GEOG 583
Geospatial System Analysis and Design

What is Design?


GIS Design Essentials

The practice of design focuses on planning the structure and features associated with any system. Design activities can focus on something as simple as a coffee maker or as complex as an aircraft carrier. The product of the design practice is a plan that can be used for implementation. This is what is referred to as "the design." So there are really two things happening - there is a process associated with designing something, and then the product of that process is often called the design.

Additionally, there is a very wide range of depth and methodology associated with the practice of design. For some, design is a rapid activity that takes place as a solitary activity moments before implementation begins (a GIS application developer in a small consulting firm, for example). For others, design requires months or years of planning and iterates through multiple stages (a GIS project manager for a national emergency management organization, for example).

We'll be focusing on a range of topics in the next several lessons that reflect this range of design activities, so that, in the end, you have a broad collection of tools available to you to deal with a diverse set of design situations.

In this course, our application focus is on designing GIS tools. All of you have substantial background knowledge about GISystems, how they are applied, and what their capabilities include. To help frame things a bit, I'd like you to consider a possible argument that, in the GIS world, design centers on a few key components:

  • Users - Who will be the target audience for your system?
  • Tasks - What do the users expect to accomplish with the system?
  • Data - Which source materials will be required to complete system tasks?
  • Products - What outputs from the system are needed?

Those are a few of the key bits, anyway. I am sure you can think of others (or elaborate on the short definitions I've given here).

The Process of GIS Design

The basic design process we'll focus on in this course is outlined in the graphic below. This depiction of the design process has four key stages, each of which is influenced in part by some sort of evaluation activity.

  • Needs Assessment refers to the user and task requirement analysis stage where the goal is to identify the key components I listed above (users, tasks, data, and products).
  • Concept Development takes the results from needs assessment and formalizes those results into specific design plans, which in the GIS case could include interface mockups and system programming architectures.
  • Prototyping is an activity that demonstrates the design concepts in a form that can be readily evaluated.
  • Implementation is the final phase of work that combines results from the previous design phases and results in the execution of the complete, refined project.
  • Evaluation is any activity intended to measure the success of a particular design phase. It is presented in the graphic below as something that occurs throughout each of the other discrete activities.
flow chart of GIS design process as described in text above
Figure 1.06: A basic view of the system design and evaluation process.
Image credit: Credit: A. Robinson © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Robinson, et al. (2005) presents this process as a reflection of the design process based on past research on the design and evaluation of tools for GIS and Geographic Visualization. There are, no doubt, plenty of other conceptualizations of design that are worth checking out, too - so fire up Google and do a bit of looking around if you're curious.

One important caveat here that I want to mention is that this process I have outlined is (and should be) an iterative process. Sometimes the results of concept development warrant new attention on needs assessment (for example, you find out that users didn't elaborate very well which tasks they need to complete). I see evaluation as the key driving force behind each iterative step - measuring your success in some way after each stage will help you decide where to go next, and in most real-world design activities, there is a lot of jumping around from stage to stage.

When Design Goes Awry

So now that we've covered a few basics on good design, here are a few situations that can cause designs to fail:

Little/No Design Effort - This is probably the most common issue with respect to geospatial system design. Sometimes, there just isn't any money in the budget to really spend time thinking out and evaluating what should be implemented. Some customers don't see the immediate value in spending money on what may be perceived as an intellectual effort, when, in fact, it is essential for success to have spent some serious attention on design issues.

Design After The Fact - Another common problem is the "Tool In Search Of An Application" that I'm sure all of you have encountered from time to time. Someone starts with a simple idea (e.g., a web mapping tool to disseminate emergency management information); a consulting group takes on the task and delivers what they think will work well. Eventually, a real person uses the tools, and it becomes clear that the tools do something new and exciting, but not something terribly useful. This leads to two related issues, first "I know what they need" and second "Build it and they will come." Both of these can lead to a lack of adoption, user resentment, and poor management acceptance and investment.

Scope Creep - Taking some time to design a new system can reveal all sorts of opportunities for new tools, data sources, output formats, etc... A common problem is managing all of the possibilities adequately so that the scope of the project does not continuously increase over time. The design focus may start with a relatively small problem area, and as momentum on the project builds, decision-makers and stakeholders all chime in, until eventually, you are responsible for designing One System To Rule Them All that is all things to all people.

You have probably experienced problems like these (or others) on GIS efforts in your work experience. I encourage you to share your thoughts on these (and other) issues in our course discussions on this and other pages. We learn best when we learn with others!