Subtleties of systems design

Relatively small, simple changes to the design of a system can have profound effects on the effectiveness and acceptability of the system to the users. 

(This probably won’t be news to anyone reading this, but I keep coming across it in so many places.  It’s definitely somewhere in my Top Ten Things In Educational Technology That Are Well-Known Or Ought To Be, below “More research required”, “Learners can fail to understand things in ways you never imagined” and “Trying to use one teaching method as if it were a different teaching method probably isn’t a great idea”, but perhaps above “Asking whether technology-enhanced learning is better than other forms is not a very illuminating question”.)

Anyway – my example for today of small systems changes is CCTV.  The UK is covered in “security” cameras.  This includes an awful lot of cameras pointing at roads. 

In England, only the Government can see what’s on those cameras.  Oh, plus anyone the Government decides to let look at them.  So your experience as a user is of being spied on: you see all these cameras, and imagine that the people watching them might be up to no good. It’s creepy and feels like you’re being snooped on.  Hence scare stories like this one about US agencies being allowed to spy on UK motorists

In Wales, the Welsh Assembly has made live images from the cameras on the motorways freely available on the web.  You can zoom in on your favourite bit of the M4, click on a camera icon, and see what’s going on right now.  (There’s even handy ‘typical views’ for comparison with the current view.)  All of a sudden, your experience changes.  The cameras start to look like a useful social tool to you.  And  when you think of the people watching those cameras you think, blimey, that must be one hell of a boring job.

Such a small change in systems terms, but a huge one in the user experience.  (Or at least in mine – I certainly feel a lot happier on the M4 in Wales than in England.)  And another example of how making stuff openly available can often get you much more benefit than restricting it (though not always).  Which is probably another for my Top Ten – hmm, I think this may be heading for a Top Fifty if I’m not careful.

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Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.