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Analytic 15 - Looking back - seven years of El.pub (Part 2)

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Contents
Introduction
Authoring and the digital revolution
IPR and content management
User centred design, personalisation and VR
Accessing knowledge and the arrival of digital libraries
Interoperability and standards
Conclusions

User centred design, personalisation and VR

When we launched EL.pub we were funded under the Information Engineering part of the 5th FP. An important aspect of the programme was to raise awareness and application of 'usability' in designing applications and their interfaces. Since then developers have become more aware of user centred design and the methods available. Although it could be argued that there has not been the hoped for application of formal usability testing methods, perhaps because of a lack of good marketing on the part of the usability community, there has certainly been a marked improvement in interfaces and help facilities, generated by a mixture of transfer of good design through osmosis and continuous pressure from a few high-profile gurus like Jakob Nielsen (http://www.useit.com/alertbox.html).

The importance of designing good navigation systems for web sites has been clear thoughout, pushed by the e-commerce community and the easy availability of web site statistics from the hosting services. Being awarded (or fearing award) of a citation as worst website of the week must also have affected the aspirations of designers. The shift to using browsers to display information in non-web environments has also applied a sort of de facto standardisation that has made good practice easier to identify. Nevertheless best practice is still not common.

We have often pointed out, in analysis for our readers and the Commission that videogames designers seem to overcome the problems of ease of use and succeed in designing products that can be used out of the box with a minimal learning curve, whereas commercial software designers seem helpless in this regard. Whether this is because game designers are often themselves users, a good start in getting any interface or functionality right, or simply because the entertainment industry is focussed on getting the experience right, first time, is another area of RTD that has been neglected. Indeed most of the business software interfaces have drifted to a standard MS look and feel, that has not changed significantly in the past ten years.

User centred design RTD does not appear to have much connection into two areas to which it is critical. Personalisation is a topic that has received much attention in IST programmes without a real focus on requirements analysis. Virtual / augmented reality is a technology or rather a group of technologies that are often described as being in search of an application. One can argue that, conversely, they are a vision of the future of the human-computer interface that has failed, so far, to find adequate technologies to deliver the promised functionality.

Personalisation was originally seen as the ability to deliver to a potential e-customer just that information that he required to make a decision in favour of the vendor. 'Push' was the keyword and it failed, first by being too 'pushy', and second by failing to deliver. The push aspect has unfortunately descended into an avalanche of spam that is now seen as a major problem for the Internet. In any case, the idea that every time a client connects to a web site, his past actions are a good predictor of the information he is seeking in the current visit, is a ludicrous proposition. The fact that many visitors to web sites stay such a short time is probably more a condemnation of the search engines and poor typing skills than an indication of bad page design. The human eye can discern very rapidly whether the web site appearing is likely to be relevant and often takes a quick and negative view. If you are hoping to see the British Broadcasting Corporation site and see the heading Bangalore Bridge Club appearing you will hit the back button fast. Concentrating on providing quick and accurate identification of the site, and making navigation efficient once the reader has decided to stay are good practice.

A more important aspect of content personalisation is customisation. In e-learning, the ability to customise the training to the prior skills and knowledge of the learner and the ability to customise the pedagogic method and speed of learning to the capabilities of the learner are potentially the major factors in the success of e-learning itself. This point applies not only to formal learning environments but also to informal learning situations such as the use of software (help systems), online support systems, just-in-time training and knowledge dissemination in knowledge management systems.

The treatment of VR in publicly funded research programmes tends to reflect the problems noted above. There is no clear idea of what VR is for, just a vague desire to add it into whatever else is going on: e-commerce, digital content, e-culture … Meanwhile, new companies appear, older companies disappear. There are visions of new forms of entertainment, learning, interaction, communication that VR could enable. However, there is little R&D directed at measuring what the real impact might be (practical feasibility and cost/benefit), nor at determining a roadmap and analysis of obstacles that need to be overcome to turn the vision into reality. The R&D is ad hoc, directed at software and hardware tool development without a clear requirement analysis for the end product rather than the tool, or aimed at isolated application development. User centred design principles should be applied in this area coupled with a set of clear, if limited, guidelines for intermediate objectives.

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