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The first example of UCD: The Olympic Messaging System

The Olympic Messaging System OMS was developed in order to provide a message service ("voice mail") and other support for the 10,000 athletes who attended the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles. This is considered the first example of user-centered design, although this is not a "typical" computer system, it shows how the principles of user-centered system design can be effectively utilized. The OMS worked in 12 languages but did not translate between them. The system proved very successful. It was well-used and well-liked.

Kiosks were placed around the Olympic village which allowed the athletes to send and receive messages among themselves. People from around the world could also send messages of congratulations, commiserations, or encouragement to the athletes and officials.

Examples of an Olympian receiving and sending a message are shown below:

Example messages, a user listening to a message (Gould et al. 1987: © 1987, Association for Computing Machinery, Inc)

Example messages, an Olympian sending a message user listening to a message (Gould et al. 1987: © 1987, Association for Computing Machinery, Inc)

The approach to the design of the OMS proceeded as follows. After some initial analysis of the requirements for the system, printed scenarios of the user interface were prepared. These were commented on by designers, management, and prospective users. As a result of this early evaluation, a number of the system functions were altered and others were dropped completely. The design team also produced brief guides aimed at explaining what the system did and how it worked. These were tested on the main user groups (Olympians, their families, and friends) and were developed iteratively (over 200 slightly modified versions were produced) before the final form was decided. Early simulations of the messaging system were also constructed and evaluated for the purpose of designing hep messages. These simulations were tested with users. One thing that these tests revealed, for example, was that an "undo" or "backup" key was required so that users could retrieve a previous position if they made a mistake (for example, entering a valid but incorrect country code).

An Olympic Message System Kiosk (Gould et al. 1987: © 1987, Association for Computing Machinery, Inc)

Many other methods were used to collect information about what was needed, including tours of the Olympic village sites, early demonstrations of the system, interviews with the different people involved in the Olympics, and discussions with an experienced ex-Olympian who was part of the design team. A prototype was then developed which was tested with different user groups. This resulted in many more iterations and retesting. Other methods used included the informal "hallway" method, which consisted of collecting opinions on the height and layout of the prototype kiosk from people who happened to be walking past, and the "try-to-destroy-it" tests in which computer science students were invited to test the robustness of the system by trying to "crash" it. Other details of the OMS can be found in Gould et al. 1987.

The design of the OMS demonstrates the importance of the three principles of user-centered design, from which our more general principles are derived. Gould and Lewis (1985) originally phrased these principles as follows:

  • To focus on users and their tasks early in the design process, including user guides, help, and ensuring that users' cognitive, social and attitudinal characteristics are understood and accommodated.

  • To measure reactions by using prototype manuals, interfaces, and other simulations of the system.

  • To design iteratively because designers, no matter how good they are, cannot get it right the first few times.

The OMS team identified one additional principle:

  • All usability factors must evolve together and be under the responsibility of one control group.

Gould et al. (1987) comment that "the extra work these principles initially require greatly reduces or later on". On the use of simulations, they point out that using live simulations (or prototypes) indicates how much a user must know to use the system. The approach of iterating the designs ensures that users' needs are constantly being kept central. Over the years user-centered system design has evolved from the original definition provided by Gould and Lewis (1985) and now includes almost any approach that emphasizes methods, techniques, and representations for software systems that place the user at the core of the development.

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