Thursday, February 1, 2007

Human-Centered Intranet Design

Have you ever tried discussing Tolstoy with a vacuum cleaner? This is precisely how many users feel when trying to interact with their systems in a technologically driven work environment. And I do mean interact. Although the word is usually associated with social activity, interacting with technology is exactly what we're doing every time we sit in front of our computers.

There's an unfortunate disconnect between how humans naturally function and what a lot of technology delivers. Technology needs to function as an extension of our own abilities, but users are often left scratching their heads or pounding their keyboards in frustration. It's ironic that while intranets aim to bring workers together in collaborative effort they can also alienate individual users who struggle to decipher poorly developed or overly complicated systems. This makes about a much sense as creating more bureaucracy to eliminate red tape.

The human-computer relationship can be an uneasy one. But it doesn't, and shouldn't, have to be that way. Just as physical ergonomics is important to the health of the body, cognitive ergonomics is important to the health of the mind. Developers need to have a deeper understanding that regardless of what technology allows them to do, the end product must conform to the natural way in which humans work.

Human-System Disconnect

Users have always tried to reconcile the way in which they naturally work with how technology makes them work (or in some cases changes the way they work). For those not in a technology-driven field, or not used to working with computers beyond a word processor, this is not an easy task — especially when software is getting bigger; more elaborate; and consequently, more complicated.

We've all heard the same buzzwords associated with software — intuitive, user-friendly, easy-to-learn, ready out-of-the-box — but more often than not, users are in conflict, rather than in concert, with their systems. Simplicity is touted as a major selling point to convince users that what they're about to install or use isn't threatening. But user manuals end up longer than the code itself, system interfaces make users cross-eyed, and figuring out how to perform a task requires more effort than the task itself. This makes users feel as though they have to run a mile to gain an inch; and the payoff of technology, in the long run, isn't always apparent to those outside of IT.

This disparity in the human-computer relationship can be fueled by the manner in which software is developed. Too often solutions are created with technology as the primary focus, when it should be the users. This notion of human-centered design isn't a new one, but it's one that hasn't received the attention it should from developers.