Understanding users key to system design, according to IST professor

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Technology has become an integral part of people’s lives, be it in the form of personal computers, mobile devices, household gadgets or automotive controls. According to Frank Ritter, a professor at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), it is essential for system designers to fully understand their users to develop effective interactive systems.

A book that Ritter co-wrote, “Foundations for Designing User-Centered Systems,” was recently published by Springer. The book describes the basic physiological, psychological and social factors that underpin why users do what they do. In addition, it explains how those factors can affect system design.

“What this book is trying to do is give you actionable theory and data of how people behave with technology,” said Ritter, who co-directs the Applied Cognition Lab with David Reitter at the College of IST.

The authors have developed “Foundations for Designing User-Centered Systems” to appeal to system designers and developers as well as to students who are taking courses in system design and human-computer interaction (HCI). The book reflects the authors’ backgrounds in computer science, cognitive science, psychology and human factors. Ritter’s co-authors for the book are Gordon Baxter (Systems Engineering Group, School of Computer Science, University of St. Andrews) and Elizabeth Churchill, director of HCI at eBay Research Labs. Between the three co-authors, they have designed, developed and conducted research into interactive systems in domains such as aviation, consumer Internet, health care, e-commerce, industrial process control and enterprise systems.

According to Ritter, system designers often possess sound technical expertise but lack foundational knowledge of how people behave. He said they often rely on folk psychology, or commonsense psychology, when designing systems. “Foundations for Designing User-Centered Systems,” he said, presents the fundamental knowledge that will help readers understand their users’ capabilities and limitations, the tasks those users will perform and the context in which they perform those tasks. Applying the lessons from the book, he added, will help readers to design interactive systems that are more usable, more useful and more effective.

Ritter said that he has used “Foundations for Designing User-Centered Systems” for the course of the same name that he teaches. The book has also been used for IST World Campus courses, at Penn State Commonwealth Campuses, and at other colleges and universities throughout the country, and in the United Kingdom and Europe. Any Penn State student can download the book for free on the Springer website, and instructors can use individual chapters of the book for their courses. Many other university libraries subscribe to Springer and can do this as well.

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Last Updated May 14, 2014