EuroIA 2014 and activity diagrams

[May 2015] – I’m tending to refer to these things as “[key] activity descriptions” these days, since the “diagram” bit could sometimes be confusing. You could also refer to it as an “activity canvas”, too. Anyway…

I had the privilege of giving a quick talk at EuroIA 2014, entitled “Maybe there’s more to this than user-centered design?”. As you might have guessed, I think there is more: I wanted to explore and share some thoughts I had about how we approach UX design in complex settings like scientific service design (and others besides). In recent project work, I’ve been using modified activity diagrams to help me characterise apparently important activities. I thought this might be useful for other people, too.

Picture of activity diagram template

Picture of activity diagram template – click to download a PDF version

Selecting lenses for UX design work

Using photography as an analogy, I talked a bit about having different lenses through which to view our work. User-centered design is an extremely important one, but we can consider others. In particular, I mentioned activity-centered design, and how that seemed relevant to the kind of work I’m involved in.

Concentrating on users helps us learn about details, nuance, and particularly to develop empathy. This is like the macro lens that a photographer uses.
But in some cases, starting with the user as the unit of focus might not be the best idea. Certainly within science, “users” are very diverse, with hierarchies, sub-domains and differing uses of language. Perhaps more importantly, though, people frequently collaborate to perform activities and achieve goals, which only complicates things.

To understand this, we still need to get out there and meet people. We need to observe them, talk to them; to understand what they do and why. We still need to carry out research. I wanted to emphasise that we have different lenses through which we can view what we’re working on, and we’re free to switch between these as a project develops.

In complex settings, consider starting with activities

It might be useful sometimes to start at the other end of the scale; with activities, where we can learn about sequences, flows and the ecology of interactions that people perform. This is a bit more like a wide-angle lens.

Activity-centered design is something I’ve been interested in for a while but which also seemed like a bit of a fuzzy concept; something that isn’t very easy to apply to day-to-day work.

An article written by Mike Long in early 2013 got me thinking about it again, and reflecting on how I approach my work. I discussed it with other people involved in scientific service design, but also with friends who work with electronic health data, financial trading, and data visualisation. There were a lot of commonalities in terms of challenges and solutions, I found, and it put me in mind of Russ Ackoff’s concepts of systems thinking. In particular, the approach to considering systems functioning within larger systems.

I wanted to share the adapted activity diagrams that I’ve been using in project work, since I think these might give people a tangible, useful way to start capturing information at the activity scale, perhaps before choosing where to zoom in and explore tasks and users.

Just in case, here are the slides from my EuroIA 2014 talk


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