Special Curriculum - Design of Generic Software

Special curriculum for master students in the IS research group and the DHIS2 design lab on design and localization of generic software.


This special curriculum concerns how generic software packages designed for implementation across different organizational contexts is designed to be usable to local end-users. Designing for usability in software requires an emphasis on contextual factors and established practices of a particular set of end-users. At the same time, the 'generic' emphasize designs that are detached from specific organizational settings, to serve large heterogeneous user groups in different contexts. There is thus an interesting tension between the generic and the usable. Localization of the software during implementation (which we term implementation-level design), or user-driven tailoring of software on the level of end-use are potential solutions to this problem but comes with multiple challenges, and will require new methods for both generic and implementation-level software design. Traditional design methods are based on the argument that software is made usable by conducting activities to understand and involve end-users in the process of design, to reflect these users’ established practices and understandings in the technology. With generic software, the potential audience of end-users and organizational contexts are highly heterogeneous. Rather than being sensitive to specific contextual factors, design unfolds as a process of generification where only the shared traits across a variety of implementing organizations are considered. Sensitivity to local needs and usability can thus not solely be addressed on this generic level of design. When generic software is implemented in a concrete organizational context, misfits between design and practice may be addressed by localizing certain aspects of the software. This process of implementation-level design also provides a different context than assumed by traditional design methods, as the ability to shape the software according to local needs may be constrained by the adaptability of the software. How to best support and conduct design during software implementation is an exciting area in need of more research.

This collection of literature herein provides a foundation related to the topics of design, usability, generic software production, software implementation, and use-level technology appropriation.

Implementation of generic software packages, as opposed to ‘from scratch’ bespoke software development increasingly is becoming the prominent approach to building software in public and private organizational contexts. The topic of this special curriculum is thus highly relevant to contemporary software development and design, and provide a theoretical basis for interesting master topics within information systems research.

Intended audience

The intended audience for this syllabus is master students writing theses within the Information Systems research group, and especially within the DHIS2 Design Lab. The literature provides a general overview of the field the design lab is concerned with, but as with other master courses, it is not a complete list of literature for any master thesis. We expect that students do a thorough literature review beyond these articles within their particular sub-topics for their thesis work.


Based primarily on reading the literature independently. There will in addition be 3 seminars where the overall topics and how they relate will be discussed.

Learning outcomes

After reading the outlined literature the students are expected to

  • have an understanding of the tension between generic software and local practice.
  • have a basic understanding of the concepts of design, usability, and usability-oriented design methods.
  • be able to articulate the difference between bespoke software development, generic software development, implementation, and use-level tailoring and some of their implications for usability and design.
  • have an understanding of the challenges associated with software implementation as a context of usability-oriented design.


  • Essay 3 – 4 pages discussing own planned research project in relation to the literature.
  • Presentation (20 min + 10 min discussion based on the essay).

Graded pass/fail.


Some of the categories have additional readings. These are not mandatory to read but recommended. The readings consist of research articles from conferences and journals. The mandatory reading totals 385 pages and the additional 208 pages.

1. Introduction

Literature that directly addresses the issue of usability and design of and within generic software, and generic software development and implementation as different from traditional development and design contexts.

  • Bansler, J. P., & Havn, E. C. (1994) – Information systems development with generic systems
  • Li, M. & Nielsen, P. (2019) – Making usable generic software. A matter of global or local design?
  • Dittrich, Y. (2014). Software engineering beyond the project – Sustaining software ecosystems.
  • Li, M. (forthcoming) - A Design Approach to Addressing Usability in Generic Software

2. Foundation: Usability, design, and user involvement

Literature related to the core concepts of the topic, such as ‘design’, ‘usability’ and ‘user involvement’.

  • Schön & Wiggins (1992) - Kinds of seeing in designing
  • Kujala, S. (2003). User involvement: a review of the benefits and challenges.
  • Grudin (1992). Utility and usability: research issues and development contexts
  • Grudin (1991). Bridging the Gaps Between Developers and Users
  • Winschiers, H. (2006). The challenges of participatory design in a intercultural context: Designing for usability in Namibia.
  • Suchman, L. (2002). Located accountabilities in technology production.


  • Tractinsky (2018) - The Usability Construct: A Dead End?
  • Nielsen, P., & Hanseth, O. (2010). Towards a design theory of usability and generativity. Paper presented at the European Conference of Information Systems (ECIS), Cape Town, South Africa.

3. Global software meets local practice

Literature related to the tensions between global standardized software, and the need for local situated design. The articles illustrate the difficulties with making software fit local requirements during implementation or end-use, where the concept of ‘misfits’ is a central concern. Further, the tensions between localizing software through configuration and customization are problematized.

  • Rolland & Monteiro (2002) - Balancing the Local and the Global in Infrastructural Information Systems
  • Pollock & Williams (2007) - Global software and its provenance: generification work in the production of organizational software packages
  • Pollock, N., & Cornford, J. (2002). Fitting standard software to non-standard organisations.
  • Sestoft, P., & Vaucouleur, S. (2008). Technologies for evolvable software products: The conflict between customizations and evolution
  • Soh, C., Kien, S. S., & Tay-Yap, J. (2000). Cultural fits and misfits: is ERP a universal solution?
  • Martin, D., Mariani, J., & Rouncefield, M. (2007). Managing integration work in an NHS electronic patient record (EPR) project.


  • Light, B. (2005). Going beyond ‘misfit’ as a reason for ERP package customisation.
  • Martin, D., Rouncefield, M., O'Neill, J., Hartswood, M., & Randall, D. (2005). Timing in the art of integration: 'that's how the Bastille got stormed'.

4.Facilitating and conducting implementation-level design

Literature related to the core of our topic, where localization activities during software implementation (which we refer to as implementation-level design) are discussed.

  • Li, M. & Nielsen, P. (2019) - Design Infrastructures in Global Software Platform Ecosystems
  • Dittrich, Y., Vaucouleur, S., & Giff, S. (2009). ERP customization as software engineering: knowledge sharing and cooperation.
  • Pries-Heje & Dittrich (2009). ERP implementation as design: Looking at participatory design for means to facilitate knowledge integration
  • Li, M. (2019) - Making usable generic software - The Platform Appliances Approach

5. Use-level design and appropriation

Literature with perspectives on flexible technologies that support tailoring or ‘domestication’ of software on the level of end-use. The emphasis on user-driven tailoring contrasts the focus of implementation-level design but have similar arguments regarding the need for flexible software to facilitate usability for the end-users.

  • Silverstone & Haddon (1996) - Design and the Domestication of ICTs: Technical Change and Everyday Life
  • Germonprez et al., (2007) - A Theory of Tailorable Technology Design
  • Ehn, P. (2008). Participation in design things.
  • Fogli, D., & Piccinno, A. (2013). Enabling domain experts to develop usable software artifacts.
  • Wulf & Pipek (2008) - Component-based tailorability: Enabling highly flexible software applications.


  • Draxler et al (2011) - Supporting the Collaborative Appropriation of an Open Software Ecosystem
  • Von Hippel & Katz (2002) - Shifting innovation to users via toolkits.
  • Fischer, G., & Giaccardi, E. (2006). Meta-design: A framework for the future of end-user development.

6. Research on DHIS2 as a Generic Software

Highlights some key readings related to generic software and tensions between the global and the local, using DHIS2 as an empirical case.

  • Gizaw, A. A., Bygstad, B., & Nielsen, P. (2017). Open generification.
  • Nielsen, P., & Sæbø, J. I. (2016). Three strategies for functional architecting: cases from the health systems of developing countries.
  • Roland, L. K., Sanner, T. A., Sæbø, J. I., & Monteiro, E. (2017). P for Platform. Architectures of large-scale participatory design.
  • Nicholson, B., Nielsen, P., Saebo, J., & Sahay, S. (2019). Exploring Tensions of Global Public Good Platforms for Development: The Case of DHIS2.
  • Sanner, T. A., Manda, T. D., & Nielsen, P. (2014). Grafting: balancing control and cultivation in information infrastructure innovation.
  • Msiska, B., & Nielsen, P. (2018). Innovation in the fringes of software ecosystems: the role of socio-technical generativity.


  • Nguyen, S. P., Nielsen, P., & Sæbø, J. I. (2018). Global Standards and Local Development. 
  • Sahay, S., Nielsen, P., Faujdar, D., Kumar, R., & Mukherjee, A. (2018). Frugal Digital Innovation and Living Labs: A Case Study of Innovation in Public Health in India. 
  • Sæbø, J. I., Moyo, C. M., & Nielsen, P. (2018). Promoting transparency and accountability with district league tables in Sierra Leone and Malawi. 


Published June 17, 2019 11:16 AM - Last modified June 17, 2019 11:16 AM