Capturing better data

Håkan Eftring, Bodil Jönsson, Charlotte Magnusson

User Talk, Issue 6, pp 4­5, Autumn -95.

The potential for better insight into user's requirements through iterative prototyping

This article aims at introducing to a wider circle a complementary research approach in user oriented work. Its most fundamental part is the use of technology as a tool for capturing the needs, wishes and dreams of a user.

The incitement for us to start developing this method was an experience based, serious, questioning of conventional methods such as interviews, questionnaires, etc, and their capability of revealing user requirements without the users and the researchers being familiar with the technology in question.

Mental models developed through iterative prototyping is a key factor in our approach. We consider it necessary to focus on the mental models of the user as well as of the researcher, and on the interference between these models. Unless they produce similar predictions and observable results, their value is limited.


Users need inner pictures and good mental models for expressing their needs. The confrontation with a technological device forces a person to express wishes and opinions, thereby improving her self understanding. This confrontation also makes the person create, revise or refine the mental model of the technology in question. At the same time she might develop a desire to widen her technological experience. The result of this desire might be both an increased understanding of her own actual needs and an improved mental model of the device.

<picture, Isaac>

A tool for thought: Without actually using Isaac, it has turned out close to impossible to realise its potential.

When the usage of a device interferes with experienced needs, information is obtained about user requirements. These can be expressed in terms of technological devices, as well as in terms of appreciation, inconveniences, and suggested changes in design.

The number of instances necessary to obtain a reliable description varies with the complexity of the needs of the user. The instances in question may be either several different devices aimed at the same person, or the same device tested by many people with different needs. In the first case the result will be an analysis of the individual needs of a user, while the second case will result in a description of a special but common need.

<picture, CERTEC clock>

Expressing a need: The design of this CERTEC clock illustrates the need for discrete, one dimensional, linear representations among people with certain cognitive impairments.

Researchers and Developers

Researchers and developers are often accused of solving problems before having understood them. This may be a problem, but treated the right way it may actually turn into a possibility by serving as the starting point in an iterative process.

The focusing on the technological device as both an aid and a tool for understanding, also removes the uncertainty of which situation it is that is being investigated. Using technology as a tool ensures that the situation under observation involves the user in his surrounding actually using his equipment.


In most cases there is a need for successive prototypes. One by one they lead to an increased overlap of the mental models of the user and the researcher/developer. In a sense we are talking not of HMI, Human Machine Interaction, but of HHI - Human Human Interaction supported by the machine.

<picture, Folke>

HHI: The demonstration of the remotely controlled vacuum cleaner 'Folke' started an extremely lively discussion in a previously silent audience.

So far we have only concerned ourselves with one or a few users, devices, researchers or developers. There is a larger issue as well - how to tackle the interaction between mankind and its artifacts, MTI, Mankind Technology Interaction? The use of cars has changed not only our physical environment, but also the way we think. How will ITism, for example, change our society, and thus the user requirements?

A Moving Target

A technological device will, per definition, soon be replaced by something new and probably better. Hitting this moving target requires knowledge on another and deeper level than the momentary adjustment of a single artifact. Thus, our goal is not the resulting technological device, but instead the enhanced insight gained into the underlying needs, wishes and dreams.


Expressing vague and diffuse concepts, such as needs, wishes and dreams, in terms of observable devices has several advantages.

The device is there. Its design might be premature, under development or final, but the object exists materially in the environment of the users as well as the researchers and the developers. Often the device is visible, touchable etc. This eliminates the risk of a complete misunderstanding.

However, also visible objects lead to different inner pictures and mental models in different persons. This strengthens rather than diminishes the need for external devices and situations that are unambigous, might be referred to over and over again by different persons and might enable truly unanimous descriptions and decisions. These preconditions make possible an experience based translation and transfer of knowledge into the design of new devices.

Our experience is that by systematic use of this method one gets results that have not been achievable earlier.

Bodil Jönsson

Charlotte Magnusson

Håkan Eftring