Outcome of Applying Evidence-Based Design to Public

Computing Centers: A Preliminary Study

Martin Wolske1, Deven Gibbs1, Adam Kehoe1, Vera Jones2, and Sharon Irish1

(1) Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, and

(2) Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, East St. Louis, IL, USA

Keywords: Public Computing Centers, Community Technology Centers, Evidence-Based Design


Public computing centers (PCCs) have often been established within the digital divide framework, viewed only as stepping stones toward presumably preferable private access. However, research indicates the importance of PCCs in meeting both private and public computing needs. We used an evidence-based design approach to guide the implementation of a redesign of an active PCC located in an economically depressed metropolitan region of Illinois, USA. Results indicate that physical design is critical and inseparable from the overall success of the lab, leading toward positive changes in the use and perception of the lab.


Public computing centers (PCCs) in various forms, including Community Technology Centers and Telecentres, have commonly been established to address gaps between those who have access to technology and those who do not (CTCNet, 1998; International Telecommunications Union, 2003; Viseu et al., 2006). Much of the scholarly focus on PCCs has been framed by the digital divide metaphor, defined as a marked inequality in the ability of underserved and/or marginalized populations to access and use Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to further their social, economic, and educational objectives (NTIA, 1999). Within this framework, the primary problem is identified as a lack of access (Gurstein, 2003). Public computing centers are thus seen as a way to efficiently provide access to ICT for underserved neighborhoods and populations. An often-unstated premise is that such public access is provided only as a stepping stone (Viseu et al., 2006) and that real computer use will not happen until low-income users have access in their homes (Bishop et al., 1999). For instance, Loader and Keeble (2004) note that the UK has historically viewed public access points only as a valuable safety net for those without access. As Bishop et al. (1999) note, it is certainly the case that PCCs typically limit access to certain hours and applications, and in many settings, privacy is impossible and the spaces are uncomfortable for extended use. Many PCCs are set up to serve a maximum number of simultaneous users, in keeping with the digital divide framework. Further, efforts are often made to find ways to discourage unimportant (as defined by host organizations) computer use either directly through filters or indirectly through time limits. For instance, Gurstein (2003) finds important uses are often limited to passive access as opposed to active production of content. The research thus suggests that the result of emphasizing the distributive function of PCCs in order to bridge the digital divide can produce a more restrictive environment for users.

Alternative functions for PCCs

While distribution of technology is often the initial impetus for creating PCCs, ultimately PCCs must transform to meet other needs if they are to continue providing a valuable service to communities (Fuchs, 1998). Indeed, in contrast to the view that PCCs are primarily a stepping stone for those without alternative access, recent research sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (Becker et al., 2010) found that forty-five percent of library visitors use the Internet during visits, even though three-quarters of those making use of the PCCs found in libraries have Internet access at home. Uses include: education (getting homework help, attending a class, applying for school); eCommerce (buying and selling, online banking, paying bills); eBusiness (writing a business plan, finding funding sources, applying for permits, finding and communicating with customers); health and wellness (finding a health care provider, researching a disease, finding information about diet and exercise, purchasing prescription or over-the-counter drugs); social inclusion and entertainment (starting local clubs, planning family outings); eGovernment (getting government or legal information, accessing government services); and civic engagement (learning about a political or social cause, participating in community life). Beyond access, participation within PCCs provides important spaces for pro-social mixing that promotes learning about both technology and content (Sandvig, 2003). This is especially valuable in adoption when design facilitates “observability” of the benefits of ICT adoption and incremental “trialability” of new technologies (Rogers, 2003). Ceballos et al. (2006) suggest that “the best Telecentres are local gathering places; places where people come together to talk, tell stories and share knowledge.” We want to stress the “coming together” in recognizing ways in which PCCs provide access to the knowledge resources of others co-located within the community setting.

In research helping to distinguish the social aspects of public computing from private uses of PCCs, Viseu et al. (2006) noted that a combination of private and public PCC use becomes apparent in the practice of users. Their research distinguishes private and public types of access to computers as well as private and public online spaces. In this paper we focus especially on the importance of design for both private ICT uses (individual work done alone) and public ICT uses (collaboration and communication occurring in place and online) that occur within public computing centers. In their interviews, Viseu et al. (2006) found that as facilities for private ICT access, PCCs provide an anonymity that facilitates private work such as online banking or content creation precisely because they offer a retreat from the social obligations that arise when surrounded by others whom you know. As communal spaces, PCCs bridge place-based and online communities. These findings suggest that PCCs serve an important role beyond simple access to computers and the Internet.

Gurstein’s effective use framework acknowledges many reasons beyond access that determine whether ICT will serve as tools to achieve social, economic, and educational objectives (Gurstein, 2003). These include appropriate physical and service support as well as social facilitation, including community infrastructure, training, and animation. Rogers (2003) points towards the social aspects of the diffusion of ICT, and especially notes the importance of opinion leaders who demonstrate the value of adoption and observability of those benefits. Warschauer (2002; 2003) goes further to outline a range of social factors that determines whether ICT leads towards full social inclusion. The findings of Becker et al. (2010), Sandvig (2003), and Viseu et al. (2006) help define an important role for PCCs: they provide the environmental conditions to incorporate ICT to facilitate effective use and social inclusion.

PCCs as spaces for community collaboration

Laura Baker (2008) describes the range of skills needed for effective research and learning, such as where and how to look for information, computer skills, writing skills, presentation skills, and teamwork. To support this integrated set of skills, she describes her success in implementing a learning commons within the library at Abilene Christian University that integrates information, technology, and support services “to create a learning environment that is more complete, more holistic, and much more exciting.” We suggest it is crucial that PCCs be designed as a learning commons in order to optimally support community research, learning, and collaboration. For instance, The Horizon Report authors (Johnson, 2009) state that “the notions of collective intelligence and mass amateurization are redefining scholarship as we grapple with issues of top-down control and grassroots scholarship,” giving rise to citizen professionals and the need to equip them adequately. By providing physical spaces in which community members can come together, each with different backgrounds, insights, and skills, PCCs have the potential to serve as places where knowledge acquired by one can be shared with others. In this way PCCs offer support to what Wenger has called “communities of practice,” that is, groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn individually; as a group, then, they learn how to do it better as they interact regularly (Wenger and Snyder, 2000).

Berry et al. (1993) note that participation in the political process is best fostered through regular face-to-face interactions. According to this research, a mix of online and personal contacts makes the most sense to spur participation in civic processes. Virtual tools and approaches can help bridge the gap between civil society and decision makers (Vaughan, 2007), but cannot replace actual encounters.  Similarly, based on the early-twentieth-century theories and practices of Charles Peirce, John Dewey, and Jane Addams, a number of researchers have proposed that the inquiry cycle, especially as applied to communities of inquiry, provides a rich environment for achieving educational and community development goals (Bishop and Bruce, 2008; Bruce and Bishop, 2008; Shields, 1999; Short et al., 1996). These “communities”—of practice and of inquiry—as examined in the publications mentioned, are grounded in human relationships. Thus we focus on creating centers that first and foremost emphasize community research, learning, and collaboration in a physical space while providing the necessary ICT to support such activities.

The importance of PCC design

Beginning with research by Roger Barker dating back to the late 1940s, the interdisciplinary field of environmental psychology has explored ways that the built environment and social settings influence behavior (Barker, 1968; Canter and Craik, 2008; Gifford, 2007). Evidence-based design is a field of study that applies findings from environmental psychology and other disciplines, including neuroscience, to achieve design that positively impacts human behavior and psychological wellness (Hamilton and Watkins, 2009; Nussbaumer, 2009, Vischer and Ziesel, 2008). If public computing facilities are to make the transition from facilities prioritizing distribution of technology to community centers fostering effective use of tools to achieve social, economic, and educational objectives, design of these physical spaces must become a central concern (Wolske et al., 2010). When space is properly designed, individuals and groups gain a sense of ownership and place within such spaces, with the term “place” indicating an optimal psychological fit between people and their surrounding physical location, or space (Sime, 1986).  

While design research has been applied in a number of different contexts from health care to senior living to office workspaces, the design of community centers and especially spaces that incorporate public computing facilities is understudied. From our review of research in environmental psychology, we propose the following:

Hypothesis: Evidence-based design that considers cultural context and individual and community attitudes, aspirations, and other psychological criteria in the design of PCC spaces will lead towards qualitatively and quantitatively different uses of ICT.

More specifically this paper poses two broad research questions, and offers some preliminary answers. Informed by our review of the literature on evidence-based design, the first question is:

Research Question 1: How might we integrate ICT into spaces if we were to design for effective use of private-public and public-public workspaces, as opposed to prioritizing a density of computers for generic access?

Second, drawing on community informatics literature:

Research Question 2: How might we integrate ICT into spaces in order to strengthen social connections among users and promote grassroots scholarship?

The paper will first review key findings from environmental psychology and evidence-based design that provided lenses through which to understand observations made during visits to community centers and PCCs as part of a 2010 community informatics studio course. Next, the paper will describe the outcome assessment of a case study in which these key design principles informed a makeover of a PCC in a marginalized community in west central Illinois. Finally, the paper will explore future directions for research based on these initial findings.

Design Principles

Environmental psychology considers the relationship between humans and their environment. Scholars in this field assess human desires, preferences, attitudes, perceptions, and motivations with evidence gathered using methods in the social sciences. Place-behavior relationships help address why people react as they do to their physical environment (Brant, Chong, and Martin, 2010). The way in which we occupy a space--the seat we choose, the lighting that we prefer while completing a given task, and the view we select--are all defined by our interaction with the built environment. John Zeisel argues that “having a broad understanding of the brain’s environment system is important for environmental designers to understand how the external environment plays a role in an individual’s memory, orientation, and learning” (Zeisel, 2006). The neurosciences explain that the built environment (in our case) is a context for stimulating human emotions and responses to basic cognitive functions such as learning, memory, orientation, and perception (Gifford, 2007).

As a starting point, for this paper we consider primarily aesthetics and flexibility as two elements that preliminary reviews of literature indicate are important in design and that can be implemented relatively easily to create more effective PCC spaces that foster a greater sense of place. We also provide an overview of our findings from field observations examining the ways in which various design elements found to affect behavior were integrated, or not integrated, in various PCCs throughout the state of Illinois, USA


One means by which we express our individuality and cultural identity is through aesthetic choices. For instance, décor has been demonstrated to have an effect on interpersonal communications. Robert Gifford (1988) found that a home-like décor, compared to an office-like décor, evoked both increased general and intimate communications. Likewise, colors are environmental stimuli that have a positive or negative effect on performance, behavior, and mood. Color and design used in study environments can impact mood, satisfaction, motivation, and performance levels (Gifford, 2007). Generally, colors with longer frequencies, such as red, are experienced as warm, whereas colors with shorter frequencies, such as blue, are experienced as cold/cool (Whitfield and Wiltshire, 1990). Results from a study comparing youth IQ scores measured in bright rooms (blue, orange, yellow) versus drab rooms (white, brown, black) suggest that scores in bright rooms were 26 points higher than those in the drab rooms. The same study found a 53 percent increase in friendly behavior in orange rooms, and also found that variation in wall coloring, in contrast to uniform coloring, fostered more cooperative behavior ("Behavior: blue is," 1973, 66).

In our field observations, we saw a number of creative uses of artwork and décor both to promote a home-like atmosphere and also convey specific messages. For instance, a local private academy for children that emphasized teamwork as well as personal responsibility in its many different learning activities, featured three pictures at the entry with captions that conveyed the messages: “I Can,” “You Can,” and “We Can.” Use of culturally relevant artwork and decorations also conveyed a sense of home: a recessed portion of the church used curtains, couches, and knick-knacks to echo a home-like environment. We found one especially interesting use of color in an after-school teen center located within a large metropolitan library. Color in this space was used to delineate smaller spaces within a large multi-purpose room. Changes in the tile flooring signaled walkways along with providing visual cues between different types of programming. The area near the brick red wall housed more quiet activities such as reading. The green wall was a background to open as well as secluded workspace arrangements, while the aqua paint colored the backdrop to youth playing Rock Band. Overall, it is clear that color is an important design element that can impact behavior. Choices of brighter colors such as blue, orange, and yellow can be especially valuable in elevating performance and friendliness.


Flexible spaces allow users to shape their own environment. Flexibility can be accommodated by providing furniture that can be manipulated by the user as well as by providing a diversity of furniture arrangements to afford user choice of different configurations. Not only do different individuals prefer differently designed spaces, but also people may benefit from different spaces depending on the type of work being accomplished at any given time. For instance, low ceilings (as perceived by the individual) have been demonstrated to support tasks in which attention to details is important, while high ceilings support tasks in which finding relationships between objects is of importance (Meyers-Levey and Zhu, 2007). Further, spaces should facilitate both private in public and public in public tasks (Viseu et al., 2006). Flexible design should accommodate but balance design for large and small group arrangements as well as the individual tasks (Curtis et al., 2007). When fostering collaboration, clustered seating breaks up visual barriers such as walls or partitions and thereby produces more on-task learning activity than tables or desks positioned in rows (Gifford, R., 2007). Conversely, movable partitions can help to delineate spaces between activities and also provide a sound barrier between groups and individuals providing greater control over interactions (Altman, 1975,1976; Leino-Kilpi et al., 2001; Westin, 1970).

We found that the most flexible spaces best support simultaneous and varied activities. For example, the after-school teen program located in a large metropolitan library featured computing tables on wheels, with tabletop outlets for easily accessible laptop hook ups. These tables could be reoriented, combined, and positioned to accommodate a range of group and/or individual usage. A student wearing headphones positioned himself at a table next to a white board which he used for taking notes as he worked on math homework. Meanwhile, across from him was a table with an instructor facilitating a small graphics class. At the same time, a group across the room was playing Rock Band while seated on couches. These activities could function simultaneously because of the existence of visual and audio filters that could be moved into place providing user-control in a multi-purpose space. In short, flexible design accommodates today’s users’ needs while remaining adaptable to the demands of future society (Mathews, 2006).

Applying Design Principles: the Makeover of the Mary Brown Center Public Computing Lab

The Mary Brown Center is a community center located in the south end of East St. Louis, IL. Erected in early 1960s to serve as a safe community space for area youth through the provision of sport and academic activities, the Center is located within walking distance of three public housing projects and a large assisted living center for seniors. Figure 1 provides a logic model diagramming the resources, activities and outputs, and outcome objectives for the Mary Brown Center.

Figure 1: Mary Brown Center Logic Model

The Center’s urban context is the city of East St. Louis, Illinois which was created across the Mississippi River, and state lines, from St. Louis, Missouri, as an industrial suburb and entertainment hub with lax zoning and tax policies that ensured maximum profits for industry. Once known as an “All-American City” (Look Magazine, 1960; Theising, 2003; Wikipedia, 2010), East St. Louis has since become "the most distressed small city in America" (Kozol, 1991; Reardon, 2003). Population has declined from 83,000 in the 1950s (~50% Black) to 30,000 in 2008 (98% Black; U.S. Census Bureau, 2010) and businesses have declined from 1,527 (mainly large industrial) in 1967 (Reardon, 2003) to 202 (mainly small) in 2008 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007). Slightly over thirty-seven percent of the population lives in poverty (compared to 10.7% for Illinois), including over half of all children. Thirty percent of the population over 25 does not have a high school diploma or equivalent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010).

Methodology for Redesign

Researchers used an evidence-based design methodology during the summer and fall of 2010 to create two redesign proposals and subsequently implement a remodel of the PCC at the Mary Brown Center. Steps included:

  1. A literature review of potentially related community informatics, environmental psychology, and evidence-based design research – Summer, 2010.

  2. Field observations at a range of public spaces in which ICT is incorporated either formally (e.g., a computer lab at a public library) or informally (e.g., computers at a café) – Summer, 2010.

  3. Interviews with the Mary Brown Center director and lab staff for youth programming – Summer, 2010.

  4. Focus groups with Mary Brown Center staff and youth – Summer, 2010.

  5. Display of design proposal posters at the Center, soliciting feedback through post-it notes – Fall, 2010.

  6. Collaborative implementation in which researchers, Mary Brown Center staff, and Mary Brown Center youth used the design proposals and feedback as a guide to create the final remodel – Fall, 2010.

  7. Informal observations of outcomes – Fall, 2010 to Spring, 2011.

  8. A set of open-ended interviews to assess outcomes – Spring, 2011.

A key objective of interviews with the Mary Brown Center director and staff was to ensure that the redesign proposals would create a public computing space that would support the outcome objectives of center, and especially related to youth programming. At the same time, attempts were made to find a design that would not disrupt the other outcome objectives of the center.

A key objective of the focus groups with Mary Brown Center staff and youth and the display of design proposal posters was to situate design features within the community’s cultural context and preferences. This was further accomplished through a collaborative implementation process. For instance, as certain components were implemented, thus helping everyone to visualize the end-goal, staff would identify additional artwork and furniture arrangements that enhanced the home-like feeling of the final product.

At the same time, the AmeriCorps program in East St. Louis secured state funding through a state of Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity “Digital Divide” grant to replace the original 13 computers with 25 new computers. While this was not part of the original redesign planning, the participatory nature of the process readily allowed for this component to be integrated into the overall remodel.

Original Mary Brown Center PCC

New Mary Brown Center PCC

Outcome Assessment

Methodology for Assessment

Evidence-based design seeks to collect feedback systematically on specific design decisions to achieve improved future results (Vischer and Ziesel, 2008). We applied this technique to assess the outcomes of the redesign through informal observations from October 2010 to May 2011, formal interviews with the director of the Mary Brown Center and lab staff for youth programming. The director also recruited two young adults who routinely use the computer lab to be interviewed by researchers to provide preliminary insights into the outcomes from the youth user perspective.

An open-ended interview structure facilitated an inductive research process. This flexibility permitted exploration of emergent themes in the experiences of the participants. Attention to emergent themes is especially critical in the early phases of an evidence-based design effort so that researchers may ascertain the most salient aspects of the space in the perspectives of the occupants (Ziesel, 2006). Specific interview questions are included in the appendix of this paper.

The most important general outcome of the interview assessment was that physical design is critical and inseparable from the overall success of the lab. Participants in the study indicated that the redesign resulted in radical positive changes in the use and perception of the lab. The exact nature of these changes varied depending on the perspective and role of the participant. The following sections describe specific themes of interest that emerged through the interview process.

Key Themes From Assessment

Perception of the Lab as a Social Space:

Two of the interview participants described the original PCC as being structurally unsuited for social and collaborative work. They noted that the rectilinear arrangement of computers and desks, facing the outside walls of the room, resulted in an overly formal and individualized environment. One respondent described young people using the lab as “like little robot drones, just clicking away...they wouldn't be interacting with each other.” The previous arrangement of the room led to a lab culture where young people became less social than in other parts of the center, and more fixated on their private uses of the computer. The same respondent observed the following:

The kids talk all the time, but it seems like when people get on the computer, it's me and the computer. Me, the computer and my headphones. That's it. That's a hard thing to fix because when they are on it they are so focused on the screen...that's it.

These observations were echoed by the director who was also familiar with the adult population's use of the computers. The director noted that adult users of the lab were typically engaged in job searches, and entered the lab in a “somber” mood. In the administrator's judgment, the previous arrangement of the lab exacerbated this tendency and created an inadvertently “unfriendly” environment.

The change from the rectilinear arrangement to a flexible design utilizing clusters of desks in a diversity of arrangements dramatically altered these perceptions. One staff member commented, “It has to be social because of how it's arranged. They [young people] are more willing to talk to you about what they are doing.” She also noted “the kids are more willing to talk to each other...they can work as a group better, because it's more set up as a group environment... you're not just facing the wall by yourself. You're consciously recognizing everyone around you.” Interestingly, the lab staff also reported a perception that disruptive behavior during after-school hours decreased overall since the redesign.

Adult users of the lab benefited similarly; the director of programming noted that the vibrancy of the colors and the social layout resulted in a friendly and dynamic environment. In her experience, these changes translated directly into a better mood of users of the lab, including job seekers, in spite of a continued economic downturn in the region. The director and staff believed these changes would result in better outcomes for users of the lab, although they acknowledged it would be difficult to show causality.

Perception of Personal Space:

One young person noted that crowding was the most serious problem in the old lab configuration. This observation was particularly interesting because the previous lab actually contained twelve fewer computers. As a result of having a perception of more personal space in the new designed configuration, the participant noted feeling simultaneously more comfortable in private activities, and more ready to participate socially.

Physical Space as a Socio-technical System:

The redesign had implications for the maintenance and reliability of the computers in the lab. A staff member directly involved in responding to computer problems explained that the previous design of the lab permitted her to stand in one central place and observe the lab users. Although she was able to observe all of the lab users at once, she was only superficially aware of what each person was doing. After the redesign, she was forced to adopt a “patrol” pattern, walking through the lab and briefly interacting with each person. This change led to a greater sense of connection, availability, and intimacy in encounters with lab users. Consequently, users were more comfortable reporting problems and engaging in collaborative problem-solving.

The patrolling staff person made the following observation:

Now, we're more accessible for any problems that are going on. We know when a problem is happening, because before if a kid had a problem, they just left the computer lab. Well, their problem would be on the computer, it could be a virus, it could be something actually broke [sic] and we wouldn't know about that. We would have no idea until days later when some kid would be like 'this computer is not working.' But now if we see a computer not turning on or if something is flashing up, we can address the problem right away. I find that very helpful, actually.

This statement demonstrates two important consequences of the design change. The first is a probably-measurable decrease in response time to technical problems. The other is a change in the subjective experience of young people encountering problems; in the new arrangement, young people feel less frustrated and more wiling to ask for help.

Redesign as an Institutional Process:

The theme of unrealized potential was common throughout participants’ reflections on the overall importance of the redesign project. The director commented:

It's almost like it was an unpolished gem that was kind of in the back cabinet. You knew it was there...it was like a reawakening, almost... once it was complete, we realized how much more we can be doing. Even though it was being used for all these different things before, there could be so many more uses of it. That's what we realized. We were not using the lab to its fullest potential.

The “reawakening,” described above impacted more than just programming in the lab. The director also reflected that:

Once the computer lab was formed, and we saw how everything was working...it made us change our approach to what we provide to the community. We changed our support system. We looked at it and said, you know what, we could be doing just a little bit more.

Intriguingly, the widespread changes motivated by the redesign in the computer lab were largely independent of the inclusion of more and better computers. Indeed, increased use of the purely technical resources included in the redesign have only happened slowly, and some of the more advanced hardware such as MIDI keyboards, camcorders, video editing software and green screen remain unused to date.

The lab staff noted that since the redesign, other staff members have been making greater use of the lab. One person commented:

We use the computer lab more, as in the staff using it for the kids rather than just the kids being on the computer... the computer has so much more to offer to the kids now than before, because we use it. As a staff we're more comfortable in there.

The director of programming has also noted a change in the way staff interact within the lab space during staff training sessions. They are now more likely to provide over the shoulder support to each other as they learn new skills.

A recurring theme throughout the interviews suggested that the redesign played a clear role in challenging and changing expectations about the use of the computer lab. The language of the respondents consistently indicated that redesign shifted basic perspectives about the role of the center in the community. The redesign project served as a joint institutional-community laboratory, where experimenting with the computer lab space appears to have triggered broader change.

The role of redesign in an institution’s experimentation with space is perhaps subtle, but it has been central to the administration's view of the future of the community center. Physical transformation through design of the computer lab allowed the center to reflect (and enhance) the inherently social goals of the entire organization.


The lab redesign process resulted in remarkable qualitative changes at the Mary Brown Center. Summarizing the key themes reported above, physical design reshaped social expectations from the space, revitalized administrators and staff members in pursuing more sophisticated programming, improved the mood of the users, and resulted in better maintenance of computers through more immediate reporting of problems and collaborative problem-solving.

As stated above, perhaps the most important finding from this work is the affirmation that the design of physical space is a critical component of community informatics and of socio-technical systems more generally. The wide-ranging effects of the lab redesign provide evidence of the significance of space in community information centers. Methods and perspectives from other fields, notably environmental psychology and evidence-based design, are needed to identify and contextualize the specific mechanisms of the influence of space on public computing labs.

This work also demonstrated the potential role of physical redesign as an institutional or joint community-institutional process. The findings described above suggest that public computing labs can be a powerful addition to multipurpose programs that are not necessarily explicitly focused on computing.

A great deal of work remains to be done in exploring the role of space in community informatics research using both qualitative and quantitative measures. The inductive approach utilized in this case study has provided a rich set of insights that now need to be refined with more formal studies. We suggest several future studies to investigate themes raised by the interview participants:

Study 1: Socio-technical Implications of Space.

The role of space appears to have had an effect on computer maintenance and reliability as indicated by staff. A more formal study should be conducted to compare variables like response time, computer uptime and user confidence, before and after similar redesign projects. A quasi-experimental framework using a pre/post design structure across several sites could help capture statistical data to determine if similar redesign processes have a strong effect on systems reliability. It may also be desirable to produce further longitudinal studies to indicate if the effect is limited in duration; namely if the “freshness” of the redesign fades and response rates return to a baseline level.

Study 2: Social Expectations in PCCs.

One of the most important outcomes from the redesign in the view of users, staff, and the administration was the effect on perceptions of the lab as a social space. A survey instrument should be applied to measure these perceptions. Again, a pre/post quasi-experimental framework could capture useful data on this question.

Study 3: Outcome of Desk Geometry on Crowding Perception.

The most counter-intuitive finding of this study was that the redesign led to reduced perceptions of crowding, despite featuring a higher computer density. The strongest current hypothesis is that the unusual geometry of the desk surfaces and the shape of the clusters influence the perception of crowding. An experimental study is necessary to test this hypothesis more rigorously. Future work is also needed to determine if there are relatively stable computer density crowding thresholds in public computing labs. Such a threshold would be useful for lab designers and architects in creating labs that maximize the number of people served while preserving the potential for socialization and collaborative work.

Study 4: Influence of Redesign Process on Perceptions of Ownership.

The redesign process appears to have had a strong motivational effect on users, staff and administration. Users demonstrate a greater desire to make use of the space while staff and administrators have increased their integration of the space into center programming. A survey instrument could be applied to test for the presence of a general effect, as well as characterize its potency across several groups. Further, as a number of changes were made at once, surveys, iterative remodels that change fewer features, or comparisons across a number of PCCs could be used to begin to isolate which design elements impact the motivational aspects of the change.

Study 5: Influence of Redesign on Information Seeking.

The administration and staff suggested in interviews that the redesign may have changed or at least partly diversified the use of the computers. A transactional analysis of the lab computer records could help detect if there are statistically significant effects on the actual use of computers from the redesign. Capturing anonymized data at the lab router level may be useful in assessing these effects at a gross level, without collecting any individualized data. This work could be extremely useful in determining the relationship of space to the information seeking behaviors of community users.


While the digital divide was an early framework for directing academic work in the application of ICT within underserved communities, it has led to development of policies and praxis that might prove counterproductive (Gurstein, 2003). Frameworks such as effective use (Gurstein, 2003) and social inclusion (Warschauer, 2002) recognize that technology itself is not the objective; rather, achieving individual and community defined goals is. A study by Viseu et al. (2006) indicates that use of public computing spaces is more diverse than often assumed and should not be considered a transitory stepping stone toward “better,” private computer access. Indeed, there are key activities that cannot be reproduced outside of a place-based computing space (Sandvig, 2003). Overall, these and similar research findings indicate the vital importance for public computing centers not only to address digital inequalities but also to support ongoing effective use of ICT for private and public tasks.

Our findings in this preliminary study indicate the importance of harnessing research from evidence-based design to intentional design for effective use of private-public and public-public workspaces. This design process uses past results as a starting point that then includes an iterative cycle of stakeholder input, design, and stakeholder feedback that concludes with an implementation that is then integrated into future assessment and design considerations. When combined with research from community informatics, we believe that this approach will help integrate ICT into spaces in strategic ways, strengthen social connections among users and promote grassroots scholarship. While it has been argued that consideration of flexibility and comfort is counter to the goals of density of computer access, our findings suggest that both can be accommodated when evidence-based design strategies are appropriately applied in design. In the past we have encountered resistance to designs that provide user control of flexible space. The current findings suggest such control actually decreases disruptive behavior, promotes care of the facilities, and increases positive attitudes in the redesigned space, tendencies aligned with some past research (Harrison, 1996). Overall, we found that careful design changes can improve perceptions among users and foster greater social interactions (Gifford, 2007, 527; Harrison, 1996). The redesign of the space brought about a new awareness of the computer lab as a means for increasing programming at the community center, rather than simply as a passive necessity for visitors to accomplish specific individual functional tasks.

This paper set out to address two broad research questions: 1) how might we integrate ICT into spaces if we were to design for effective use of private-public and public-public workspaces, as opposed to prioritizing a density of computers for generic access? and 2) how might we integrate ICT into spaces in order to strengthen social connections among users and promote grassroots scholarship? While we note that considerable subsequent research will be needed to confidently answer these questions, we find these preliminary findings provide useful initial insights. Moreover, we find this line of research promising as a highly useful strategy for fostering greater effective use of ICT for social inclusion.


We would like to recognize Vera Jones, Janine Villard, Terri Scott, and the rest of the staff at the Mary Brown Center. Their creative participation in the redesign of the computer lab at the Center was key to achieving such positive results. This research was supported in part by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services Youth Community Informatics grant (Chip Bruce, PI, and Ann Bishop co-PI; RE 03-07-0007-07); by NSF iCUBED: Informatics and Computation throughout Undergraduate Baccalaureate Education; the Illinois Informatics Institute; and by the State of Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (Christopher Coleman, project coordinator).


Formal Interview Questions

Before/after questions (ask all questions first as before, then repeat as after)

*. Please tell us about a favorite memory of the computer lab before (since) the redesign.
*. Please tell us a bit about what you would do on a typical day in the computer lab before (since) the redesign from the time you would walk into the computer lab to the time you would leave.
*. When you ran into problems doing something in the computer lab before (since) the redesign, how would you go about dealing with the problem?
*. What were your favorite things about the lab as it was setup before (since) the redesign? Least favorite?
*. What was it like trying to do homework in the lab before (since) the redesign?
*. What types of interactions did you have with youth in the lab before (since) the redesign?

*. What types of interactions did you have with support staff in the lab before (since) the redesign?

Concluding questions

*. Was the redesign a major part of any changes or would any of the differences experienced have happened anyway without spending any money?

*. What were the top three changes that made the most difference?


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The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441