User Centered Design and beyond
There are a handful of synonymous terms I have been running into and using in the past few months. Most of us understand User-Centered Design (UCD) as a concept and practice. UCD helps us build successful information applications, including Web sites, that are usable by those that want to use them, have to use them, or are seeking the information contained within them. UCD does not fully focus on the developers, the project owners (clients or mangers), but puts the focus on the end users of the information or digital services. This approach to development provides a wonderful return for those that engage in this practice as it is demoralizing for those that have spent time or paid money for development to have an information application that is not used (if it is not demoralizing it could be time to find a new profession).
Information wants to be found by those that seek it and Web sites, applications, and poor interfaces should not stand in the way of those wishing to consume the information. Information should be prepared and presented with consumption in mind. Many times digital information is a service that is used to assist the consumer of not only that information but other elements like a person buying a product. In a sense we not only create User-Centered sites and applications but Customer Service tools. This focus is very helpful when working on a site that will serve as communication between an organization or person and another organization or person. The experience between these two parties in this information transaction should be effortless. Just like a physical experience we don't like standing in a long line only to get to the front of the line to have the person tell you they can not help you and you have to go to another location or that there is no process to get your money back. As customers we want effortless experiences in the physical world as well as our digital environments. Customer service has been a focus of the physical business world for years and UCD is the digital equivalent. UCD has as its focus providing not only an enjoyable experience to perform the task, but also a more pain free method of correcting errors and problems (the folks at 37 Signals call this contingency plan design and are ready and will in to teach those that do not understand it).
While customer service is mantra in the private sector, Citizen Services or Citizen-Centric Services are becoming the focal point for the public sector. Governments have learned and have turned their digital focus on the citizens. Yes, governments are beginning to "get it". It is not about the technology, but about the consumer of the services. One of the central tenets of a governments is providing services. One of these services is gathering, aggregating, and providing information. Getting the information into the hands of those wishing to consume this information has been the struggle. Not many years ago we had learned to use a Post Office box in Colorado for a government clearing house for information, now we should only need a Web browser.
The government was one of the first entities to take advantage of the Internet to post information. Some U.S. federal government agencies created sites as early as 1993 and have been keeping them running ever since. More and more the government created sites and posted information. The down side was there was little of anything other than general Internet search engines to get the user to the information or service they desired. In the past year or two this focus has begun to move from just posting information where it was grown (in what appears to most citizens to be arcane bureaucratic and political organizations with undecipherable acronyms) to tying these information repositories to central jumping off points. FirstGov is the mother of the effort and has been guiding the Citizen-Centric focus. Many agencies have turned their eGovernment offices and staff toward the mindset of providing electronic Citizen-Centric services. Many agencies are working to provide jumping off points to information and services that are commonly sought and now available on the Internet. These portals remove the morass of acronyms and the need to understand organizational structures for the common citizens that have paid their taxes and are looking for a return on that investment in the form of electronic information or digital services.
Yes, many of us are now fixing the mess of information digitally thrown onto the Internet by providing structure to this information and making it findable and usable by the people interested in consuming the information or the products the information provides a gateway to. We now have the User-Centered Design umbrella to tie the roles and processes together that we use to help the User, Customer, or Citizen. These handful of terms are used for the same focus that makes the digital world a less frustrating, more friendly, and usable environment.