New paper – a method for designing usable decision support systems!

Cite as Rose, D. C., Parker, C., Park, C. Fodey, J., Sutherland, W. J., and Dicks, L. V. 2018. Involving stakeholders in agricultural decision support systems: improving user-centred design, International Journal of Agricultural Management 6 (3-4): 80-89

Now available open access!

Our new paper is out today! The paper looks at how we can encourage designers of decision support systems to adopt user-centred design practices – in other words, focusing on the needs of the intended end user so that systems are relevant, usable, and credible. Our motivation for this work came from a study as part of Defra’s Sustainable Intensification Platform – this research found that many decision support systems in agriculture were simply never used in practice. What a waste of time and money!

We suggest a six-stage process for designing decision support systems and term this a ‘decision context assessment’. We argue that funders of projects should require researchers to produce a plan which pays careful attention to each of these six stages. Ultimately, this will improve the chances of the system being used in practice – if it isn’t actually used by the intended user community, then lots of funders’ money and scientific time is wasted! The six stages are:


Common sense will tell you that in order to carry out each stage effectively, you need to involve (or at least think about) the user at every single stage!!!

“1) Who is the user? – identify a clear user, understand their workflows, and ask about their needs. Needs and workflows differ between audiences – you can’t assume that a one-size-fits-all approach will work! – result: tool designed for a clear audience!

2) Why should they want to use it? – scientifically, the system might be robust and impressive, but ask whether there is a need for it from a user perspective. Ask whether it is better than how decisions are currently made (you’ll need to ask users how they currently make decisions!). You need to prove that it adds value to the user, either financially, or it saves time, or it helps them meet compliance or market requirements etc. – result: tool has a unique selling point and is needed!

3) Can they use it? – test whether users are able to use it effectively, also find out whether users can practically use it in a given setting (e.g. is there internet access on-farm?) – result: tool works in the intended use setting (e.g. on a farm)

4) Is it easy to use? – related to point 3, however there is a distinction between merely being able to use it, and the ability to use it easily – ask about user design preferences and test it on actual end users rather than colleagues! – result: tool is easy to use, users actually want to use it. 

5) Is there a delivery plan? – ask how users will find out about the system. This might involve making use of existing trusted peer and adviser networks. – result: tool becomes well-known to its intended users. 

(6) What is the legacy? – if the tool needs to be consistently updated to maintain relevance, then consider how to do this once funding ends. Do you need to maintain a technical support helpline for users? – result: tool continues to work long after implementation.”

(Rose et al., 2018)

We hope that this paper fosters a greater interest in user-centred design methods, and ultimately to the design of usable systems which make a difference in policy and practice! If funders made sure that tool designers constantly reported against the criteria above, then tools would have a clear audience and unique selling point, work on the ground and be easy to use, as well as being well-known to users and continuing to work after implementation.

***Open access ***




Lecturing about sustainability

In the last week or so I’ve been able to do lots of lectures/talks on sustainability. For me, the opportunity to lecture and tell students about the latest research is one of the great attractions of being an academic! Below, I’m going to give you a flavour of what we covered this week, also covering a school outreach talk that I gave when UEA let me loose in Worcestershire.

Green growth versus de-growth

My first workshop of last week tried to get students to think about two possible ways of achieving sustainable development – a ‘Green Growth’ mindset, which seeks to work within current capitalist structures to protect the environment, and a ‘De-growth’ mindset, which would challenge the existing emphasis on economic indicators as a means of progress. After showing an innovative video produced by the fantastic ‘Comedy in the Classroom‘ team at UEA, I split the students into groups and asked them to list the pros and cons of both approaches, and if any changes needed to happen to adopt them successfully. Below are the flip charts that were produced (note here and elsewhere that the IP belongs to the first-year UEA BA Geography students, or later on also to the UEA Environmental Scientists, or BSc Geographers!).

IMG_3619Clear themes emerged – green growth was seen as realistic, acceptable, less radical (some thought not radical enough), but improvements were needed in technology, which needed to be affordable to all. De-growth was universally seen as radical, and perhaps even impossible to achieve. One student did write, however, that de-growth ‘would liberate us from the burden of pursuing material excess’ – now that’s a quote fit for a first-class exam mark! I was surprised that everyone thought that de-growth was radical (I don’t necessarily disagree) so we had a bit of discussion about social constructivism and that was that!

Playing politics

In our next class, I talked about the challenge of making evidence-based environmental policy within a messy policy-making process. This very much resonates with my own work. I thought the best way to expose students to the messy reality of policy-making was to make them play a computer simulation, helpfully built by the BBC. Each group of students had to follow different strategies – such as an environment-focused approach, and an economy-focused approach (similar in many ways to green growth v de-growth). The challenge was to balance money, food, water, and energy resources whilst adhering to climate change pledges. As can be seen by the photos below, some students fared better than others! Anyway, it was certainly a nice break from me talking!

Technologies of agricultural sustainability

I also got to do a week’s worth of lectures on technologies of agricultural sustainability. I told the students about the idea of sustainable intensification, and of the recently ended Defra project on the topic. The rest of the week was spent discussing how technologies could help, but also about how they could create problems of their own. We also discussed whether we could do other things like changing our diets and consuming less in order to reduce the pressure to grow more food! One interesting exercise in which Toby Townsend from the British Beet Research Organisation helped was to split students into small groups to discuss the ongoing controversy about neonics, which is an important chemical given to crops, but it may also be harming our pollinators. Each group was given an identity – either the public, media, farmers, scientists, policy-makers, or an environmental pressure group. Each was asked to discuss what the position of their group would be on the issue, what their motivations would be, and how you would seek to communicate evidence and information to that group. The flip charts below show that there were lots of good ideas, but it was really hard. One of the reasons was because groups cannot be thought of as homogenous – e.g. there are all kinds of publics, so a one-size-fits-all communication strategy was unlikely to work. I think the students got the message about why environmental policy-making can be so ‘wicked’ – because a variety of stakeholders are involved in decision-making, all with different interests, and all with different beliefs.

Malvern St. James

Finally I was dispatched to Great Malvern to visit Malvern St. James Girls School to speak to years 10-13 (some students from other schools were also present). I posed the question of whether population growth was the biggest threat to our environment. In one sense, yes, population growth is a challenge, but so are other things like over-exploitation, over-consumption, unhealthy diets etc. The audience were fantastic and I received some really interesting questions, some of which I didn’t really know the answer to! Hopefully that illustrated the oft-forgotten problem of thinking that someone is an expert outside of their main field of expertise! I also hope the lecture made them think and perhaps it will inspire famous Geographers and Environmental Scientists of the future (hopefully at UEA!). Thanks to all at the school for their welcome, for the bottle of wine – excellent branding on the water in reception by the way!