Reflection on the taught part of UCL MSc Human-Computer Interaction with Ergonomics

April 30th, 2013

When I started this blog it was with the purpose of getting practice in writing as I had just been accepted for a place on the UCL MSc Human-Computer Interaction course. That is more than 3 years ago… I have now completed the taught part of the course and will hand in the dissertation later this year. And if you are like me you probably use your computer everyday, You may be wondering what is the best chair for computer work? Because I know how your back hurts after working for hours.

The course finished with a 2-week practical User-Centered Design project, followed by a 2000 word essay including a 1000-word reflection on the course as a whole.

Below is my reflection on the course, which I hope will be useful for people considering applying.

Reflection: fattening the top of the T(-shape)[1]

My professional Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) journey began more than ten years prior to my academic one, when I started as web designer in 1998 after an undergraduate degree in industrial engineering. A main motivator in my career has always been continual learning, and through a combination of reflective practice (Schön, 1983) and knowledge spread informally in the web design community (Zimmerman et al., 2004) I had plenty of learning opportunities in what was a new field to me.

As the field of web design began to mature, a parallel urge for a more formal learning experience began to emerge in me. However, as a T-shaped web designer with expertise in the area of visual design, I had reservations about a degree in HCI which I perceived to be too focused on ‘classical usability’ (Blandford, 2012) and have a reductionist view of design. On the other hand, a design degree did not appeal either.

A couple of papers (Bødker, 2006; Harrison et al., 2007) and a book (Jordan, 2000) later, I was convinced my perception of HCI was too narrow, and was thrilled when I was accepted for this course. In this part of the essay I will reflect on how the course has shaped my thought processes and added new dimensions to my professional career as an interaction designer.

Splitting the taught part over two years meant my only module for the first term was Ergonomics for Design (EfD). As well as being a gentle way of returning to studying after a 15-year gap, it also served as a natural ‘bridge’ to HCI from my undergraduate degree. The emphasis on the user was immediately evident to me, but what will have the biggest impact on my professional work is the early structured approach to analysing the wider context of use that the Hexagon model (Benedyk et al., 2009) provides. I used it for both the EfD coursework and the Design Experience (DE) 1 module, and it helped broaden my thinking from the user level, with its physical, cognitive, and sensory concerns, to include wider contextual and even temporal factors, when considering the problem space. Contrasting this with my experience from the DE2 module described above, where I did not do an initial Hexagon analysis, it is clear to me that the structured approach sets a much more solid base on which to inform subsequent research.

If I was under any illusions that I was a ‘user-centred designer’ before starting the course, the two-week DE1 project highlighted to me that this was not the case! For a start, I had yet to define for myself what process a UCD project would follow. This meant a lot of reading around various approaches to UCD, such as the ‘ergonomic approach’ (Pheasant & Haslegrave, 2005) taught in EfD, the International standard for human-centered design (British Standards Institution, 2010), and ‘Goal-Directed Design’ (Cooper et al., 2007).

It wasn’t until the Design Practice (DP) module the following year, that I finally worked out how to conceptualise UCD. Viewing it not as a process, but as interdependent research, design, and evaluation activities, all guided by the three UCD principles mentioned earlier (Rogers et al., 2011) was the framework I needed to structure and support all the new knowledge I was acquiring throughout the course.

However, I was still struggling with one issue in the design activity, which I also alluded to in the introduction to this part of the essay: the art versus science dichotomy of design in HCI. A paper by Fällman (2003) from the DP module, discussing a third pragmatic view of design, helped me see this was a somewhat false dichotomy. Viewing design as a situated activity (Suchman, 1987), constructive as well as reflective, also allowed me to better appreciate the role seemingly different UCD techniques, such as task analysis and scenarios, play in generating design ideas. It is exactly these kinds of fundamental conceptual structures I had hoped to be able to create, and use to organise my knowledge, when I decided to take the degree.

My second term was all about the user when I did the two modules Applied Cognitive Science (ACS) and Affective Interaction (AfI) together. What really stands out for me from this term is the realisation of how cognition and emotion interact in fundamental ways. In fact, we can add the physical factor from EfD to complete a triad of user related concerns that need to concur to create rich embodied interaction experiences. It was only after this term I understood the significance of the suggested paradigm shift in HCI I referred to earlier.

What and how we evaluate in a UCD project is developing as well, as I realised in the subsequent User-Centered Evaluation Methods (UEM) module. I found the debate about whether UEMs should be evaluated on their thoroughness, ie. the proportion of problems found, which as pointed out by Blandford et al. (2008) is a fallacy anyway, or on their downstream utility, ie. their contribution to improving a design (Wixon, 2003) particularly enlightening. The coursework’s focus on a behavioural change website provided an opportunity to reflect on how combining different methods can help improve a system’s fitness for purpose as well as identifying traditional usability problems.

Just like the the ACS/AfI combination gave me an overview of the development of HCI as a whole, the Interfaces & Interactivity (I&I) module in my last term gave me a similar perspective on my area of specialisation. The theoretical background I acquired on different interfaces has provided me the context to better understand the implications of new developments in this field. The experience of writing my two exam essays on adaptive interfaces, and voice-driven interfaces, confirmed this. In fact, one of the main concepts of my group’s solution for the DE2 project described above, participation through viewing content, stems from a deep understanding of adaptive interfaces and its concept of ‘natural occurring actions’ (Jameson, 2008).

Completing the taught part of the MSc programme has fattened the horizontal bar of my T-shape significantly. Contrasting my DE1 experience with DE2, it is clear how much I have progressed as an interaction designer. In DE2 I was confident choosing and combining techniques from all UCD activities to best support the project, rather than following a predefined process. Combine this with a much deeper knowledge base on which to ground my future reflective practice, and I have achieved everything I hoped the structured learning approach would provide.

[1082 words]

 


[1] The metaphor of a T-shaped person is used to describe people with deep knowledge in a single field (the vertical bar in the T) combined with an ability to apply knowledge in related fields (the horizontal bar in the T). (Wikipedia, T-Shaped skills. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T-shaped_skills)

 

References

Benedyk, R., Woodcock, A., & Harder, A. (2009). The Hexagon-Spindle Model for educational ergonomics. Work: a journal of prevention, assessment and rehabilitation.

Blandford, A., Hyde, J. K., Green, T. R. G., & Connell, I. (2008). Scoping analytical usability evaluation methods: a case study. Human–Computer Interaction, 23(3).

Blandford, A. (2012). Commentary on: Cockton, G. (2012). Usability Evaluation. In: Søgaard, M. & Dam, R. F. (Eds.). Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction. Available at http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/usability_evaluation.html

British Standards Institution. (2010). BS EN ISO 9241-210:2010: Ergonomics of human-system interaction — Part 210: Human-centred design for interactive systems. BSI, London.

Bødker, S. (2006). When second wave HCI meets third wave challenges. Proceedings of NordiCHI ’06.

Cooper, A., Reimann, R. & Cronin, D. (2007). About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design. 3rd ed. Wiley Publishing, Indianapolis.

Fällman, D. (2003). Design-oriented human-computer interaction. Proceedings of the CHI ’03.

Harrison, S., Tatar, D., & Sengers, P. (2007). The three paradigms of HCI. Proceedings of CHI ’07.

Jameson, A. (2008). Adaptive interfaces and agents. In: Sears, A. & Jacko, J. A. (Eds.). The Human-Computer Interaction handbook. CRC Press.

Jordan, P. (2000). Designing pleasurable products: an introduction to the new human factors. CRC Press, London.

Pheasant, S., & Haslegrave, C. (2005). Bodyspace. 3rd ed. CRC Press, London.

Rogers, Y., Sharp, H., & Preece, J. (2011). Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction. 3rd ed. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner. Basic Books, USA.

Suchman, L. (1987). Plans and situated actions: the problem of human-machine communication. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Wixon, D. (2003). Evaluating usability methods: why the current literature fails the practitioner. Interactions, 10(4).

Zimmerman, J., Forlizzi, J., & Evenson, S. (2004). Discovering and extracting knowledge in the design project. Research showcase, Carnegie Mellon University, Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

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