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Interface design, 2002: University Briefs

IX.2 March 2002
Page: 45
Digital Citation

Vrije Universiteit


back to top  Philosophy of Design Education

The Multimedia and Culture curriculum aims at educating students, at a university level, to be leaders in design teams for multimedia applications in domains of culture, education, and leisure. After graduation at the master's level, participants should have the theoretical background to partner with software and hardware engineers, to work with experts in application domains, and to collaborate with colleagues from various design disciplines. Moreover, participants should be able to negotiate with the design client and have insight into the needs, wishes, and possibilities of users of the prospective technology.

Our philosophy of design is represented in our vision of the design process, DUTCH, which is described later. We flatly refuse to make a distinction between the user interface and the rest of the user's system. In our design education we focus on what we label the "user's virtual machine" (UVM), which indicates all aspects of a system to be designed from the point of view of the user. As long as users do not care "what is inside," we do not. One might say we produce detailed requirements for the engineer to implement. However, we consider technology in the context of the organization and the situation of use.

One of the main characteristics of work nowadays is its increasing complexity. Therefore work must be accomplished by a group of people in a variety of roles, rather than by individuals. To design a complex system without taking into account the way in which work is socially organized or its context of use is asking for failure.

Another important aspect is that work takes place within a culture that is either national, organizational, or specific to a group. The impact of national culture in designing complex systems was demonstrated by Aaron Marcus (interactions vii.4, pg. 32) in the domain of Web design. Multimedia productions are frequently developed for domains in which the culture of the group, or cultural domains, is the main focus. The UVM has a meaning for the user in this context only.

Our curriculum was based on a market study conducted among both a large number of high schools and a diversity of companies and institutes that are involved in developing multimedia productions for cultural domains (broadcasting industry, publishers, art production companies, museums). In this way we structured and composed the curriculum within the rules of the Dutch Law for Scientific Education. The curriculum includes practical work periods in which students participate in real design projects in companies with which we have established a relationship (e.g., a publisher, a Dutch broadcasting company, an international Web design company, a museum, and a symphony orchestra).

Some examples of job scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: You are employed by a software house and consulting company. For a client publisher, you are assigned the job of developing a public database of info on availability of audio records, video clips, CDs and DVDs, sheet music, and posters. You are collaborating with a public relations specialist and a legal expert on copyright. The final result is intended to be available at the publisher's Web site.
  • Scenario 2: You are employed by a public broadcasting company to be responsible for the Web site on cultural TV programs. You collect background information on the programs, you relate this info to other relevant information on the Web, you locate and develop relevant graphics, and you develop Java®-based animations.

DUTCH design process

Our teaching philosophy, as well as our research approach, can be summarized in one word: DUTCH (Designing for Users and Tasks from Concepts to Handles).

  • Designing does not mean to start programming and building the information system. Designing means to use our imagination and creativity to envision the future situation consequence of our design. Focused on this approach, students need to acquire knowledge about graphical design to be able to represent their designs in visual and verbal scenarios and to build mockups and sketches.
  • Users are the most important element in our design approach. In our classes we teach psychological and ethnographic techniques that allow designers to find out about the user and to obtain information about the organization and groups of users.
  • Task-analysis techniques receive special attention in our courses. Groupware task analysis (GTA) and its associated tool Euterpe (which can be downloaded from www.cs.vu.nl/~gerrit/gta/euterpe) is the framework we use to cover the wide range of aspects to consider in the analysis of the current situation (task model 1) and the envisioned situation (task model 2). We use a combination of classical HCI techniques, such as structured interviews, and computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) techniques, such as ethnographic studies and interaction analysis. In task analysis we include modeling the organization, the work situation, and the history of both.
  • Concepts used in our design framework to relate methods and different aspects of the design process are extracted from theories in cognitive psychology, distributed cognition, ethnography, HCI, graphical representation, and multimedia.
  • Handles and affordances and, in general, solutions for ordinary people are the design products in which we are mainly interested. The UVM specification covers all that we feel is relevant for the user in context. The main domains we explore in our courses are cultural domains, Web sites, walk-up-and-use systems, and complex systems. At this point of the design process, to explore the details of technology means to focus on what users need to know about the functionality, the representation, and the way to communicate with the envisioned system. The associated evaluation refers to the users with scenarios, mockups, and simple prototypes that allow us to start an evaluation early in the design process.

back to top  Preparing Students for User Interface Careers

The Multimedia and Culture curriculum is one of the possible majors in computer science. The curriculum for all first-year computer science students consists of the following components:

  • Introduction to different possible majors, such as business informatics or artificial intelligence
  • Core computer science classes, such as programming, operating systems, software project
  • Formal structures, logic and reasoning, graph theory

In addition, a Multimedia and Culture major takes the following additional classes constituting about 25 percent of the student's time, or the equivalent of 400 hours:

  • Multimedia
  • Design of graphical languages and representations
  • Web site design

Starting with the second year, Multimedia and Culture students take separate classes in addition to the following relevant general computer science classes:

  • Computer science classes (about 50 percent):
    • Data structures and databases
    • Computer networks
    • Software engineering
  • Specialized courses for the Multimedia and Culture major:
    • Multimedia classes
    • Psychology, humanities
    • Cultural studies
    • Graphic design
    • Groupware task analysis

Third-year students take the following courses:

  • A small part in general computer science classes: knowledge systems
  • Several multimedia courses, both theory and practical design
  • Theories of human-computer interaction, practice of user interface design
  • Applied statistics
  • Ethnography
  • Design of sound and music technology
  • A class in philosophy, and some electives

The third year ends with two practical assignments of four full weeks each—one assignment in the multimedia design industry, the other in our multimedia research lab.

Students completing this three-year program earn a bachelor's degree in computer science with a specialization in Multimedia and Culture. The fourth year, leading to a master's degree, consists of specialized classes in each of the four main components of the curriculum:

  • Computer science and multimedia technology
  • Cultural issues
  • Humanities
  • Design

This year finishes with a five-month full-time project that may be chosen from a list of industrial topics or research topics. The project includes a considerable research component, and concludes with a master's thesis.

Depending on the choice of project, a student can now enter life in the design industry or choose an academic career as a Ph.D. student.

back to top  Sample Design Projects

bullet.gif Focus on Multimedia

The world of multimedia may be looked at in many ways. In fact, the word multimedia is too generic to be meaningful to us. Nevertheless, multimedia has become a subject of interest for academia. In the first year of the Multimedia and Culture curriculum we start with a general introduction to multimedia. This course centers on three themes:

  • The convergence of media, platforms, and delivery technology
  • The availability of broadband communication and its impact on the development of standards such as MPEG-4
  • Multimedia information retrieval as an essential ingredient of the growing multimedia information repository on the Web.

Students must make a multimedia presentation in either Macromedia Director® or Flash® using the theme "An annotated tour in Amsterdam." The tour may present cultural items as well as more personal or political items, provided that they are somehow related to Amsterdam. The goal was to create a compelling presentation. Interactivity was explicitly forbidden. Some examples are shown in Figures 1 to 3. Three pairs of figures each show two images of the production of different student teams.

Two follow-up courses are given in the second and third years, respectively:

  • Multimedia Authoring I: Web3D/VRML
  • Multimedia Authoring II: Virtual Environments

The first of these courses deals with the technology used for creating 3-D scenes and worlds; the second focuses on providing intelligent services in virtual environments.

The Web3D course is quite practical. In this course students must learn the craft of creating dynamic 3-D worlds. This involves the creation of 3-D models, as well as programming the dynamic behavior and interaction features of such worlds. The assignments are centered on a theme. The theme for 2001 was to create a product involving the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher.

In the Virtual Environments course we focus on what we call intelligent multimedia. In this course, we study the integration of Web3D and agent technology. Students must define a project in the area of information retrieval, multi-user games, or persuasive applications.

bullet.gif Focus on Interaction Design

Designing complex interactive systems includes envisioning the future task world. In the third-year course User Interface Design, last year's design project concerned the development of a system for hotel chains to offer special treatment to frequent hotel guests using a simple device. The intent was to make a guest feel "special," reducing cumbersome procedures like check-in and check out to a minimal effort and including some nice facilities. The hotel desk employees would not have to bother with administrative procedures for the frequent guests, but should be aware if such a special guest approaches the desk and have information available to personalize treatment of the guest.

The project included contact with a real client. Student design teams collected relevant information by visiting various hotels, conducting ethnographic analysis of events like rush-hour check-in, interviewing regular guests and hotel management, and other means. One team designed a questionnaire and, after agreement from the hotel management, submitted this to all guests that were present in the breakfast restaurant.

From their task analysis, the teams first developed scenarios for new check-in and check out procedures, in which the new technology was represented with a simple cardboard mockup. During the actual playing of the scenarios with prospective users, the users sometimes invented functionality or even specific buttons. In this way the feasibility of procedures and organizational changes was investigated before detailed choices about technology were made.

bullet.gif Focus on User Devices

In a later stage of the design process, frequently the hardware aspects need to be investigated in actual situations. Students were requested to develop mockups of possible devices and to assess in context both the ergonomic aspects and usability. Prospective users were asked to operate these devices in actual context, that is, wearing "normal" working clothes, in the usual work place, and with the other objects that are part of the normal context of use.

bullet.gif Focus on Graphics

In the second year the students take a class in graphic design. This class is placed relatively early in the curriculum in order to allow students to experiment with the craft and handwork of design before modern technology overtakes their creativity. Theories of representation, of cartoon design, of photographic picture composition, and of scripting video clips are accompanied by practical exercises.

back to top  Authors

Gerrit C. van der Veer

Reader in Interactive Systems and Chair of Multimedia and Culture

Mari Carmen Puerta Melguizo

Assistant Professor, Lecturer in Human-Computer Interaction and in Human Information Processing

Anton Eliëns

Associate Professor
Lecturer in Multimedia Design and Technology

Cristina Chisalita

Assistant Professor, Lecturer in User Interface Design

Janke Smit

Lecturer in Graphical Design and Visualization

Vrije Universiteit
Faculty of Sciences
Division of Mathematics and Computer Science
Department of Information Management and Software Engineering
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Phone: +31 (20) 4447718
Curriculum Web site: www.cs.vu.nl/~mmc

Gerrit C. der Veer has a M.Sc. in cognitive psychology and a Ph.D. in computer science. For five years he was head of the Cognitive Ergonomics Department of Twente University of Technology. He developed the design approach DUTCH (Designing for Users and Tasks from Concepts to Handles) and the task analysis method GTA (Groupware Task Analysis). Recently he developed a class in Web site design. He currently teaches a course for computer scientists on graphical languages and representations.

Mari Carmen Puerta Melguizo obtained a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology at the University of Granada (Spain). Currently she has a postdoctoral position at the Department of Information Management and Software Engineering (IMSE) at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and is a lecturer on human-computer interaction. Her research topic is the role of scenarios and mental models of prospective users in envisioning design.

Anton Eliëns is lecturer at the Computer Science Department at the Vrije Universiteit. He has a background in the visual arts and computer music. His research interests cover object orientation, distributed logic programming, hypermedia, 3-D graphics, and intelligent multimedia.

Cristina Chisalita studied cognitive and social psychology at the Babes-Bolyai University in Romania and is currently pursuing a doctorate in IMSE. Cristina is exploring the role of shared mental models, work organization, and culture in design teams from the perspective of distributed cognition.

Janke Smit is a freelance graphic designer and designer of video productions. She lectures once a week at the Vrije Universiteit.

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Gerrit C. van der Veer, Mari Carmen Puerta Melguizo, Anton Eliëns, Cristina Chisalita, Janke Smit

F1Figure 1. The first pair of fragments is taken from a presentation titled "Museum Tour," providing information about museums in Amsterdam. The fragments show a painting by Vincent van Gogh and Rembrandt van Rijn, representing, respectively, the Vincent van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum.

F2Figure 2. The second presentation shows a number of locations in Amsterdam that may be of interest for the tourist. The fragments show, respectively, the city concert hall (Concertgebouw) and the national Second World War memorial in Dam Square.

F3Figure 3. These fragments are taken from an imaginary canal tour by prince Willem Alexander and Maxima Zorregieta, titled "Stupid, he?" a literal quote from the first public interview with the royal couple, during which Maxima comments on the behavior of her future husband toward the press.

back to top  Sidebar: About the Organization


The Multimedia and Culture curriculum, Faculty of Sciences, Vrije Universiteit

Course titles

See the section "Preparing Students for User Interface Careers" for a list of courses. Also see the Multimedia and Culture Web site at www.cs.vu.nl/~mmc.

Number of students per year

About 10 to 15

History of the program

The Multimedia and Culture curriculum has been in place since 1998. Our first students will graduate in the summer of 2002.

back to top  Sidebar: Practitioner's Workbench


DUTCH design, as it is taught in our curriculum, requires several tools, and, indeed, a design environment. Currently we have several tools under development. Two of them are robust enough to be released to the public.

At www.cs.vu.nl/~gerrit/gta you can access a special site on the public domain tool Euterpe. It runs on Windows environments. It provides two tools:

Task modeling: a tool for developing and editing task knowledge in the form of hierarchical trees for tasks, semantic structures for task domain objects, and description templates for agents, roles, events, and tasks. This part of the tool has extensive facilities for consistency checking of task models and for analysis. The tool allows the definition of constraints by the designer (for example, each task should be triggered by another task or by a specified event in the task world; there is a certain limit on the number of roles that are responsible for the task).

Specification of functionality and dialogue: NUAN, a variant of D. Hix and H.R. Hartson's User Action Notation (Developing User Interfaces. Wiley, New York, 1993) is available as a tool that interfaces with Euterpe. For any task that has to be specified as a dialogue between human user and machine, the interaction may be specified with this tool, including user actions, interface actions, interface states, and connections to system functions. All this may be specified from the point of view of the user, including mental user actions that require the availability of information at the interface.

The design approach that is the core of our curriculum has been inspired by close collaboration with several large design companies, as well as with the Center for Process and Product Development of the Dutch Tax Office (whose philosophy is to make it fun to handle your tax affairs).

back to top 

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