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Interface design, 2002: University Briefs

IX.2 March 2002
Page: 41
Digital Citation

University of Melbourne


back to top  Philosophy of Design Education

The Interaction Design Group draws researchers and research students from a wide range of areas, including craft-based disciplines (graphic and industrial design), engineering (information systems, human-computer interaction, software engineering), commerce, and social science (psychology, anthropology, and sociology). The Interaction Design Group's multifarious activities include research in interaction design, evaluation and analysis, supervision of postgraduate students, and commissioned research and consulting for the information technology (IT) industry.

In blending such diverse disciplines and activities, students' education at the University of Melbourne is eclectic and pragmatic. Industry partners are involved in the design and delivery of educational programs, and graduates carry with them into research organizations and industry mastery over a wide range of approaches to user-centered system design.

As an example of how we attempt to blend rigor and relevance, let's look at one of our projects.

back to top  Sample Design Projects

bullet.gif Young People's Appropriation of Mobile Devices

We have been working with Cambridge Technology Partners (a subsidiary of Novell) in understanding young people's appropriation and use of mobile appliances. We wanted to understand young people's perceptions of and experiences with information and communication technologies (ICT) with a view to modeling the key variables involved in their appropriation.

Our approach is summarized in Figure 1. Initially we held focus groups that collected participants' recollections of their use of ICTs. We supplemented these meetings with questionnaires, ethnographic observation (conducted by Dr. Jennie Carroll), scrapbook construction, and participants' diaries. This helped us establish a perspective on young people's experience in using ICTs. We then provided each participant in the research with a wireless application protocol (WAP) phone and followed a similar empirical method that allowed us to directly examine the appropriation process. On the basis of this work we were able to propose a model of the factors influencing young people's appropriation of new technology.

This theoretical work acted as the foundation for scenario-based envisionment sessions where we worked with actors (John Sheedy and Genevieve O'Reilly) and a theater director (Carlton Lamb) in envisioning novel ICTs that could assist in some of the breakdowns and issues we observed in the earlier empirical work. Traditional use of scenarios tends to be somewhat removed from the situatedness of activity when trying to understand interaction with innovative or nonexisting products. Rather than walking through a text-based scenario, we used participatory design techniques to supplement the scenarios, with actors "acting out" future scenarios of use.

We gave the actors props, low-fidelity prototypes or form factors, which focused the design discussion that took place around the acting-out sessions.

bullet.gif Design for Fragmentation

A graduate interaction design class then took the results of the earlier empirical research as their departure point. In particular we noticed in the research that the lives of the young people we had observed were fragmented among their social groups, employers, university or school, family, and other areas. ICTs were being used to assist in managing that fragmentation. We asked the students to analyze, develop, and evaluate a mobile appliance for University of Melbourne students to manage their fragmented lives. The challenges facing the students ranged from designing user interfaces and form factors to gaining a better understanding of what fragmentation means to reasoning about the reciprocity between use and artifact.

We introduced in class a design process that extended conventional user-centered techniques (needs analysis, participatory design, user-based testing, cognitive walkthrough) to include the soft systems' techniques of rich picture, root definition, and conceptual modeling, which provided focus and analytical rigor (Checkland and Scholes 1990), and scenario-based acting (which assisted in situating the ongoing design process). Industry speakers were introduced throughout the semester on a variety of topics of current concern to the students, including mobile appliances, usability testing in industry, and interaction designers working with other disciplines (notably graphic and industrial design).

The assignment slogan was "divergent, creative, and user focused." We asked the students to focus on both the product and the process. Each student wrote a personal critique of the development process, providing the opportunity for convergent and analytical thinking with a focus on process improvement.

Through their analysis, student teams focused on issues such as location and finding their way on campus, information management, and communication. One team, for example, designed a device to be used by guides on open day (when the university is open to the public). Typically, current first-year students are used as guides (in the belief that first-year students strike a better rapport than crusty old academics with the visiting potential students). However, current first-year students frequently lack detailed knowledge of the large University of Melbourne campus or of the structure and function of the university. This team was able to prototype and test an appliance that provided the human guide with such support. Another team focused on input issues involved in manipulating 3-D campus maps in handheld devices and yet another on teasing out the advantages or otherwise of packing a range of functions into a single form factor (the Swiss army knife model) rather than providing each function with its own form (the toolkit model).

Each year the program graduates a small number of (approximately 10 to 15) high-caliber students. Our aim is to invoke experiences in students that border on the religious. One graduating student noted that "it was amazing to see the feedback that the user provided on the prototypes that we developed." Another stated, "This subject has opened my eyes to user needs, which I will treasure and use throughout my future IS (information systems) career." Practical tools are useful; raised consciousness is profound.

back to top  Reference

Checkland, P.B. and Scholes, J. Soft Systems Methodology in Action. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, United Kingdom, 1990.

back to top  Author

Steve Howard

Interaction Design Group
Department of Information Systems
University of Melbourne
3010 Parkville, Australia
Work: +61 (3) 8344 9249

Steve's education consists of a bachelor of science with honors in psychology, a master of science in ergonomics, and a doctorate in human-computer interaction (HCI). He has taught widely in both the United Kingdom and Australia on usable software and HCI.

Steve started work as an engineer with British Nuclear Fuels Ltd and later held research positions at the National Physical Laboratory (UK) and GEC Marconi. He has consulted on human factors and HCI to Rank Xerox, British Aerospace, DSTO, and others.

His current research interests include interaction design methods and approaches, design of nonorganizational (e.g., home, social, leisure) applications and the psychological and social processes underpinning information systems design. Steve has served as the national secretary of the Australian HCI group (CHISIG) and has been technical chair of the national Australian usability conference (OZCHI) three times. With his partner Anna he has a 13-year-old son, Alec, and a dog Rusty. He plays terrible didjeridoo but cooks great dhal!

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Steve Howard

UF2Figure. Members of the research team holding their 'props'. From left: John Sheedy (actor) with balsa 'palm' teve Howard (Melbourne Univ.), Jane Peck (Cambridge/Novell) notepad, Kevin Hanvey (Cambridge/Novell), Carlton Lamb (seated) (Director), John Murphy (Cambridge/Novell) clapper board Genevieve O'Reilly (Actor) intelligent spectacles, Jennie Carroll (Melbourne Univ.) smart box.

UF3Figure. Acting out scenarios in situations of use helped us see the situation as a resource and opportunity for interaction.

F1Figure 1. Process followed in the research

back to top  Sidebar: About the Organization


Department of Information Systems, The University of Melbourne

Course titles

Master of Information Systems
Doctor of Philosophy (Information Systems)

Both are offered with special attention to interaction design and usability.

Number of students per year

Approximately 30 in each program

History of the program

The Department of Information Systems is about seven years old, in an established, research-oriented university. Both the master of information systems (MIS) and doctoral programs have a short history of producing high-class graduates.

back to top  Sidebar: Practitioner's Workbench


Cartooning with big fat whiteboard markers, Post-it® notes, the English language, drama skills (for acting out those scenarios!), chocolate


  1. Student asks, "What language do I write the system in?" Instructor replies, "English!"
  2. "The music is not in the piano." (Alan Kay). HCI variation: "Usability is not in the interface."
  3. Q: How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb? A: Fish.

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©2002 ACM  1072-5220/02/0300  $5.00

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