It’s that time of the year again when students start forming teams and beginning their projects for the CHI student design competition (for the unfamiliar: a contest held annually as part of the CHI conference, for students to present their solutions to a complex design problem. The theme this year is ‘diversity’: “design an object, interface, system, or service intended to help us appreciate our differences”).
It’s been two years now since my team, TreasureHunter, participated in and won the 2009 competition. In the years since, I’ve had the time to reflect on our experience, and think about what I would do differently if we could have started over again from the beginning. Of course, I’ve realized we also did some things right, too! So, here’s the tips I have to share with future participants, based on my experience and also integrating things I’ve learned or observed from other past teams:
It’s not a design competition, it’s a design research competition
The way you think about the competition makes a big difference. If you have in your mind a narrow definition of what the “design” in design competition means (i.e. just visual and interaction design) and you focus your efforts on this, then you likely won’t do well. The reason is that for this competition you’re not creating a fully functional system, just an idea for one – so your idea or solution is what matters. Take a look at the judging criteria: they’re all based on the quality of your solution and the research you did to reach that solution. All the judges will see of the system/object/service you design are whatever screenshots or visuals you include in your paper – which will be too small for them to see in detail anyhow. So, keep reminding yourself: design is more than visuals, it’s about identifying the right solution to a problem. This brings me to my next point.
Do your research
To come up with a good solution, you’ll need to do really solid research. This includes starting by researching the problem space to understand what work has already been done, both in academia and in industry. Don’t skip this step! It’s important to do this so you can get an idea of the open problems in the area and narrow down the focus of your project before you start conducting any sort of research with people. This is because you need to make sure that you have chosen the right people to interview during your contextual inquiry, since it will inform your project for the rest of the semester. So, don’t just interview people about ‘diversity’ – figure out which aspect of the diversity problem would be most interesting to tackle, and then find people with experience or knowledge of that.
My team’s story:
The theme our year was to encourage the use of local resources versus global resources. My team managed to completely change our project focus three times in the first two weeks (!), after deciding that our first two focuses weren’t likely to lead to viable solutions. We first were going to focus on how to increase consumption of local food, but decided there were too many other teams focusing on this that it wouldn’t be original. We then thought we’d focus on decreasing consumption by getting neighbors to borrow big items like lawnmowers from each other instead of buying them. But we found several websites attempting this already, and not very successfully. We decided there might be larger issues with this idea that were preventing it from working in the real world. We happened upon thrift stores as a focus area by chance – a fellow SI classmate happened to know someone who knew two long-time thrift store volunteers. So, we set up a meeting with them and realized right away after the meeting that getting people to shop more at thrift stores seemed like an interesting problem that we thought we could solve. So, for our initial research for our project, we did a survey of consumers about their shopping habits, and interviewed both consumers (thrift store shoppers and non-shoppers) and thrift store employees. We then had a wealth of data from which to figure out what the problems and unmet needs in this area were.
Don’t be afraid to keep searching for the right solution
After doing your initial research, you’ll reach this point where you have an idea of the problems in the area, and it’s time to start thinking of solutions. DO NOT GO WITH THE FIRST SOLUTION YOU THINK OF! Resist the idea that because of the tight deadlines for class, you don’t have time to change your idea. Your first idea will probably be flawed in some way, unless you are really, really lucky. Get lots of feedback outside of class on your idea. And definitely run your idea past potential users to sanity check it. (Our first idea of how to get people to shop more at thrift stores was to create an online inventory by tagging every item when it was donated. Then, we visited some of the thrift stores again, and learned that they 1) get thousands of items donated a week and barely have the volunteers to manage the donations, and 2) the state of technology at thrift stores is such that one was just getting *cash registers* for the first time! Clearly, introducing an inventory system was not going to work within their constraints.)
Think through social
I’ve noticed this trend in past CHI projects, that many of them are websites with a social network/online community aspect, or are social mobile applications. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, as long as the social features have been thought out fully. There are important things to consider with social applications, like how to motivate users to sign up for your service, to contribute content, to keep coming back, to help others, etc. Depending on your service, aspects like trust and privacy may also be important. You’ll need to have a strong justification for why the system you designed is the right solution to the problem and would actually work.
If you can, try to think outside the box beyond social web/mobile applications. Take a look at past CHI projects in the ACM Digital Library for some inspiration. Some of my favorites were a summer camp for the homeless, a keychain device to help with budgeting (both from the year where the theme was homelessness), and a kiosk for grocery stores (MiFresh, from 2009).
The paper is what matters
After working on a project all semester, it may seem like your work is done. But for the CHI competition, your work is just beginning: you still have a paper to write with an early January deadline. Remember that the paper is all you will be judged on – the judges will not see the actual interfaces you designed, or your project website. And they know nothing about the format of the class in which you did this project (if you did the project as part of a class). So, stick to the judging criteria closely when writing the paper, and make sure you cover all those points. Start your paper early (before Christmas break!) so that you will have time to get it reviewed by professors, past participants, and other students. Go through several drafts before you submit it!
I’m not the first to write CHI advice – here’s a blog post from another SI alum:
And here’s a post pointing out some potential flaws in the competition. A good reminder that winning is not everything, it’s what you learn from the project and the other teams that counts.
[Iterating the CHI Student Design Competition]
I’d welcome feedback from other past participants to see if they agree with my advice. And to all the future CHI participants: good luck!
I really feel like that combination of little, easy motor skills and clicking combined with feeling a little less bored for a minute is completely addictive to people. When the main way we communicate with each other is through all these things — and I’m not saying, “Don’t use Facebook, don’t use Twitter.” What I am saying is, if you’re not mindful about the amount of your attention that goes to thinking about and consuming those things, you’re not going to be making good stuff, either for that medium or elsewhere. That’s what I got kind of hung up on, when I finally realized that all I was doing was eating and producing potato chips all day long.
Over the past few decades, teams of researchers have been studying happiness. Their work, which seemed flimsy at first, has developed an impressive rigor, and one of the key findings is that, just as the old sages predicted, worldly success has shallow roots while interpersonal bonds permeate through and through.
The overall impression from this research is that economic and professional success exists on the surface of life, and that they emerge out of interpersonal relationships, which are much deeper and more important.
The second impression is that most of us pay attention to the wrong things. Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives. Most schools and colleges spend too much time preparing students for careers and not enough preparing them to make social decisions. Most governments release a ton of data on economic trends but not enough on trust and other social conditions. In short, modern societies have developed vast institutions oriented around the things that are easy to count, not around the things that matter most.
Another key point in this happiness research that has stood out to me is the deleterious effects of a long commute (“The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting”; from a separate article which commented on the David Brooks article – “A person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office”). As I’m preparing to possibly move, this is something that I’m definitely keeping in mind.
Interesting New York Times article today on the consequences of technological change, which draws upon recent books by Jaron Lanier, (“You are Not a Gadget”), and David Shields (“Reality Hunger”), among others.
These new books share a concern with how digital media are reshaping our political and social landscape, molding art and entertainment, even affecting the methodology of scholarship and research. They examine the consequences of the fragmentation of data that the Web produces, as news articles, novels and record albums are broken down into bits and bytes; the growing emphasis on immediacy and real-time responses; the rising tide of data and information that permeates our lives; and the emphasis that blogging and partisan political Web sites place on subjectivity.
The article also discusses topics like our the effects of our technological attention deficit disorder and information overload:
Instead of reading an entire news article, watching an entire television show or listening to an entire speech, growing numbers of people are happy to jump to the summary, the video clip, the sound bite — never mind if context and nuance are lost in the process; never mind if it’s our emotions, more than our sense of reason, that are engaged; never mind if statements haven’t been properly vetted and sourced.
This impatience can also affect us grad students:
And online research enables scholars to power-search for nuggets of information that might support their theses, saving them the time of wading through stacks of material that might prove marginal but that might have also prompted them to reconsider or refine their original thinking.
Another important part of being a user experience researcher is doing field studies and ethnographic observation, often in locations other than the U.S. I love traveling and learning about other cultures, so I found this blog post that my friend Mohammad posted recently to be really intriguing. In it, the author explains what wedding ceremonies are like in Saudi Arabia.
I learned, for instance, that:
Men and women’s parties are usually held at different venues, sometimes even at different times. If they are held at the same location, access between the two is strictly prohibited and enforced by Saudi ministries.
Many more interesting facts and great pictures in the post.
A Normal is maybe not an everyday person in every way, but has limited Internet knowledge. They certainly don’t read TechCrunch, they haven’t heard of RSS feeds, they probably don’t have a smart phone or at least don’t have many apps installed, and although they surf the Web a lot, they have little clue what a web browser really is.
Why is it important to attract normals?
[The theory] is that your business will never be a huge success unless your userbase includes a vast majority of Normals. Early adopters are good for initial traction and launch buzz, but until you attract Normals, you’ll never get past that first reaction.
An important part of being a user experience researcher is having empathy for users, and being able to understand their viewpoints and their needs. Being as embedded in the technology world as I am, it’s important to remind myself as often as possible that I am quite different from most users in terms of my level of knowledge about technology, my usage patterns, etc.
Thus, my new Friday feature – “You are not your user Friday” – in which I dig up some interesting stats about technology usage to show what most users really are like.
Today, an oldie but a goodie. This video was originally posted online last summer, but is a great reminder that many users don’t know what the term ‘browser’ means. A good explanation, perhaps, for why there are so many IE users out there still?
Today was my first time using one of Ann Arbor’s new digital parking meters, and the system totally failed me. I literally spend 10 minutes wrangling with the thing, attempting to pay for my spot, in what should be a simple transaction. I think what happened was I selected the wrong option the first time (I tried to “Purchase Time” and it charged me for a $0 transaction), and then after that it wouldn’t let me add time, instead giving me the following lovely message. I end up giving up and using their pay-by-phone option instead.
I can see the benefits of digital parking meters: for drivers: no need to carry a pocketful of quarters; for the city, an easier way to catch expired meters and issue tickets. But if the digital system to replace the analog is implemented this badly, then it’s helpful for no one.
A humbling experience, to be so foiled by a piece of technology. I’m so used to being able to figure anything out that it’s rare that I consider myself to have “failed” at something. Even though I remind myself that it’s the system that failed me.
I found this recent TED talk from Daniel Kahneman (Nobel laureate, psychologist, and founder of behavioral economics) to be quite insightful. He talks about how, when it comes to happiness, we really have two selves — our experiencing selves, and our remembering selves — and they perceive happiness quite differently.
I found the ramifications of the remembering self to be most interesting. The remembering self, for instance, remembers the major events and endings most – so if we have a great experience that ends badly, it is the end that we remember. He gave the example of someone listening to a wonderful symphony for 20 minutes, that then ended with a terrible screeching noise. So while the experiencing self was happy and enjoying the music during those 20 minutes, all the remembering self remembers is the bad ending, and the memory is ruined. Translating to user experience, I think this shows how important it is to design for the entire end-to-end experience, as one slip at the end may forever change a user’s perception of a service.
My other favorite comment of his: we don’t think of the future as a string of experiences, but only as “an anticipated memory.”
I’ve been asked a lot of great questions in interviews over the years. My favorite one, though, from recently, was “Describe a great user experience you’ve observed recently”. Then, “Describe a poor one.”
As a researcher, it’s my job to observe users and environments, and understand what makes a great user experience. All of us in the field of user experience should be able to do this well. But this question made me realize that, while I could come up with an acceptable answer off the top of my head, I would be well served by making observation and reflection a more intentional daily practice. Thus, this blog is born.
I hope to use this blog as a place to collect snippets, snapshots, quotes, stories, data, and reflections on my own experiences, and the experiences I observe in the world around me. I hope it ends up being useful not only to me, but to others as well.
I'm a user experience researcher at Google, interested in social topics like friendship and trust in both online and offline social networks, as well as things like cognitive psychology and data analysis and visualization. The thoughts here are my own, not those of my employer. You can follow more of my thoughts on Twitter @debweb.