Users have a special knowledge, and an intimate familiarity with data and process.   Listening to them informs us.  Watching how users work with our prototype system design lets us refine the design, so that it is clearer, more intuitive, easier to use, and harder to miss-use.

Listening is an attentive and active process that that requires focus and energy. Too many system design projects are based on untested assumptions — when listening to and watching users could have created a much better result.

Design is not cleaning up the mess, or adding ornamentation at the end.  It’s a process of thinking, organizing, trying, testing, reworking, creating anew, refining, honing, and more.  Successful systems work because they are well conceived, and responsive to user needs, styles, wishes, and habits.  They continue to work because they are well structured, and can be easily maintained and enhanced.

A successful user interface design defines  a process by which users interact with many elements of their work world.  It’s much more than just a pretty set of screens.


This was written in 2002.  I’m amazed to find how relevant it is today — even with all the changes that have taken place.

I help design computer systems for business applications, and so you might expect me to extol the virtues of computer systems in this column.  But — quite the contrary — I offer here my observations on the overuse of computers, on the danger of excessive reliance on this technology, and on the need for creative vision.

To many of my clients, and would be clients, I am, of course, a priest of this technology.  Clients bow to me, expecting that my knowledge of computer technology uniquely qualifies me to design a role for computers in their organizations.  I remember one client in Holland begging me for a “great purchasing system” to compliment the scheduling tool I had given his organization.  But when I asked him what problems this system should solve, he was mute.  He could not tell me whether the critical problem was vendor selection, quality control, scheduling full truck loads, lead time, or what.  And yet, without me, he was running the purchasing department, and must have been sensitive to such issues and knowledgeable about which were in control and which were not.

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