People-Centred Information Systems Development

Julie Ward and Clare Stephenson


Our paper was conceived during our undergraduate course, and is continuing to expand with our life and work experiences. We feel our work has close links with the ethical issues in computing today, and this will be examined in detail through our principles of design and two case studies, where our ideas were put into practise. Through the case studies we were able to document how our principles were easily transferrable into “real life” situations and proved highly successful for all involved.

The 14 principles

The main points that influence our principles of systems design are closely linked to Pain et al (1993). Human-Centred Systems Design, they are as follows:

  • The empowerment of people is more important than the efficiency of the organisation.
  • The provision of good information facilitates empowerment.
  • Communication, commitment, co-ordination, and co-operation should permeate any project. Control should not be the primary concern.
  • The organisational context of a problem situation needs to be as fully understood as possible before any systems design can take place.
  • To achieve the above analysts need to become a part of the organisation to fully understand the context.
  • We aim to facilitate participative design, which should also be emancipatory by the inclusion of all groups in the organisation and the breaking up of power groups.
  • The dynamics between people in the organisation need to be analysed and taken into account for any new system to work.
  • There is a need to take a bottom-up and top-down approach simultaneously. This could also be viewed as inside-out and outside-in development.
  • As analysts we need to be sympathetic to the difficulties that occur when raising levels of IT awareness.
  • We need to continue to develop our abilities in alleviating people’s fears surrounding technology.
  • The framework should evolve to suit the context of the problem space; it should bedynamic.
  • As analysts we should not walk away as soon as a system is in place.
  • A technical solution is not always the best answer.
  • The organisation should be left with a sustainable and maintainable system which empowers the people by providing the information they require.

Our working practice places emphasis on qualitative rather than quantitative analysis. This we feel allows for ethical considerations to become part of the solution space. We act as agents of change, while using a “hands-on” approach within the organisations, because we recognised that mainstream formal methods alone are inadequate.

The similarities between the following case studies are that they were both small organisations with very limited IT knowledge. However they were very different in structure and in their levels of available technology.

Case Study One

The Care Forum (TCF) is an umbrella organisation in the voluntary sector who promotes the participation and involvement of voluntary user-led and carer groups in the development and planning of health and social care services.

Within this case study we tackled

  • Practical day to day problems with a bottom up strategy.
  • We set up an IT slot in the weekly staff meetings.
  • We facilitated them in the use of good working practices, which would enhance their image to outside organisations.
  • We repeatedly went back to different users for clarification of their understanding of the use of technology and their organisational needs.
  • We swopped jargon sheets and continually added to these
  • We were committed to being as approachable as possible and not setting ourselves up as ‘the experts in their office’.

Case Study Two

Bristol Friends of the Earth (Bristol FoE) is a very proactive organisation, whose main aim is to campaign on local environmental issues and to support and empower groups and individuals to help provide a sustainable future for the world. Members of Bristol FoE regard themselves primarily as front line campaigners, whose office and fund-raising activities come as secondary.

  • We did not set ourselves up as experts
  • We kept our language jargon-free
  • We identified with the FoE cause
  • We were not afraid to ask them for information
  • We were able to be flexible because we were not restricted by a rigid methodology
  • Our working style is creative, innovative, and adhoc, which mirrors that of the organisation. We are both equally unstructured (in the traditional sense) yet extremely effective
  • We consciously chose to wear casual clothes, being aware that dressing differently would not fit in with the organisational culture and would quite probably put up barriers

We believe that People-centred Information Systems Development is a way of life, it is not something that has been invented but is an evolutionary framework. It needs a philosophical shift in thought and is not something that can just be picked up and used like formal methods. There are no pre-defined sequence of events as it requires experiential and “tacit” knowledge to be successful.