design. I have worked in the computing field in one way or another for twenty-five years, mostly designing solutions from the tools at hand.

I have worked in computer shops and it departments. Those were my sterile design environments. That's probably a misnomer. They were rich in access to technology, often the newest technology. They were rich in access to creative and capable colleagues in the IT field. But they were sterile in the sense that they were not intimately "wedded to" or "situated in" the areas they served. In a sense their knowledge and skills lived in a vacuum.

Then I have actually worked in jobs where I had to design tools for myself and for a whole group of people to solve a problem we were all grappling with. That kind of job is fertile in that your computer knowledge does not sit in a vacuum with nothing to do and you have inner access to the people and problems that you design solutions for. In fact part of the art of design is engaging users to design solutions along with you.

While the knowledge and skills from the first environment are essential, I think that designing in the second environment produces better products.

It makes sense in the light of modern learning theory which espouses "situated" learning and constructivism.

I have two degrees (well, three actually, but two technology and design related) - an associates degree in computer programming technology and a masters degree in educational technology. I think the two complement each other well. Both teach systems design. However, as I often say, educational technology fills in some gaps in systems design theory, especially when you are designing tools to scaffold people's cognition. And today, with the information boom, and the cognitive overload that inevitably results, those type of tools are more needed than ever. In fact, I think and predict that providing tools that help people effectively manage and use the amount of information that is available to us today and that is required today will be one of the greatest and growing requirements and fields of this new information age - right behind, if not alongside, the computer security field.

Traditionally systems or design theory teaches (sort of) that if you build it they will come. Modern learning theory and constructivism says instead, if they build it, they will use it. This is more than just change management and 'buy-in". Knowledge is socially constructed and negotiated - if something is to be used, it must go through some process of social knowledge construction. If something is designed in isolation, people won't even know it exists and they certainly won't use it. And we've all heard the horror stories about systems "passed down from on high."

Not that these were bad systems. They just neglected to go through an important part of the process.

Tools that scaffold cognition must provide an evironment and the tools for the user to construct and negotiate knowledge. Too often we want to say "out with the old and in with the new," in one fell swoop. This is a mistake.

Windows SharePoint Services provides the environment and tools to help employees manage information overload both in a "top down" and "bottom up" sort of way. Kudos to Microsoft - hey you guys do it right once in a while! ;)

More on this topic later.

JuneBug

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