User-based Design: A Systems Design Method for An Instructional Smartphone Application Used in Design-based Research – FULLTEXT

Posted on Dec 18, 2010

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The following post is the fulltext of a paper written for IDE-800 Design-based Research, prof. Dr. Alan Foley.


User-based Design: A Systems Design Method for An Instructional Smartphone Application Used in Design-based Research


This paper reviews a segment of an ongoing Design-based Research (DBR) project where an iPhone application is proposed to close a knowledge gap through informal learning. It was observed that parents of children with disabilities often felt unprepared or uncertain about how to advocate for the needs of their children in the context of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process. An iPhone app – iAdvocate – was designed, developed and prototyped in collaboration with an SME and an instructional designer, and then placed into user testing. The results of user testing presented an opportunity to consider approaches for further development. Presented here is an alternative method for acquiring user needs, content relevance, and information organization based on the principles of User-based Design (UBD). UBD and Sense-making Methodology, rooted in Constructivist learning theory, form the basis for redesigning iAdvocate “from the ground up,” using a system of eliciting user-defined criteria, formation of step-taking, listing questions at each step, and describing how the answers helped users to move forward with their problem solving. It is proposed that using a problem-focused method will enable iAdvocate users to more efficiently locate useful information based on ordinal situational criteria that reflect authentic experiences rather than index-based criteria formed by an expert or a developer. Further, UBD mandates a user-participatory system to foster user input so that the knowledgebase becomes more inclusive. The UBD approach also potentially enhances the DBR process itself by producing a clear channel of communication between the researchers and practitioner/participants. The discussion here poses questions about the role of Instructional Design in a network-based informal learning context, and about interface design in Web pages, mobile applications, virtual reality, and augmented reality.


Using smartphone devices as an information delivery system used for instruction has become an area of interest for instructional designers. With over 1.211 billion smartphones sold worldwide in 2009 (Gartner, 2010), and as a relatively new and continuously evolving technology, it is incumbent on education researchers to explore the smartphone device paradigm to discover what works, and how it people use it.

This paper reviews a segment of an ongoing Design-based Research (DBR) project where a problem is identified for research and an instructional technology intervention – an iPhone application (Apple, inc. 2010a) – is proposed to close a knowledge gap through informal learning. The focus of this paper is an analysis of the first cycle of research, specifically in the theories of content organization used to plan and develop the prototype, for the purpose of informing the next cycle of research and application development.

Based on the results of prototype user testing and further analysis of the research problem, this paper proposes an alternative approach to content analysis and organization. We propose to close the knowledge gap through a socially constructed information system organized by principles of User-based Design (UBD), rather than solely through a systems-based index of data organized according to Instructional Design. The UBD approach would fundamentally reconfigure the architecture of the content and its organization within the iPhone application to orient it more in alignment with the way users perceive their needs, and retrieve information to solve problems.

It is argued here that using UBD as a basis for content organization and systems design can produce a more useful product for the user, and can create a more efficient method of co-orientation between researchers and practitioners in the DBR process. This paper recommends revisions to the design and development of the smartphone device app for use in the next cycle of DBR.


In 2009, Thomas Bull, a leader of the Syracuse University Parent Advocacy Center (SUPAC) – a support group for parents of children with disabilities – collaborated with Dr. Alan Foley, Assistant Professor, Syracuse University, School of Education/Instructional Design, Development & Evaluation, to develop a way to assist SUPAC members so that their children may have more opportunities for inclusion in their schools’ social and academic activities. The resources to accomplish this are often facilitated through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), where an analysis of the child and his or her needs is matched with the school resources for which he or she is entitled under state and Federal laws.

It was observed by Mr. Bull that parents of children with disabilities often experienced feelings of intimidation and uncertainty in advocating for the needs of their children in the context of the IEP process. The IEP process is a structured collaborative system created by local, state, and Federal public education systems to “… create an opportunity for teachers, parents, school administrators, related services personnel, and students (when appropriate) to work together to improve educational results for children with disabilities (US Department of Education, 2000, p.1),” often conducted as face-to-face meetings. In conversations with Mr. Bull through SUPAC, parents had expressed that they were often unprepared for their IEP meetings and wished there was a way to improve their advocacy skills.

The result of Dr. Foley and Mr. Bull’s collaborative efforts is an initiative to create a smartphone application, or “app”, for an iPhone that would provide informal learning to improve parents’ advocacy skills. Dr. Foley serves as the project manager, Mr. Bull is the subject matter expert (SME), and Syracuse University PhD student Kevin Forgard is the instructional designer. The project is named “iAdvocate,” and was presented by Dr. Foley as the subject for Design-based Research in September, 2010. The following represents the product of the first cycle of DBR study, with additional research to be conducted by others at a future date.


It is theorized that employing a smartphone application to deliver informal instruction would serve a meaningful role in improving parents’ advocacy skills in ways that were suitable to their lifestyle and needs (Traxler, 2010). This theory is predicated on the belief that the affordances of a smartphone device, as an untethered information technology, offer parents a unique ability to access information “anytime/anyplace,” unlike other information systems, such as a laptop or netbook tied to an Internet connection, a physical library or cooperative extension, or a text based medium (Klopfer, Squire & Jenkins, 2002). The near-universal access to information in a smartphone presents an opportunity to examine the effect of smartphone technology on how parents learn advocacy strategies and behavior.

As a guiding approach to iAdvocate’s instructional design, Forgard adopted principles of instructional design and development theory (Smith & Regan, 2005; Fleming & Levie, 1993) to organize the content provided by the SME. The resulting content analysis structure formed the basis for prototype development, which was subsequently placed into user focus group testing.

In reviewing the user responses to the prototype, a number of issues emerged. On the basis of these responses, and from an analysis of the original content organization, it is proposed that the next iteration of research and development of iAdvocate utilize a User-based Design framework. We propose that UBD principles, applied to iAdvocate development, would refine the identification of relevant content, organize it into steps, promote ease of navigation within the information system, offer flexibility for the system to re-organize and assimilate new data, and support users to accept roles in the system’s evolution.

Further, the use of UBD principles would provide the ancillary benefit of furnishing the DBR process with a channel of communication between the researchers and the participants that efficiently facilitates co-orientation in the feedback and formative development process.

Literature Review

There are a number of approaches that may be employed to address a knowledge gap problem. The underlying mission, no matter which approach taken, is to develop a system that will serve user’s needs, or in this case, the needs of informal learners as they intersect with an information system via a smartphone application. In this literature review, we review definitions of Informal Learning, followed by a review of the principles of User-based Design.

Informal Learning:

The definition of informal learning is agreed to be mostly “that which is not formal,” although there are differences in whether any formal learning is entirely devoid of informal aspects, or vice versa, and how the presence of intent delineates “informal” from “incidental” learning. Dewey’s definition of informal education is where “… subject matter is carried in the social matrix (Dewey, J., 1916, p. 212).” Informal learning, as an outcome of experiences between people, comprises vital information for sustaining society, containing that which is “put into practice,” and is “transmuted into character (Dewey, J., 1916, p.9-10)” through communication.

Livingstone (2001, p.2) distills kinds of informal education down to “… all forms of intentional or tacit learning in which we engage either individually or collectively without direct reliance on a teacher or an externally-organized curriculum…” with the primary agency of learning stemming from the learner, not a teacher, “… without the presence of externally imposed curricular criteria (p.3).”

Informal learning often occurs in irregular time and space patterns (Livingstone, 2001), is usually short-term and voluntary, may take place anytime and anyplace, may be additive or transformative, complementary or reinforcing to prior knowledge or experience (Schugurensky, 2000).

Schugurensky (2001) offers a taxonomy of informal learning, using the additional criteria of intentionality and awareness (see Table 1).

Form Intentionality Awareness
(at the time of learning experience)
Self-directed Yes Yes
Incidental No Yes
Socialization No No

Table 1: Three forms of Informal Learning

Note: Reproduced from Schugurensky (2001)

Cross (2009), however, states that, “… All learning is part formal and part informal; the proportions vary, but they are not different things…. Informal and formal learning are ranges along a continuum, not a dichotomy.”

Cross et al (2010) describe tenets of informal learning in the domain of professional development, though their meta-context is the experience of human interaction in knowledge sharing. These experiences may take place in a number of contexts, such as in casual conversations, social networking, trial and error, search observation, asking questions, collaboration, community, study groups, and Internet-based sharing applications (e.g. bookmark sharing, wikis, blogs, tweets, feeds, etc.). A strong social component to professional development is emphasized, stating, “beyond acquiring know-how, a professional hangs out with other professionals, builds relationships with others in the profession, and contributes to the collective wisdom of the profession… (Cross et al, 2010, p.32).”

At present, the network environment (e.g., Internet, World Wide Web, smartphone applications, social media, intranets, etc.) is keyed as the central factor in facilitating the collaborative sharing of experience to form meaning (Cross et al, 2010). Hart (in Jarache, 2010), borrowing from classic economic models, divides online communication into “stocks” (static, archived information), and “flows” (timely synchronous or asynchronous conversations between people), and urges a method to make sense of “stock” through “flows” of conversation in changing contexts. Ways to qualitatively improve collaboration in this environment include: clearing out obstacles to conversation, praising failed experiments, respecting the unorthodox or contrarian view, and helping others learn how to learn (Cross et al, 2010).

User-based Design:

User-based Design is a methodology for defining the boundaries of a pre-determined unit of analysis, or a domain within which a number of units of analysis may exist. UBD proposes a “from the ground up” approach to human needs analysis, rather than a traditionally prescribed analysis of needs based on a definition of expertise. Thus, it is firmly rooted in Constructivist social learning theory, and the dialogic of Communication theory as a means for defining the content and organization of an information system. Dervin’s research on Information-Seeking and Use theory is the driving principle behind the call for a user-based approach.

Research on Dervin’s Sense-making Methodology (SMM) was originally begun in 1972, influenced greatly by Carter’s discontinuity assumption (Carter, R.F., 1980), which states that reality is filled with “gaps” in the continuity of time, space, and between entities, and that solutions are needed to bridge these gaps. These gaps are always cognitive, sometimes physical (Dervin, 1989), and are imbued with uncertainties associated with change. Humans are active as agents in bridging gaps as they observe and cognitively move within their environment, and can improve their condition by collaborating with others linguistically for mutual benefit (Carter in Nilan & D’Eredita, 2008).

Sense-making Methodology proposes that messages are valued according to the situational logic of receivers, tied to specific times, places, personal histories and perspectives, both physically and psychologically. Dervin sees traditional knowledge object transmission models as too constraining to see the dynamic nature of human communication, and rejects the notion of the inherent “truth-value” of information based on the expertise or the external values of systems developers (Dervin, 2003). Reality, to humans, can sometimes be orderly or chaotic, but needs are always pursued systematically; there is always a need to create meaning through mediation and connection, and that there are differences in perspectives in the mediation process (Morris, 1994; Dervin, 2003).

The central focus of Dervin’s SMM is the portrait of humans and their needs as they move through situations in time and space, and the conditions that affect change, flexibility, rigidity, stability, and instability in the creation of their sense-making reality. Dervin, borrowing from Carter’s discontinuity model, describes this cognitive movement as “gappy,” meaning there are stopping points in the sense-making process that need to be bridged “where sense runs out” (Dervin, 1992). Dervin’s metaphor for this experience is the Situation-Gap-Use model (see Figure 1), which forms the triad of how a situation is interpreted and defined, how the gap is conceptualized, what is needed to bridge the gap, what tactics or innovations were engaged to bridge the gap, and how he or she proceeded after bridging the gap (Dervin, 1992).

Dervin's Model of Situation-Gap-Use

Figure 1. – Dervin’s Model of Situation-Gap-Use

Dervin’s method for eliciting the narrative of bridging gaps is the Micro-Moment Timeline Interview of experienced individuals, which seeks to discover “how” gaps were crossed rather than “what” gaps were crossed (Dervin, 1992). This method, used across a sample, results in a series of patterns, or steps, that were taken at each moment in the timeline where a need arose, what resources were needed to arrive at an answer, and how that answer helped the person to proceed. Attention is paid to problem solving practices, or “verbings,” that describe how problems were addressed, both cognitively and in “… [the] communicatings that make, reinforce, challenge, resist, alter, and reinvent human worlds (Dervin, 2003, p.141),” in the face of the barriers, constraints, struggles, power, and authorities that stood in their way. Additionally, this method values both useful outcomes and outcomes that were non-useful or hurtful.

Dervin’s situational framework illuminates Taylor’s (1982) definition of the unit of analysis, or “problem”. Taylor calls for a distinction between the kinds of problems people have in different situations (Morris, 1994), and the manner by which information systems may best serve them. For example, traditional database systems classify information according to subject or topic, such as to answer a “What do you want to know?” question. Taylor’s value-added approach, however, would imbue information, or “information packages”, with the ability to answer, “Why do you need to know it?” or “How will this information help you?” Kuhlthau (1993) adds to this, proposing that people in a state uncertainty seek meaning rather than answers to questions. To facilitate this, Taylor (1982) suggests that information systems need to “know”, or predict, how users will orient themselves to the system.

Taylor suggests, then, that information systems need to “know” precise characteristics about users or user groups in order to predict their needs (Taylor, 1982; Morris, 1994). Dervin, in contrast, believes that a problem/process-centered approach is a more efficient predictor of needs/use because it focuses on communicating how problems are overcome in dynamic situations rather than by statistical analysis of individual differences in a static condition (Dervin, 1991, Nilan & D’Eredita, 2008). This proposition – that human problems are dynamic and situated over time – leads to the creation of an epistemic position of the “user” within an information system whose criteria of content value must be considered paramount in order to predict his or her needs (Nilan & D’Eredita, 2008).

The “user-based” position, therefore, is focused on the experiences and dialogues that ultimately form ordinal patterns, or steps, that describe what actions were taken in the unit of analysis (or problem), the questions users had at each step, and how the answers were useful. These patterns form the organizational structure of content in an information system to serve user’s retrieval needs (Nilan & D’Eredita, 2008), and are, as extensions of authentic human experience, functional, more reliably useful/re-usable, and easily interpretable (Nilan & D’Eredita, 2008).

Further, the organization of content into ordinal steps punctuates each step as associated with and relevant to adjacent steps, making content navigable according both ordinal relevance and topical relevance, no matter from which perspective users approach the system. This element of the UBD approach is the primary point of difference from a systems-based approach, where topics are organized by arbitrary criteria, e.g., alphabetical order, string search relevance, or perceived topical importance according to an expert (Dervin & Nilan, 1986).

The resonance of the user-based position is magnified by the potential of the Internet and network systems to form large virtual communities congregating around narrowly defined problem spaces (Nilan & D’Eredita, 2008). From an information systems design perspective, these problem spaces are where human creativity must be constrained the least by the designers of the system (Dervin, 2003), must continuously allow user contribution to the content and organization of the knowledgebase, and must incorporate “a [design] structure whose interpretability approaches that of conversational interaction (Nilan, 1992, p. 121).”

Lastly, a distinction must also be made between the philosophical positions implied in the terms “user-based” and “user-centered” design, as they are often mistakenly used interchangeably. User-centered Design represents a philosophy and process of interface design where the user’s experience of usability is tested to inform design improvements (Norman, 2002). User-based Design represents a combination of both user-centered usability considerations and user-based criteria for information content, organization, and use patterns. User-centered design does not inherently assume use of UBD principles. For example, a traditional information-object based system, such as a “search and match” database, may be designed employing user-centered interface design methods, though the system design itself will not at all reflect user-based content and organization.

Methods: iAdvocate in Design-based Research

The iAdvocate project, as a subject for Design-based Research, seeks to find “what works” in an environment where research controls are nearly impossible to replicate in a laboratory and then transfer to practice (Walker, 2006). DBR was the method of choice because of its ability to conduct phases of technology research in situ, directly in collaboration with participants, in cycles of theory development, design, development, prototyping, user testing, data collection, analysis, and formative revision (Design-Based Research Collective, 2003).

The benefits of this approach include a collaboration that is responsive to participants allowing a closer connection between research and practice, and the creation of a traceable narrative of research events over time for others to review (Barab & Squire, 2004). The residual impact of the iAdvocate project, as a subject of DBR, is not so much to form a generalization about informal learning through a smartphone, but to help build a body of study that additional research may affirm or reject.

To conduct the research, a group of five researchers was assembled by Dr. Foley in September, 2010, to form a DBR plan and carry out its research activities. Forgard’s previous work from 2009 was used as a starting point, which included a submission of relevant content from the SME, and an instructional content analysis and design plan.

Forgard also formed the theoretical basis upon which the decision to develop a smartphone application was based, stating the challenges in this design to be threefold: (a) how to assimilate a structured flow of instructional information into the iPhone interface paradigm; (b) how to the present the content to appear in some form like an advanced organizer; and (c) how to scientifically assess learning on a smartphone platform.

Collectively, the research group formed the following research questions:

  • Is this application an effective mechanism to help parents advocate for their children?
  • How does the app meet the needs of parents of this demographic?
  • How does the app increase parent’s knowledge about advocacy?
  • How does the app affect parents’ performance of advocacy, on-site?
  • How does this app influence parents’ awareness of their legal rights?

The design of the subject matter was divided into three categories: Advocacy Strategies, Advocacy Resources and Advocacy Responses. Topics within each category were organized into tables, with topics aligned in a left-side column, and comments or facts aligned with each topic in the same row. A series of wireframe graphic images was developed based on the affordances, features, and limitations unique to the iPhone architecture and interface. The graphic images were used as a basis for developing the prototype.

A decision was made to develop a “Web app” prototype based on the development plans, rather than to make a fully compiled iPhone application (see Appendix A). A Web app is a conventional website made to appear and behave like a conventional iPhone app on an iPhone device. This decision was made partly because of the advanced logistics required of programming in Objective-C (Apple, inc., 2010b), a language that requires time consuming and expensive programming from a specialist, software compiling, and advanced intranet app distribution before it could be installed. Revision turnaround, based on access to an Objective-C developer, was believed to be potentially too slow for the time constraints of the project timeline.

Also, in consideration of user testing, it was determined that participants should not spend limited testing time installing the app on their phone prior to engaging in testing activities. Instead, a Web app required only that the participant type in a URL on a conventional iPhone web browser in order to gain access to the prototype.

Another factor in the decision to create a Web app prototype was in the ability of the researchers’ collective skills to create a Web app quickly, using intermediate-level web design skills and existing computer equipment. The prototype was created using the WordPress opensource platform (, 2010), the free “iphonelike” custom theme (, 2010), and a custom plugin that reconfigures WordPress website content into an iPhone-compatible display format (WPTouch 2.0 Pro, 2010).

The iPhoneApp theme and WPTouch 2.0 Plugin were modified by an HTML/CSS/PHP developer to strip away unnecessary features, such as post date, authorship, and decorations. Theme and text colors were modified via Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to closely match the wireframe graphic images, reduce distractions, and conserve iPhone screen space. The web designer used the Safari 5.0.3 web browser to review design revisions, utilizing the Developer features found in the Advanced tab of Safari preferences, and then the Mobile Safari 4.02 user agent selected from the Develop menu. This technique mimics the iPhone page rendering appearance.

It was also possible to download and install the Apple iPhone Software Development Kit (SDK) ( and view the Web app on the SDK’s iPhone emulator. However, this required installing the SDK within Apple Snow Leopard 10.6.x operating system, which presented a logistical problem for the web designer. Given the relative simplicity of the Web app’s design and functions, it was determined not to upgrade the computer system from Leopard 10.5.8 to an unfamiliar operating system in the middle of a project, and to simply rely on Safari’s user agent function.

The Web app appeared nearly the same as a conventionally programmed iPhone app, but for the following exceptions:

  • The Web app did not have a persistent “Home” navigational element that looked the same as a conventional iPhone app. Instead, a persistent Home link was provided at the top of each page. Users were made aware of this in testing.
  • The response of the Web app was contingent on the speed of the wireless connection, not on the internal compilation of code of a conventional app, and was moderately slower. No significant problems were encountered attributable to connection speed.
  • Certain navigational methods inherent to the iPhone were not available in the Web app, such as horizontal page revealing. The original design plans did not require use of this feature.
  • Certain gestural features of the iPhone were not utilized, such as shaking or orienting the device to cause a response from the device. The original design called for a “shake” gesture to obtain a response to a prompted question. This was changed in the prototype to a simple link.

In the Web app prototype, the Advocacy Strategies and Advocacy Resources master pages were prefaced with a description of the content. The rows of content in the original design tables were used as a basis for composing Advocacy Strategies and Advocacy Resources topics in the Web app, with an animated Javascript “accordion” effect applied to each topic link to reveal the comment or facts associated with the topic when the user tapped the link with his or her finger. This caused an elongation of the vertical dimension of the web page, forcing content below the selected link to move downward “under” the lower boundary of the display. All content, however, was still accessible by gesturally scrolling vertically down the length of the web page. The prototype did not require orientation of the iPhone in either upright or landscape mode in order for the user to gain access to content.

The Advocacy Response category was designed in the prototype to mimic a “question and answer” game, where a “Typically Heard Statement” was displayed, with a link to advance to another screen where the appropriate response was displayed, along with comments and facts to support it. The comment and fact areas also utilized the Javascript accordion effect, as described above. A series of Typically Heard Statements/Response screens was published in succession to one another, with no master list of questions provided.

The depth of content published in the Web app represented only an initial degree of depth sufficient to facilitate the constraints of user testing.

User Testing

A single group of ten qualified parents was assembled at a laboratory at Syracuse University’ School of Education to conduct a focus group test of the prototype. Parents were selected based on having a school-age child with a disability, whose program of education included an IEP. Parents were not required to have any particular degree of prior advocacy experience within the IEP process, which made the focus group heterogeneous. Some parents had experience with using an iPhone, while others did not. Those who did not have an iPhone or iPhone Touch were given a device on which to participate in the activities.

The focus group activities were comprised of a series of prescribed activities led by a facilitator. Specific focus group activities were selected by the research group, and pertained only to content known to exist in the Web app prototype. No external resources were accessed outside of the Web app, and the only URL provided to participants was the URL for the Web app.

Activities included searching Advocacy Strategies and Advocacy Resources topics to answer a given question, and interacting with the Advocacy Responses’ “Typically Heard Statements” section. The Advocacy Responses activities comprised of navigating to a page with a quote known by the CME as one frequently heard by parents in an IEP meeting. Participants read the statement independently, and then tapped on a link to reveal a pre-composed response that was informed by facts and strategies related to the quote. Participants were free to continue to the next quote/response frame at their own pace. Five quote/response frames were prepared for the prototype test.

Following the prescribed activities, the facilitator led a group discussion about the application, its design, the content, its usability, its potential usefulness in the user’s context, and suggested improvements. Users responded with a number of reactions and suggestions (Notes are paraphrased unless quoted. Time markings refer to location on the video recording in hours:minutes:seconds):

1.     00:20:37 – The application assumes that you have to know how to use it.

2.     00:21:46 – Typically Heard Statements should be listed on one screen with menu of all statements because you don’t know how many there are going to be. This section should be a jumping-off point to other links.

3.     00:24:25 – A personal log of events tied into calendar, with highlights of meetings is needed.

4.     00:26:28 – Regarding special needs resources from schools: participant did not know about what resources were available to her for her child.  “Had I known about those things when he was in high school or earlier, I might have been able to advocate for him better on his IEP. Knowing what is out there technologically makes sense. … It’s always changing. It could have helped advance him more.”

5.     00:28:47 – A search box feature is needed.

6.     00:30:36 – Some users could not find the Home button, stating, “I need everything spelled out.”

7.     00:32:15 – Participant would use it for preparation. “It’s more conducive to looking at home. Doesn’t give a lot of information. Each section needs bulleted points to navigate into. IEP meetings are short – there are time constraints. If you were put on the spot, you would want bullets to locate quickly. Federal and state regulations should be separated. Content needs to be organized into a ‘personal notes’ area referring to where you found it.”

8.     00:34:04 – The information is not in any particular order to find it – either alphabetically or by year.

9.     00:35:15, 00:35:40 – Each book listing should have an area for adding comments and sharing.

10.  00:36:45 – Add a feature that allows audio/video recording.

11.  00:37:25 – A participant recounted an incident about a placement exam where she wished she had known more about it.

12.  00:38:55 – Participant did know if it would be practical to be so comprehensive that it is going to come at the expense of something else. “I would use it as a reliable resource when I need it quickly. When I need comprehensive information, I talk to [another participant, indicated as experienced].

13.  00:40:48 – A participant liked the topic/comment aspect of the Responses section, and thought the other sections should be that way too. “I think to say what I found did work well on here – maybe you could kind of make it all work this way. Under Advocacy Responses, you can go to [Statement 1], then you can go to Response 1. And then it says ‘Tap here for the response you can give’, and it’s nice because it’s there, then you tap here for an answer. Then if you go down, then there’s related strategies and related resources directly related to that. So I think that works really well, but it doesn’t seem to work that way in other areas.”

14.  00:43:35 – Participant commented about the identity of the “person” icons used in the Statement/Response section. Icons should look more like parent and school icons. Title of Response section should be named “Your Response”, not “Typically Heard Statement: Response”.

15.  00:45:32 – A participant wanted a menu list of all Response statements, and then the ability to tap to get “your response” for the benefit of speed.

16.  00:47:46 – Participant wanted a numerical identifier for Responses to help refer back to it.

17.  00:50:52 – A participant states that the IEP document is very specific to your child, and that general information is helpful, but meetings are more specific. This app not helpful for that. “You need to know it cold.”

18.  00:51:39 – A participant states that, “For me, it’s wonderful because it is relevant, perfect. If you could search, it would be better.”

19.  00:52:35 – A participant states that, “The Frequently Heard Statements are useful for stuff we all need to know as a refresher, but not for planning for your specific child.”

20.  00:54:05 – The IEP form includes a lot of codes, and the app needs an index and glossary.

21.  00:55:08 – A participant makes bulleted agendas for IEP meeting preparation, and wants links to them in the app that point to that situation.

22.  0:56:33 – A participant states that the device is easy to use, but it is geared for someone with general knowledge, but you need to know more. “You are never an ‘expert’…” at advocacy, so the app would be useful as long as it keeps being updated.

23.  00:57:25 – Some parents go into a meeting know nothing. “I had no idea what they were saying to me. When you are naive, you want to believe they have your child’s best interests in mind…but they don’t”

24.  00:57:56 – Going into a meeting is an emotional process, and having something at your fingertips is helpful.

25.  01:00:38 – Participants wanted to use iAdvocate over a longer time.


Overall, responses indicated areas in need of improvement. It is unclear, however, whether comments concretely call for any particular form of content re-organization philosophy over another. In the absence of a comparative study of the same application designed under different organizational approaches and tested under the same focus group conditions, an analysis here may only inform where more work is needed in the original design, or whether an alternative approach should be considered.

However, with respect to an alternative approach, there are a number of indicators in the comments that are consistent with user needs and behaviors as described in User-based Design (numbers in parenthesis refer to comments above).

Time/Situation-based needs: Participants projected themselves in relation to the content according situations, such as reading an IEP document (17), planning prior to a meeting (3, 7, 19, 21), at a meeting (4, 7, 10, 17, 23, 24), and after an IEP decision was made (11).

Personal Perspective needs: Participants referred to information needs situations from their perspective rather than from a global perspective (3, 4, 7, 9, 11, 19, 22).

Social needs: Participants referred to sharing relationships with others in the advocacy community as a useful strategy (9, 12).

Navigational needs: Participants referred to a need for a navigational system that is associative (2, 7, 8, 13, 15, 16, 20, 21).

One comment in particular was striking. The participant in comment #13 liked the associative nature of the Statement/Response design, where a situation was extrapolated into a “topic-comment-resource” collection, presumably for helping the user to form a new sense of the situation, and to perform an action. She went as far as to suggest that the entire system be built this way.

Forgard’s formulation of this section closely resembles the Situation-Gap-Use triad proposed by Dervin. The differences between Forgard’s approach and a UBD approach, however, are that (a) the situations would have emerged from user experiences, rather than from an SME or instructional designer; (b) the situations would have been one of an ordinal sequence of steps related to a larger problem space, rather than arbitrarily isolated; and (c) the comments and resources would have originated from the community of other users rather than solely from an SME or instructional designer; and (d) the application would have provided the ability for the user to contribute their perspective and input directly into the situation to describe how this information helped him or her move to the next step.

Based on the findings as described above, an analysis of the iAdvocate design can be made to determine which information system approach may be more suitable for further development.

Systems-orientation in the original design:

The initial stages of iAdvocate development involved the following steps: (a) parent conversations with Bull within the SUPAC community about their experiences and needs; (b) a conversation between Bull, Foley and Forgard about the need to improve parents’ advocacy skills; (c) a collection of subject matter content submitted by Bull to Forgard; (d) analysis, design and development by Forgard based on the affordances of smartphone technology, the iPhone app development platform, and Instructional Design theory; (e) a prototype developed based on the design plan.

The initial design of the information system for the iAdvocate app, as described above, was approached from a systems-orientation perspective (Dervin & Nilan 1986), meaning that the content and its organization descended from the position of the subject matter expert, and from Forgard’s instructional design analysis. This approach prescribed static domains of the topics considered by the SME to be areas of importance to the users, and informed an interface design that defined how users would intersect with the information.

The implications of this approach are that the SME and instructional designer occupy an expert position in determining which content is relevant to the user, and that the design of the information system determines what information the user needs, and how they will locate it.

The systems-oriented approach for iAdvocate makes several assumptions:

  • Users are input-output processors, and do not form their own perspective of their needs in dynamic situations. Thus, the system design is concerned only with how the app presents needs to users, rather than how users present needs to the system.
  • The app design is only concerned with the moment the user intersects with the information, not with what has happened prior to the user’s intersection with the system, nor with where or how the user intends to move in the future once they have retrieved information.
  • The organization of content needs only to be relevant to the expert’s content analysis, regardless of how the user organizes and perceives their construction of their situation at that moment, for which their retrieval behavior is intended to resolve.
  • The interface design is concerned with the affordances of the technology rather than how the users present their needs to the system.

Although a systems-oriented process is considered first principles of Instructional Design theory (Smith & Regan, 2005), there are certain risks apparent with this approach in an informal learning setting. These risks may include, in the absence of formal learning activities, placing the burden on the user to know how to query the system, and what to query about. Belkin (1980), however, found that users in information-seeking situations cannot always express to information systems what they do not know. Further, from a systems design perspective, users may be novices or highly skilled at using a systems-oriented application, which may place the burden on the designer to choose which demographic segment to design for (Morris, 1994), at the expense of the habits of other demographics.

There are also risks in leveraging iAdvocate based on expertise. Morris (1994) summarizes Kaplan et al.’s study of expertise that concludes that experts tend to perceive their problem-solving skills from their own perspective and from knowledge of their own domain. This is not to dismiss in totality the value of experts in contributing to the value of an information system – only that sole reliance on an SME to define the boundaries and semantics of an application like iAdvocate runs the risk of overlooking a great deal of what may matter to those for whom the app serves.

From a practical perspective, a systems-orientation design of iAdvocate presents several encumbrances for developers in order to successfully fulfill certain user needs in the future. Given the situational nature of the IEP/advocacy dynamic, the developers would be compelled to constantly update the database of iAdvocate content based on responses to parent’s changing needs, contexts and social interactions. Systems-orientation, as a basis of predicting user needs, is inefficient because it can only account for the needs of users according to the SME, the developer’s perspective, or from associating demographic information to content use after it has been retrieved. In the current design, even if users were given a means to share information, they could not place it in the context of a useful situation for future retrieval/used because the content is not organized associatively.

User-based orientation as an alternative design approach:

The instrument in Sense-making Methodology: It is proposed that an alternative approach be used to describe the unit of analysis for iAdvocate using User-based Design as the underpinnings of design methodology. As such, because UBD methodology requires user input, we cannot know a priori precisely what the new organizing scheme(s) should contain, nor how content should be associated to each other in an information system. The task of discovering these schemes is revealed through a process of interviews with parents in the iAdvocate-relevant population. Given access to this population, the following instrument is proposed for content identification and organization (Nilan & Fletcher, 1987):

  • Gather a sample of parents who have experience operating successfully in the IEP environment.
  • Select a specific situation as a unit of analysis.
  • Conduct a Micro-Moment Timeline Interview (Dervin, 2003). Ask the participant to describe an experience in operating within the unit of analysis, from beginning to end, starting with what the participant’s first thought about the unit of analysis. (As a validity measure, it important to ask for specific incidents in the Micro-Moment Timeline Interview rather than generalized behavior.)
  • As each step is articulated, the interviewer writes the action on a 3 x 5 card and places it in front of the participant.
  • Participants are encouraged to add, combine, or withdraw steps until they are satisfied with their presentation.
  • The interviewer then asks the participant to think back to the first step and to describe the questions or uncertainties at that step, each recorded on a set of different colored cards. This process follows all the steps in the sequence.
  • The interviewer then asks the participant to rank in their order of importance each question or uncertainty at each step according to which answer helped hem best to either (a) understand their situation, or (b) help them to move forward to the next step.

The results, taken across a sample, can be combined into a master Action x Cognition matrix representing a synthesis of steps and questions (needs), and how answers were used to move to the next step. The Action x Cognition matrix may then be used as mapping scheme for organizing iAdvocate-related content into major or subordinate classes of activities, and to describe what those activities encompass (see Figure 2).


Figure 2. – The Action x Cognition Matrix

Extrapolated into a fully developed information system, the benefits of a UBD approach are proposed to be that:

  • The selection of content and its organization is useful to users as they perceive it, not in how an expert or developer perceives it. This simplifies how users intersect with the information system for retrieval purposes because there are (at least) three dimensions for the user to co-orientate with content: situational, ordinal, and cognitive, all of which are derived from a sample of similar user experiences.
  • Content and organization are a reflection of the value of sense-making rather than as an artifact of an expert or developer’s perception of its inherent value. This fosters a more inclusive domain of the content based on a number of different perspectives.
  • Users, by participation, will cumulatively accrete resources (cognitive, factual, procedural, associative, etc.) to each step.
  • The value of the information system is based on the problem, not strictly on the demographics of the users. This offers a better form of predicting the usefulness of the content to a diverse userbase of the system.

It is important to note that the proposal for a UBD approach does not end at content identification and organization. To develop a system to serve the dynamic needs of users, the system itself must be dynamic. Integrated into a UBD approach is a call for a system design that has the ability for users to socially participate in the formation, refinement, and expansion of the content so that the information system can evolve and grow according to the users who engage with it. By encouraging users to input experiences, assume roles, and make comments directly into the steps and questions, the resolution of the system increases, rather than creating more data “noise”.

This method may be criticized, perhaps, as a descent into solipsistic chaos from too many perspectives. Instead, SMM mandates a constraint to narrow the domain of time and space movement within a narrow topical context, and micro-moments even narrower. The practice of this methodology has revealed that, under these constraints, there are commonalities to diverse systematic approaches across a wide variety of users (Nilan & Fletcher, 1987).


What kind of project is iAdvocate?:

The first question that arises from this review is whether the iAdvocate project, as an effort to foster Informal Learning using smartphone technology, is more of a study of designing instructional systems for learning, or of facilitating self-forming interaction between people for learning. Or is there no real difference between the two?

A traditional Instructional Design perspective would seek to define boundaries and domains of instructional subject matter, and then seek methods of assessment. Assessment in Informal Learning, however, is not always clear since objectives are not always indicated, and may only be useful in a static situation. A User-based Design perspective, however, as Malcolm (2004) might describe it, would attempt to maximize our “situational interactions” to form a cultural fabric around a topic, and then let the criteria of the community assess the value of its content over time. Although there may be little here in this approach for traditional summative evaluation, it may be implied that the lack of interest, support, or deletion of certain content would be indicative of its summative value to the community.

From a broader perspective, the issue that ought to motivate the use of one design perspective or another (or a combination) is the nature of the “advocacyscape,” as the research team understands it. As such, the segment of DBR described in this paper did not offer an opportunity for the researchers to interview parents directly about the meaning of advocacy in the IEP process prior to the design and development of the prototype. Thus, many important questions were not asked: Who were the peers deemed most resourceful and successful in IEP dealings? How did they approach their activities? What were there resources? What role did SUPAC members play in forming its members’ strategies? What were the limits of parents’ involvement in managing an IEP? A host of other questions might also have emerged in a direct dialog.

Based on the evidence extracted from user testing, however, it appears that the advocacyscape for iAdvocate users is comprised of many complex social interactions. Parents are immersed in intervals of struggle to negotiate with administrative counterparts – sometimes for several years – who may or may not have a compatible agenda with the parent. There are power struggles, complex local, state and Federal legal structures, and sometimes high stakes decisions that may alter the course of a child’s educational and social trajectory – all of which require the parent to absorb information, synthesize it into a plan, and to act effectively in prescribed situations. A great deal is yet to be known about these factors, and the social networks employed in the community to cope with them.

With a firmer understanding of the advocacyscape, and a UBD methodology used to form the design of the prototype, the kinds of focus group questions might have been significantly different. For example, had the parents participated in the formulation of the Action x Cognition matrix prior to development of the prototype, the presentation of it and the comments elicited from users would have been directly coordinated to the IEP action patterns, questions, and information use behaviors that they were already familiar with, plus those of the SME. The usability questions, therefore, could have focused on how well users could “find themselves” in the application. Are their steps represented appropriately in the app? Are they able to easily review all the perspectives on a step? Can they easily input their comments? What roles do users feel they could play in growing and maintaining the knowledgebase? In what ways can this app be improved to be more like a conversation?

It is suggested here that the energy to manage the advocacyscape in iAdvocate is in the community of parents (as evident by the apparent need to form the SUPAC group), rather than in the individual alone. iAdvocate, as an informal learning tool, ought to reflect the nature of that community in the ways that are naturally forthcoming in human experience – expressed in the conversational metaphor of UBD.

What impact does UBD have on Instructional Design and the methods of DBR?

There are significant implications to Instructional Design (ID) theory and Design-based Research models by incorporating a user-based model and replacing an SME with a “Subject Matter Network” (Oehlert, 2010).

ID theory for informal learning has been relatively sparse. Siemens’ Learning Development Cycle (LDC) model (2005a) supports the value of learning through emergent networks. The LDC model analyzes the scope of learning to indicate areas of subject matter best suited for formal and informal learning. Design planning includes using socially emergent, accretion-oriented modes of learning. Implementation is then divided into areas of instructor-led, learner networks, or individual learning systems. The LDC model does not, however, relinquish control of subject matter content from the SME. The model simply supplies informal learners with a predetermined selection of content from which they may learn.

Siemans and others have bemoaned the frustrations they have had with setting up an online network for communal learning only to find that few people participate, attributing their malaise to, “… the [low] skill of users, the busy-ness of life, and the perceived value of contributing (Siemans, 2005b).” It is possible, too, that the system itself either presents too many barriers to interact, it does not adequately reflect a metaphor for user’s natural conversation patterns, or that the system permits the assumption of only limited roles by users.

Where interaction skills are a primary component of learning competencies – as is the case with the iAdvocate ecology – the instructional designer may need to serve a different role. From Constructivist and Connectionist perspectives, the instructional designer is more of an interactivity designer, whose goal is to remove as many barriers to interaction as possible. As it is, smartphone technology presents fewer access barriers to interactivity than desktop/laptop computing, and potentially shortens the interval between access events.

In the area of Design-based Research, several models and frameworks are available. In Bannan-Ritlan’s (2003) Integrative Learning Design (ILD) framework, UBD methodology affects a number of areas. Within the Informed Exploration phase is listed the attainment of needs analysis through instructional systems design (ISD), and “a research focus on audience characterization from the field of usage-centered design (p. 22).” It is unclear, however, whether the call for usage-centered design is meant to consider the users’ interest in the construction of the problem, or to gather characteristics about the users themselves. The difference between these interpretations would affect the orientation of the intervention significantly. A user-based/problem-centered interpretation would carry the needs analysis more towards sense-making. An ISD/demographics interpretation would carry it more towards a structured systems-centered design.

The call for an integrative approach in DBR has been cited as an integration of qualitative, quantitative, and other methods as a way to “triangulate” (The Design-Based Research Collective, 2003) sources and data to connect to outcomes. The inclusion of UBD principles under the umbrella of DBR methodology may prove to be, under certain conditions, an efficient way to inform user information needs and uses, to inform prototype development, and to foster a clear co-orientation between researchers and practitioners.

How does a UBD approach inform technological design decisions?

Existing systems: Little is offered here in specific detail about how iAdvocate, as an iPhone application for informal learning, would actually appear and function based on an existing example of a similar product developed according to UBD principles. There is no literature to draw exemplary smartphone application executions from, and no examples of conventional websites that were formed from a purely user-based perspective that function independently in a user-controlled dynamic.

This is perhaps a constraint imposed by the current state of Web design development platforms that still rely mostly on a developer to form the architecture of an online information system. Or perhaps it is also due in part to a legacy of an industrial model that constructs “products for consumers” as a means of solving human problems. To form a truly user-based information system, the developer must therefore be a proponent of letting users control aspects of the system’s formation, and of working without a material profit motive, since there is nothing to sell to help people. The UBD methodology is also quite labor intensive.

Among existing network-oriented tools, online forums approach aspects of user-based formation. Forums are user-defined around a topic of interest, often to solve problems through interaction with other experienced users. Forums, however, do not contain the ordinal architecture of steps upon which topics and comments may be hung, so that another user can easily locate their ordinal position in the problem/topic space, and then locate the answers to help themselves to go to the next step.

The horizontal design dimension: One reason for the failure of forums to develop in the direction of a UBD approach may be in its convention of listing content vertically. The vertical dimension is, by Western conventions associated with hierarchy, with more important or recent content on top, less important or older content below. The Western convention for graphically representing time relationships and linear sequencing, however, is horizontally, i.e. historical timelines, linear reading direction, and graphic visualization of “time passing”.

The vertical dimension in traditional Web design was likely informed by the conventions of print design, where page structure was limited to a prescribed width, and content was “stacked” vertically. In modern computer tablet and smartphone design, however, the base architecture for development includes the ability to scroll horizontally. At present, app developers have exploited this capability as a high-level navigational tool. It is worth considering using the affordances of the horizontal dimension to accommodate an ordinal representation of step-based navigation (see Figure 3).



Figure 3. – An iPhone App Utilizing Horizontal Scrolling (sample content)

Virtual and augmented reality: Another consideration is the potential for the use of virtual reality systems (VR) and augmented reality (AR) as ways to “float” a user in a relatively static location while they manipulate the time-base that surrounds them. For example, current architecture of the Second Life VR system ( places the user in a virtual environment that complies to conventional space dimensions, e.g., up, down, left, right, gravity, etc.

It would be intriguing, however, to envision a system where the iAdvocate user might occupy a static “situational position,” with the ability to scroll through time, such as to have the “situation” flow around the avatar by user command. Within this flow might be the human and non-human variables that are significant at that step (and data points to support it), and perhaps a facility to make lateral movements to view the same timebase from the vectors taken by other users. This arrangement more closely resembles the analog/continuous nature of time-space of conversations than the interval/segmentation of time-space proposed in Sense-making Methodology.

An AR implementation might include this sort of time-base flow as well, except in the “real” situation of a physical space. A smartphone with AR capabilities might utilize a physical location common to the iAdvocate community, such as where IEP meetings take place, and offer a variety of user-constructed “skins” to map over this location representing the perspectives of other parents, with their strategies, experiences, and comments linked to specific events.

Additional development of speech recognition (Hughes, 2010) software may even play a part in using a smartphone for retrieving relevant advocacy information based on the interpretation of the IEP conversation in realtime. This implementation, however, would require a sophisticated algorithm to form associations between existing data and the meaning of a realtime conversation, which has been an elusive skill for computers to achieve as quickly as humans.


In this review, we have examined the narrative development and testing of the iAdvocate smartphone app within a Design-based Research study. It has been hypothesized that parents of children with an IEP may benefit from the use of an anytime/anywhere smartphone to help improve their advocacy skills.

The research has found a number of improvements that may be considered for the next cycle of development and testing, although it is unclear whether a particular theoretical approach is better suited for further development. The principles set forth in User-based Design methodology offer an alternative approach to the instructional design and development of iAdvocate, which may produce a more relevant product for its users, and perhaps help to form a more efficient channel of co-orientation between participants and researchers.

iAdvocate, as a tool for facilitating informal learning, holds the potential to accelerate parents’ advocacy development skills, though more cycles of research are needed. It is proposed here that the power to foster this acceleration is in the community of users, and that it should be reflected in the information system upon which iAdvocate is based.


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Appendix A – Design of the iAdvocate Prototype

Screenshots of the iAdvocate prototype

Figure 1A. – Screenshots of the Web App Prototype

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