As stated in the book Beyond Human Computer Interaction, every product that is ever “used” by a consumer will have a user experience. As such every product sold for consumer use comes under the umbrella of a human-product interaction. Technology has served to increase the sophistication of all products available in the last 3 decades of the Consumer Products industry. The creation of the vacuum tube gave way to the first computing mechanism in the early part of the 20th century, and the subsequent evolution of the transistor has resulted in the creation of the digital computer industry. Consistent evolution in the technical possibilities and uses of the transistor has resulted in increasingly powerful and sophisticated advances in computing. These advances have resulted in the reduction of the size and materials required to produce individual transistors increasing the applicable areas of the transistor chip, to consumer devices and even mobile ubiquitous computing systems. Mobile computing devices require that a user interfaces with the device as part of its function and purpose. These devices, therefore, should also be considered in any interface study that purports to describe human computer interaction. A victim of its own success computers are being integrated into as many consumer devices as possible, including refrigerators, ovens, toasters and even the family washing machine. As such the problems and issues associated typically with traditional computing devices must now be extended to all computing consumer products.
This idea is given increasing face time within the traditional Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) definitions and/or models. A popular dictionary definition found online for HCI states that “Human-computer interaction is a discipline concerned with the design, evaluation and implementation of interactive computing systems for human use and with the study of major phenomena surrounding them”. The study of interaction between humans and computing systems is extensively explored from the user and somewhat covered from the design aspect as part of the course. The course and its textbook strives to uncover the most important high level considerations necessary in the development of a design. Furthermore, the study of the phenomena associated with human computer interaction was dealt with as part of the course. This glance at the different fields and research ideas that intersect with HCI is a wonderful glimpse into the multi-disciplinary activities and concepts that surround HCI. Psychology, computer science, engineering and many more fields have to work together to achieve a unique and satisfying consumer experience. The consumer/ user is the ultimate judge of the quality of a product, and as mentioned above all products used by a user, has a user experience that is the sole point of interaction between product and consumer. This interaction process describes how a user will feel about the product and indirectly will control sales, and growth opportunities for the corporate entities that sell it. By designing for a sublime user experience, users are more likely to continue working with that corporate entity. Reportedly, Apple is a company that designs all its products on this base principle, building for itself a very rabid, dedicated user base. The course stuck it its principles of focusing on all interfaces which is the probabilistic model for all design in the future. In fact one of the terms coined within the course textbook fits this principle exactly, where companies are using interaction designers and not interface designers. The course matched and at some points exceeded expectations. Initially I was skeptical about the mandatory discussions, and chat rooms and even the shared whiteboard.
The course coalesced around a few core principles which were to drive the education and experiences of the students enrolled. The emphasis on methods of learning was the problem based collaborative learning approach. It was expected that students will get together at set times during the week and engage in a synchronous discussion based on a problem set for the class for the week. At the end of a fruitful session a document was created incorporating all participants’ viewpoints and submitted to the Course Wiki. The course focused on Collaborative Learning, Social Computing, Knowledge construction and community building as the major discussion points. The final goal was to understand and develop a process to extend Social Networking tools and sites. The primary focus was on the course tool that was used to coordinate social networking and synchronous chats, which was VMT. VMT stood for Virtual Math Teams, and was a real world system used to coordinate teams and solutions of mathematical issues. The chance to work on a real world system gave the teams and myself extra impetus on developing practical applications and theories that could be used to improve the existing system. As users of the same system we were able to gather information for the discovery process of any product development lifecycle, by navigating and accepting the role of user ourselves. By playing the part of users and interaction designers, we were able to come up with a mental image of the perfect interaction between the system and users. However reality, education and experience were not equal to the task at the beginning of this course.
The first week of the course was dedicated to “design social networking support for guests at the Koi Resort”. This project helped to set the tone for the rest of the course playing designer to a large scale real world types of issues. The system that we designed in that week was not necessarily concerned with the reality or practicality, but instead benefited from the concept technologies floating around. After 10 weeks of user based design, I would have changed the initial emphasis from technical specifications to user needs. A lightweight device as an extra crutch to carry around may not have been the smartest idea for a user on vacation. Furthermore, the idea merely hints at possibilities but does not provide realistic scenarios or a complete walkthrough. Finally, the mock ups of the interface was ludicrous at best when it came to usability. By relying on conventional wisdoms, we expect in a modern interface, the requirements for those conventions were never added to the design, thus defeating the purpose of a user friendly device.
To gain a better understanding of the practicalities in designing an interaction system later in the course we digested a series of Research papers on collaborative systems. These papers were merely the prelude to additional research performed to gain a better understanding of usage and needs of any collaboration tool. The papers proved to be very useful, and were utilized on a Just in Time delivery method, where understanding of the weeks reading material was necessary to completing the weeks design request. The papers were relevant to the material in question as they were designed around the creation and usage of the VMT project and course work associated with that design. Many of the papers were co-authored by the professor teaching the current class, which helped to focus the learning process through the VMT system. Many of the design projects were continuous tasks, where a task completed the previous week would tie into the current week’s task. This helped to create a sense of data and information continuity absent from most online courses. Furthermore, it created a feeling of attachment with the documents and ideas created by the group and the system that our designs were to be integrated with. By developing a sense of ownership in the students we were more invested in the process of design.
However the design that the group undertook was not typical of any of the lifecycle models described in the course textbook, or the course materials. The group design for a single project was undertaken over a matter of four weeks only for the VMT extension project. The model undertaken for our work in the course was but a small part necessary in the development of a product and comprised solely of interaction design.
The first step required that students individually analyze the VMT interface and product and decide on an extension to this existing framework that would increase the capability of the system. As a preface to this exercise a week before the paper was due, VMT underwent some major changes , cosmetic and underlying that completely blew away any of the major concerns that we had faced during our time with the system. As such our prior experience was no longer relevant and required a complete re-evaluation of the system. The system utilizes chat rooms that have an accompanying whiteboard for collaboration, as well as chat logs for history. The new code was instrumental in expanding the interface and providing multiple separated whiteboards for use, and improving the usability through pop up help logos, and internal Internet browsers. However, I found that it was not always practical to check the site every few hours for updates from team members. Since this is an Internet application, with users potentially hailing from around the world with varying time zones, it is possible for updates to the group chat can occur at any time. With a mathematical problem, even a hint of a solution, can snowball to a theorem or answer. As such, coordination is key to cracking the code as it were. The chat room does not provide dynamic updates to the students, and they need to connect periodically to determine action items for the problem solution. Furthermore, urgent items and possible delays that would prevent users from logging on must be communicated as soon as possible to team members, so as to create an alternative plan of action. Finally, I felt that learning and storing individualized email addresses for every member of every team that a student is part of could be tedious. As such, integration of systems should provide that service as part of the education package. These principles combined to form the Mobile Communications VMT Extension.
As part of the lifecycle model of product development, it states that the team has to consider all requirements prior to prototyping. As part of an interaction design requirements team, it was necessary to determine the capabilities and features that the system should have to provide the most optimal solution to users. The users would be driving the experience and we had to walk through scenarios within our minds and in discussion prior to arriving at some concrete scenarios. By storyboarding the sequence, we were able to get a rough idea for how the system would be configured, its capabilities and finally its usage. However as experienced users of VMT, we found that we had not considered all possible paths present in the story board, as well as instructions on use, and finally, we missed the complete How To / explanation of our project. This lapse in documentation was contradictory to our purpose of building a scripted set of scenarios and a storyboarded , illustrated prototype. By leaving much of the design up to the imagination of the user, the project itself remained imaginary. This was the first SDLC based practical lesson learned for project creation. Our efforts were incomplete in scope and required considerably more thought and time in creation of scenarios, as well as dedicated interface creators who would be able to mock up accurate designs according to text descriptions. These flaws were highlighted and derided by our testers before the next cycle of assignments.
The next two weeks were spent on learning more of where the team went wrong. This experience served to highlight common issues that developers run into, and takes into account the difference between getting a project done, and getting a project done right. By running a heuristic evaluation of another team’s design we were given an opportunity to distance ourselves from our project and determine the capabilities of another extension to VMT. Finding flaws in that design and its scenarios helped indicate areas of our own design that were missing or at best left off unexpectedly. Thankfully, through studies of other projects, the introspection of our project brought some irregularities to light, especially since the team that was to examine our project never posted their observations. This experience also was useful in educating the team on the need for an outside perspective. Cognitive walkthroughs of our scenarios were presented to users who were not familiar with the collaboration systems or even, in some cases, documentation and Messaging tools. This exposure to brutal evaluations, also helped the team to re-design the project from step one, keeping first time users at the forefront of design. By developing the interactive interface to simplify user entry, as well as describe the results of each step, through a help file, we were able to create a distinguishable, user friendly interface for mobile communications. Emphasis must be placed on the brutal user evaluations that prompted a complete re-design, which could have been avoided by considering an application from an outside perspective rather than simulating all stakeholders of the system within the group. Finally, I felt that whiles a person may attempt to distance themselves from their role as developer, or Project manager, or even systems manager, they may be too attached and overly familiar with the systems they have already interacted with. Additional personnel will always be needed to refresh the cycle of testing, and feedback.
An additional 10 weeks of development would have been a shot in the arm for the group when it comes to releasing the extension. As of the end of the course, there were a lot of practicality questions that were left unanswered, as well as a second round of evaluations incomplete. Our team as interaction design specialists would have to submit our ideas to development, once the second round of evaluations was complete. Developers would have to bring our expectations down from Cloud 9 to a more manageable level, and these constraints would have to drive our design team through the third round of mock ups and cognitive scenarios. As such, additional time is always needed to refine a design, as well as consider additional possible scenarios. Finally, in the unlikely case that the developer is willing to implement all proposed requirements, the design team would have started on creating test scenarios for users, and begun the next phase of design extending the capabilities of the extension. One possibility discussed was to create a truly dynamic forum interface, in the same manner as most chat windows today, that would allow users to obtain information transmitted asynchronously to mobile devices, and information transmitted synchronously to the traditional computing platform. By combining the two forms of communication, students will be free to engage VMT in the most convenient and practical method for discussions and collaborative effort. Furthermore, the evolution of digital devices can provide new opportunities in extending functionality of the VMT interface to the mobile systems. Personal Digital assistants, and even the iPhone have a reduced Whiteboard capability.
The VMT project has created a social community that has provided some of the features boasted by populist social networking sites for general use. By utilizing chat rooms, document management techniques, democratic information management, and direct / indirect communication, managed under a central user management system, VMT is a fully incorporated Social Network/Communications site. At present much of the changes needed in VMT are essentially cosmetic, and the site may benefit from an overhaul of the front page/customer facing view of the Wikisite. The tradeoff between the familiar aspects of a Wikisite and developing a new interface dedicated to students is a topic that requires extensive discussion and prototyping, prior to direct implementation. Multiple users, and outside users must be involved before the project can proceed, but as stated in the course text, designers should not get overly involved in utilizing an existing interface to the detriment of users. Finally, utilizing student suggestions to incorporate extensions to the current design will provide additional features and capabilities.
The course was a fascinating introduction to the world of interactive design as well as the consideration of additional techniques relevant to the development of user friendly interaction. My prior experience with HCI was limited to the psychological implementations of user interfaces and the profiles of users. This course has helped to provide the perspective of the designer, and to reveal the interdisciplinary and reiterative approach to interaction design. As a part time software engineer, the features and capabilities were the most important consideration in designing a product, especially for personal use. If there is any chance of widespread adoption of developed products, a new philosophy has to be utilized, placing the users needs and sensibilities first. Finally, by exposing users to social collaboration tools and networking development ideas, we have been given a chance to improve existing systems, and evolve the current application state to commercial class standing. This course has provided us with the tools to launch the next community building success story, and keep users engaged, and willing to interact with new productivity, and pragmatic tools.