Towards a taxonomy of end user applications

The more I think about it, the more I believe that what I am trying to do is address a gap I see in current end user development research. In particular, I think a certain kind of application (I call it a “data-centric application” but “transaction processing system” is appropriate too) has been left out of much end user development research.

My problem, however, is I can’t claim a gap until I have been able to enumerate all the kinds of applications you could potentially create.

This means I need to find (or create) a taxonomy of software applications.

We used to joke in post grad that there are two kinds of systems, Transaction Processing Systems (TPS) and Decision Support Systems (DSS). This is partly due to Silver’s infamously broad definition of a DSS as “a computer-based information system that affects or is intended to affect how people make decisions” (Silver, 1991, p. 19). I need something more specific in order to show any gaps in the existing research.

I found the following references:

  • Robert L. Glass Iris Vessey, Toward a taxonomy of software application domains: History, Journal of Systems and Software, Volume 17, Issue 2, February 1992, Pages 189-199.
  • Glass, RL. and Vessey, I. (1995). “Contemporary Application Domain Taxonomies,” IEEE Software, July.

I don’t, however, agree with Glass & Vessey that a taxonomy of application domains is particularly useful.

Let’s consider a common application: the spreadsheet (Excel in particular). It can be used in many domains. For example, a banker might use it as a database for keeping track of journal entries (just like an accounting spreadsheet) ; a teacher may use it as a database for keeping track of students’ grades; A line manager might use it to simulate a production line and a manager might use it to optimise his department’s budget.

There are two ways we can look at the above example: one is that Excel is a special kind of “meta” application which allows you to create specific applications for specific circumstances. The other is that Excel can behave like a simulation application, a database and an optimisation application in different circumstances. I prefer the latter argument.

Besides, let’s say I categorise applications into “Financial”, “Higher education” and the like. Is using a word processor to write a letter to a stockholder truly that different to using a word processor to write a letter to a student?

The domain in which an application is used does have an impact on the way it is used, and of course there will be different requirements in different circumstances. However, I think the difference between spreadsheets and word processors is far greater than the difference between word processors used for writing to shareholders and word processors used for writing to students.

So, the upshot of all this is I don’t seem to have a convenient taxonomy ready to hand, so I am probably going to have to make one up.


  • Silver, M. S. (1991). Systems that Support Decision Makers: Description and Analysis: John Wiley.