The Human Measure in IT

Dieter Hammer and Aad Koppenhol, maandag 16 oktober 2006

With this column, the workgroup “The Human Measure in IT – The Responsibility of the Architect”[1] wants to generate more awareness for this subject. We hope that this column will provide a platform for IT-professionals to discuss the personal and social aspects of the interaction between human beings and IT. Although most architects would agree with the statement that IT systems should help people and organizations to realize their goals, the development in the IT is still too much technology-driven and too less human- and organization-driven. Although this results often in a high efficiency[2] of the technical subsystem of an organization (Workflow- and ERP systems, technical automation, etc.), the effectivity[3] of the overall socio-technical system is usually much less enhanced or even decreased. The mission of our group is the development of guidelines and methods that help architects to realize this goal.

From a philosophical point of view, the first question is about the feasibility of this goal. After all machines are mechanistic artifacts and humans are not. The viewpoint that human beings are more than advanced machines (controlled by a very powerful software system embodied in our brain), but also have an immaterial – and thus not mechanistic - soul[4] and an immaterial spirit[5] is certainly not shared by everybody. For the materialists it is only a question of time and money until we can build IT-systems that perfectly fulfill their purpose. For the non-materialists, this is a mission impossible. Even a computer loaded with complex and “intelligent” software remains in this view an automat that behaves in a mechanistic way. Of course, all other technologies and technical disciplines are facing the same dilemma. However, the problems surface most painfully in the IT domain because of its big influence on almost all areas of life and its high multiplier effect.

Independent from one’s view on the world and human beings, it remains an important challenge for architects to design technological artifacts that support the “human measure”. In our view, this means that IT-systems should support people in performing their tasks in an effective and human-friendly way as well as stimulate them in their professional and personal development. IT must not be an obstacle but inspiring and fun to use! In our view, inspiration and creativity are important human features and blocked if the system is dominant in telling the user what to do. Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what we frequently observe, i.e. IT-systems that force people to work in a way that is contrary to their personal style and the culture of the organization. We are convinced that in the technocratic and mechanistic world we live in, to reach a better alignment between organizations, people and IT-systems, is more needed than ever before.

After having touched these principal issues, we refine the above definition of “human measure” in more practical terms. We hope that our fellow IT-architects will help us to refine the following seven criteria:

  1. The system is a sensible solution for a real problem and fulfills a need felt by all stakeholders.
  2. The system optimizes the social-organizational, technical and economical aspects in a balanced way.
  3. The system creates room for the professional and personal development of its users instead of restricting and frustrating them. This means that the users find the system pleasant and stimulating.
  4. Users can adapt the system to their personal preferences and the situation at hand.
  5. The users experience that they are in control of the system, both factually and emotionally. An educated user can oversee the structure and behavior of the system. Ethical dilemma’s are made explicit, e.g. by elaborating on the consequences of a decision.
  6. The reliability, security and privacy of the system are experienced by the stakeholders as a definite improvement of the present situation.
  7. The system is as simple as possible. Examples of good design are wireless services (but not necessarily the user interfaces of the terminals), the I-Pod and state-of-the-art car navigation systems. For the badly designed systems, our favorites are Microsoft Office (powerful, error prone, and not hiding the full plethora of functions for the average user), the user interface of video recorders and many mobile phones, and the majority of public web services.

Abstract requirements - like the above seven principles of “human measure” - are always easy to state. The problems come with their acceptance and implementation. We do, of course, not pretend to have a set of guidelines and methods available. We can however, state the common ground on which all solutions have to be built. In our opinion, this is a thorough understanding of the human nature and the principles of computers. Like every technology, also IT enlarges certain aspect of the human nature to the extreme. So, are we than an inferior species? The answer of believers of artificial intelligence and robotics will indeed be yes. In contrary, we belief that the strength of human beings is their universality and adaptability. How more extreme a certain ability is developed, the bigger the drawbacks are. One of the most striking features[6] of computers is their ability to perform logical inferences - and thus also numerical calculation – extremely fast and reliable. In this respect, IT is much more powerful than any person ever could be. The shadow side is the complete absence of common sense and situational judgment. This leads us to the rule that the art of the “human measure” is in outbalancing the drawbacks of IT by the universal abilities and flexibility of humans[7]. IT-Architects should have knowledge about the strengths and weaknesses of IT and be realistic about the possibilities of this technology. Otherwise there is a big danger that the stakeholder expectations cannot be fulfilled, resulting in frustrations for all parties involved.

In order to support organizations according to the “human measure”, another principle holds, i.e. the architecture of the IT system should be closely related to the culture of the organization. It should be clear, that this means much more than just building good user interfaces. After all, many - if not all – architectural choices are very difficult to hide at the user interface. We found the characterization of organization culture given by Hofstede[8] a good starting point. He distinguishes six dimensions of organization culture: (1) result-oriented against process-oriented; (2) human-oriented against task-oriented; (3) professional against organization-centric; (4) open against closed; (5) loose against strict; and (6) pragmatic against normative. For example, the IT-architecture of a professional organization must provide optimal personal support in combination with ad hoc communication. The common infrastructure is rather lean, but may contain sophisticated knowledge management facilities. The IT-architecture of an organization-centric organization, at the other hand, is typically rich and based on common IT-policies, data definitions and data bases/warehouses. A more complete overview of the corresponding IT-architectures can be found in “IT according to the Human Measure: the relation between Organization Culture and IT-Architecture”[9].

Finally, we would like to emphasize that caring for the “human measure” is a joint responsibility of architects and users. Architects can only do their job well if the users (the stakeholders) let hear their voice and articulate their wishes. Users must become much more critical, tell the truth about their experience and not naively accept IT-systems the way they are. Like with every new technology, users are still too fascinated about the new possibilities and accept problems they would never accept in other, more mature, domains (imagine an airplane or car that whose performance is contrary to the user's expectations and crashes frequently at the most unexpected moments). Although also IT is slowly becoming more mature and users start to see IT-equipment as commodity, there is still a long way to go. Architects at the other hand, have to develop a sense for designing systems that are really valuable for the user (value-based design).

Prof. Dr. Dieter K. Hammer, Eindhoven University of Technology and University of Groningen,
Aad Koppenhol, Sr. Principal IT-Architect, Sun Microsystems Netherlands,

Note that this article reflects the personal opinion of the authors and is not necessarily the common view of the workgroup. As members of the workgroup, we enjoy the many views on the problem and the fruitful discussions that arise from the plurality of ideas.

[1] We are a group of IT-professionals from various disciplines that organizes about four full-day workshops per year about relevant subjects. For more information about the group, the goals and relevant publications, see
[2] Efficiency refers to the economic use of resources of all kinds.
[3] Effectivity measures if the system does what it should do (not only in terms of requirements, but also in terms of stakeholder expectations) and how good it performs. The latter depends not only on the quality of the system, but also on the acceptance by its users. So effectivity refers to many aspects of a system, ranging from efficiency (and especially cost efficiency), via usability, to how well it fits into the culture of an organization.
[4] The source of our personality, our thoughts, our feelings and our will.
[5] Our higher self, the source of self-consciousness and our drive for self-realization.
[6] A systematic treatment of the remaining features is out of the scope of this column.
[7] A more thorough treatment of this subject can be found in “The Balance between humans and IT” (in Dutch),
[8] Geert Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, McGraw-Hill, 1991 (In Dutch, Allemaal andersdenkenden, omgaan met cultuurverschillen, Contact, 1991).
[9] In Dutch, IT op menselijke maat: de relatie tussen organisatiecultuur en IT-architectuur,


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