Companies working in information and communication technologies (ICTs) spend much of their time and budget on research and development trying to identify customer demand. In an effort to take the guesswork out for future designers, a research team at The University of Melbourne and representatives of Novell, a global net business solutions company, have joined forces in a research program, called Customers of the Future.

The program, which began in 2000 to investigate the use of mobile phones by young Australians, has just received an Australian Research Council grant to test a model of “technology appropriation”, developed by the research team.

The research will specifically examine the social and personal use of mobile devices by the 16 to 22 year age bracket. 

The model looks at methods for the design of new technologies for young Australians, assisting companies to design and develop products that users need and are able to use.

The popular palm pilot was invented using this kind of model of design. The inventor, Jeff Hawkins, walked around for a year with a block of wood (roughly the size of the not yet invented palm pilot) and every time he thought of something he wished he could do with the block of wood (in an IT sense) he wrote it down on a list.

When he came to develop the palm pilot he only included the features that were on his list. The developers tried to include other functions, like video etc, but he said he had never had the need for video in the entire year so it wasn’t necessary – thereby eliminating confusing and dumb technology ideas. 

The “technology appropriation model” expresses the transformation of technology, as envisaged by the designer, into technology, as adopted by the user. The process of appropriation is the way technology is explored evaluated and adopted or rejected by users. 

Dr Greg Trainor, Vice President Strategy and Professional Services Asia Pacific for Novell, believes the project will have a significant impact on return on investment for new technologies.

“We will be able to tailor and develop the application of solutions and products more closely to consumer needs, enabling IT companies to cut research and development costs substantially,” he said.

“Over the last three years research by Novell and the University of Melbourne has created an ‘appropriation model’ for understanding customer behaviour
in relation to emerging technologies and proposed techniques for defining requirements for new mobile devices.

“The grant will now enable us to put this model through rigorous testing, resulting in a proven method for defining customer demand for future, existing and anticipated technologies worldwide.

"Novell is interested in developing new technologies that will support customers – there’s little point in creating new gadgets, if they’re not both functional and easy to use. For example, how many people do you know who find all of the functions on a mobile phone, DVD player or PDA useful? And how many are easy to use?” said Trainor. 

Dr Steve Howard, Associate Professor in the University of Melbourne’s Department of Information Systems said the grant would facilitate a stronger focus for the program on the human issues relating to envisaged information communication technologies. 

“For too long ICT development has been driven by technology, this Commonwealth support will allow us to give convergence a strong user and customer focus – literally humanising technology development – thereby increasing the chances that new and innovative ICTs will be keenly adopted by an emerging customer base,” he said.

The preliminary findings of the project and the “Appropriation Model” have already been welcomed on the international stage with significant interest from the ICT and design communities in the United States and Scandinavia.

The Interaction Design Group is based in the Department of Information Systems at one of Australia’s leading research universities, the University of Melbourne and includes Associate Professor Steve Howard, Associate Professor Graeme Shanks and Dr Jennie Carroll.

The group draws researchers and research students from a wide range of areas including information systems, human computer interaction, graphic and industrial design, software engineering, commerce, psychology and anthropology. 

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