Better HCI Research in One Hour a Day: A Winter Break Guide for C.S. Students

Like many other schools, University of Minnesota has a fairly long winter break (more than a month!). The break from classes provides an excellent opportunity to catch up with friends and family, sleep, and (most importantly, of course) focus on research. If you are a Computer Science student starting or thinking about a research program in Human-Computer Interaction, consider if you can dedicate an hour a day to becoming a better researcher. If you’re interested, here’s a short (and I think, fun!) program to fill some gaps between an undergraduate Computer Science program and a graduate program in HCI.

Build a Psychology Foundation (10-25 minutes per day): Computer Science students who come into HCI frequently have the “Computer” part of HCI down, but have less exposure to formal studies of human behavior. One of the best ways to catch up is to take a crash course in Psychology. For this, I recommend the CrashCourse Psychology YouTube series. There are 39 episodes which (I think) get more relevant to HCI and Social Computing as the show goes on. Watching one or two episodes a day will give you a good start and set up a solid foundation if you want to explore any of the topics discussed in more detail. Here’s one of my favorite episodes from the show:

Start a Design Collection (10 minutes per day): Design plays an important role in HCI, but good design is difficult to teach. A big part of becoming a good designer is developing a practice of being open to inspiration, learning from examples of others, and sharing/critiquing ideas. One action you can take today to build this practice is to start a collection of inspirations. Whether this is a physical sketchbook or a digital collection in Evernote or Pinterest, the important thing is that you add to it regularly, share it and discuss it with others, and browse through it when you need ideas. If you have a specific research area already, start collecting images, articles, videos, and examples that are relevant to it. If you don’t have a specific area yet, collect examples of particularly good design and anything else that inspires you. As you build your collection, share it with friends and family — soon you’ll get people sending you ideas and inspirations and it’s a great way to reflect. If you want more information about design and collections in HCI, I suggest you take a look at Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook and the slides associated with the collections chapter.

Immerse Yourself in Good Research (25 minutes per day): Lastly, being a good designer or builder is not enough to be a good HCI researcher. One way of starting to develop good research intuitions is to read examples of strong research. The best paper awards at your target conference are an easy place to start (e.g., Best of CHI 2014). Pick one paper and spend 20 minutes reading it (it’s important to learn to read quickly, which may mean skimming some sections). As you read, note how the authors designed, framed, and described their work. Add the paper to your bibliography manager and jot down some of those insights for later inspiration.

By spending just one hour a day during this winter break, you’ll return to school in a much better position to do strong HCI research. Research is about building a practice. Consistent effort will look very much like genius after some time.


 

Late-Breaking Addition: If you have another 30 minutes a day, Shaun Kane suggests brushing up on your statistics by taking Jacob Wobbrock’s Practical Statistics for HCI self-guided course. It’s a 10-unit course, so doing two units a week will get you just about done with it by the end of the break.

User Experiences That Changed Where I Spend My Money

Lots of people think about Human-Computer Interaction as something that just adds a thin veil of “prettiness” on top of existing services — something that you worry about once you have the novel tech working, if there’s time. But, actually HCI is about conceiving and creating a user experience. HCI can help you decide what you should actually build, not just how it should look. And that’s not just a veneer, it really changes what people do. I wanted to share four user experiences that changed where I spend my money.

Tracking my pizza? That's a game-changer right there!

Tracking my pizza? That’s a game-changer right there!

Domino’s online ordering system:  While taste-wise, Domino’s pizza is basically the same as Papa John’s or other competitors, their ordering interface keeps me coming back again and again. I love being able to see the stage of my pizza’s creation, I love being able to see the name of the person working on my pie, and I LOVE being able to send an encouragement to the team like “You are my pizza heroes!” Honestly, I don’t even know if they see those, but just the experience of being able to think about my pizza-providers as real people with names and motivations changes my relationship to my pizza!

Dropbox helps me "cloudify"  other programs and removes the step of uploading the most recent copy of my CV.

Dropbox helps me “cloudify” other programs and removes the step of uploading the most recent copy of my CV.

Dropbox: Dropbox was the original cloud-storage service that worked right inside my file system. There are so many things I love about this approach. First of all, because I can now just put any program folder into the Dropbox hierarchy, I can easily “cloudify” all sorts of programs such as my Zotero library and my Eclipse workspace. Many of these now provide their own storage options, but it’s so much easier to just use one service for all of my storage needs! Also, I love the “public folder” that lets me have public links to certain documents. I keep my CV there so I get to skip the step of uploading it to this page every time something changes. Now, other services, like Google Drive provide similar applications and ways of interacting with my data, but Dropbox was the original, so they still have my loyalty and moneys.

amazonprime_hybrid._V164021527_ Amazon Prime: provides free 2-day shipping and online content for an annual fee. I’m usually very resistant to anything that has a recurring fee, but I gave in to Amazon Prime because I order enough stuff online for work alone to make it worthwhile. Now, I’m finding myself buying things online that I’ve never bought before. Tahini for my homemade hummus? Easier to find online than in the store. The latest season of Downton Abbey? Well, since I saw the last two seasons for free on Prime and I REALLY need to know what happens next… The combination of the UX idea of 1-Click shopping (okay, I agree that it’s not really a fair thing for them to patent, but it’s still a good idea) and the business idea of free online content / free shipping really changed how and what I buy online.

imagesDepositing checks through a mobile phone: The first bank to offer online check deposits was USAA, but many others soon followed. Today, it is simply a non-negotiable banking need for me. I will not bank with any bank that doesn’t let me do that. PayPal is particularly a leader in online handling of money, supporting easy transfer of money between individuals (say, to pay my share of the rent), depositing checks online, and paying for just about anything. Since I don’t actually pay them for these services, they don’t fit with the theme of this blog. But, I bank with Ally and ING specifically because both of them support online deposits and that IS a way that the experience of being able to deposit checks through my phone has changed where I put my money.

What all of these transformative user experiences share in common is that they’re not about “usability” or color of the buttons or layout of the page or anything else that can be A/B tested. They are about combining common technological capabilities (none of these are cutting-edge technology) and good business practices in a way that supports me in how I already do thing (Dropbox, Mobile Check Deposit) and how I don’t even know yet I want to be doing things (Amazon Prime, Domino’s Pizza). And that’s what HCI is actually all about, whether in your company it goes by the name of design, marketing, or UX.

Seeing The Future

Last weekend, I went to Disneyland for the first time. I totally see why my GT advisor is obsessed with it! But, the least impressive part of the experience for me was visiting the Innoventions exhibit which supposedly showcases the future of home, work, and play. Compared to the creativity of the rest of the park, the ideas presented there were incredibly stale. Apparently, the future is going to have videogames and digital photo displays *YAWN.* But, being there did get me to start reflecting on what I expected to see there. Could I design a showcase of the future that wouldn’t get outdated and silly in a few years’ time?

Crappy remotes and digital photo frames are two examples of underwhelming future technologies displayed in Innoventions.

Crappy remotes and digital photo frames are two examples of underwhelming future technologies displayed in Innoventions.

I read a lot of science fiction, but I find that more recent stories don’t even try to make a serious attempt at predicting the future. Others agree. Paul Kincaid wrote a long essay about the changes in how fiction tries to predict the future, saying: “we began to feel that the present was changing too rapidly for us to keep up with … things happen as if by magic … or else things are so different that there is no connection with the experiences and perceptions of our present.” So, even science fiction writers now find it difficult to consider what the future may look like. Do I have any hope?

As an innovator, it is my job to see the future. I am frequently asked what will be the next big thing in ten years and that question is getting increasingly difficult to answer. Even deciding between alternatives is difficult: will the future be all about viewing reality through ocular displays or will it be about augmenting the environment with ubiquitously-available projection? Well, my answer to everything is “both.” I think most of the technologies that are currently in innovation cradles will have a place in the future as they mature and find an appropriate niche. Self-driving cars or better ways to commute through public transportation? Both! Extremely accurate audio input or brain-computer interfaces? Both! More lo-fi text-based communication or high-def holographic projection conferencing? Both! Better ways to collaborate remotely or better opportunities to collaborate in-person? Both!

When the task is to design something for “three years from now,” I begin by looking at how people currently approach a specific challenge and design to do the same thing better, faster, stronger. I think that method doesn’t work as well for designing for ten years from now, because the challenges people face change as quickly as available technologies do. Designing for ten years from now requires envisioning the infrastructure and complex ecosystem of other technologies that will be available in the future. What has worked for me most recently is assuming that a nascent technology will be common place, creating such an environment in the lab, and working closely with a group of participants to help them envision the challenges and opportunities that they may face in that future environment. What would people do if anything could become a display? What would people do if they no longer had to worry about driving themselves from place to place? What would people do if they could easily connect with anybody in the world? Start designing for that future now.