XXIII.6 November-December 2016
Page: 66
Digital Citation

Citizen interaction design: Teaching HCI through service

Cliff Lampe

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An important aspect of HCI education is training professional master's students in HCI techniques, including those central to user experience design (UXD) and interaction design (IxD). In the classroom we can teach about affinity diagrams and user stories and wireframes and more, but students oriented toward HCI as a profession (and their prospective employers) are often eager for real-world experiences. Students want to bolster their portfolios and to be able to talk about these experiences when applying for jobs. They want projects that are more meaningful than reports and recommendations. They want to see they have made an actual difference for some client.

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Service-learning opportunities can be a way to provide those meaningful experiences in HCI education. Service learning is a method of instruction that combines community service with instruction and student reflection. Although different proponents place different emphases on each of those components [1], scholars agree that service learning can enrich learning experiences, teach civic responsibility, and help communities in meaningful ways [2]. Jennifer Mankoff looked at service learning in the HCI context previously [3] and described the challenges in managing service-learning opportunities for an undergraduate HCI class, which can be difficult for faculty.

In this article, I present Citizen Interaction Design (CIxD), an HCI service-learning program at the University of Michigan School of Information that teaches user experience and interaction design through the lens of civic technology. The goals for this service-learning structure are 1) to teach interaction design by working on meaningful problems, 2) to create stable relationships between the university and local organizations, and 3) to promote new forms of civics for HCI students.

Civic technology is an umbrella term to describe information tools and services that improve the connections between individuals, governments, and other public-sector organizations. Terms used to describe this interaction context include e-government, civic media, digital civics, and urban informatics. As cities adopt new computing technologies, there's been rapid growth in organizations that try to promote civic technology innovation (like Code for America [4]). Civic technology is also a growing research concern in the CHI community [5], making it a compelling context for HCI education.

back to top  How CIxD Works

CIxD started three years ago with an initial partnership between the University of Michigan School of Information and the city of Jackson, MI. Jackson is a small city of just over 30,000 people with a little over a hundred people working directly for the city. The program was created primarily to serve HCI master's students interested in becoming professional user experience designers by letting them work directly with the city to design civic technology with a user-centered approach. While co-curricular activities like internships and days of service are common for the program, the centerpiece of CIxD has been a studio class for designing and making civic technology.

For the past three years, students have participated in an intensive semester design class where they are assigned a specific civic partner (like the deputy chief of police or city engineer), who defines a civic problem for students to solve. For example, a civic problem is that homeless people often lose their identification cards, which they need to receive social services. Students are assessed on their ability to launch a solution to the problem presented to them that is grounded in the context of the community and that can be handed off for the city to own and maintain after the course ends. If the students don't launch an actual solution, or if the solution isn't sustainable for the city, they have not succeeded at the project.

Although the class is largely populated by master's HCI students, each year there are undergraduate HCI students who take the class, as well as some master's students from programs like urban planning, social work, the business school, and other related professional programs. Teams are assigned by the teaching staff to create a balance of skills. The course is four credits, because of the high workload and the need to travel to the partner city. Jackson is about an hour away from Ann Arbor by bus, and the entire class would travel there together every other week. Students have supplemented that class time in the city with trips on their own to visit partners and collect user data.

Students go through an intense discovery phase where they learn about user needs, create prototype solutions, collect feedback, and redesign solutions where necessary. At the end of the class, students present their work at an open meeting of the city citizens, elected officials, and staff. Additionally, students and city partners receive feedback from a panel of external reviewers drawn from nearby governments, nonprofits, and technology companies.

Students want projects that are more meaningful than reports and recommendations.

Over the past three years, students have accomplished 23 projects in Jackson, often handing off projects to new student groups when the task could not be accomplished in a single term. These projects cover a wide range of different topic areas. Some examples include:

  • DigJackson. How can we update the community on a large, critical construction project on the main street in downtown Jackson? Students created wayfinding information tools, a series of installations to highlight the importance of infrastructure, and a website to aggregate and share updates.
  • Distressed Property Report. Map and status of condemned and distressed properties in Jackson. Includes a justification for the expense and an explanation of the process for condemning and demolishing structures.
  • Open Data Ordinance, Portal, and Policy. Establishing a requirement, tool, and procedure for making government data accessible to citizens.
  • What's at the Farmers Market. A program for recruiting local nonprofits to partner with the farmers market to build an audience on market days through volunteerism.

These are just a few examples of the CIxD projects students have completed. As part of the reflective work of service learning, students have created portfolios related to their CIxD work [6]. As the program enters its fourth year, we have started to look for new cities to partner with and ways of expanding opportunities for students and communities. Starting fall 2016, we began teaching a new design studio course intended only for second-year HCI master's students. We have added the city of Ferndale, Michigan, to our partner cities and are discussing relationships with other cities in the state as well.

back to top  Why CIxD Works

The design of CIxD includes multiple components that work together to create an educational context for involving students in HCI service learning.


Focus on small cities. Cities can be very effective partners for service-learning projects for many reasons. Cities are involved in heterogeneous interactions with people, ranging from policing to construction to garbage services. City governments act as a central node in a civic network of nonprofit organizations, other levels of government, faith-based organizations, and individual citizens. Cities are often working with limited staff and resources, especially for efforts that involve user experience activities. For example, it can be hard to explain to constituents why one is cutting the police force but investing in new digital technology.

We have focused on cities with more than 20,000 residents, as cities of that size are more likely to have a strong network of nonprofit organizations than smaller towns. Working with smaller cities allows us to have a more visible impact in the city, and to form stronger relationships with the civic leaders who carry these projects forward after the students turn them over.

Fixed-term, renewable partnerships. When working with a city, our program forms a three-year relationship, which has multiple goals. Universities can have the unfortunate reputation of disappearing once a semester is over. A fixed-term relationship means the city is confident that projects will receive some type of iteration. Additionally, having the leadership of the city mutually invested in the partnership insulates the project from losing a single champion due to staff change, which is likely to happen over time in any organization. Specific end dates provide incentives to move projects forward and to prioritize HCI work given all the other jobs a city government must do. To reflect this idea, we call the city and nonprofit people we work with "partners" and not "clients."

Focus on problems, not projects. In working with cities, we have avoided "jumping to solutions" when it comes to how students are presented with their design challenges. The problems we address are often fundamental and often deal with things outside of the realm of information professionals, but by giving our students space to inspect a large problem and to define their own solutions, we help them be invested in the solutions. It can be hard to do.

In one of our early experiences, city officials wanted our students to create a mobile app to help people more easily track the buses. This is an increasingly common kind of app, and both the city and the students were excited about it. But what was the problem? The mapping system had been created from a planner's perspective, not from that of the bus rider. After a full user study, the students abandoned the plan for the mobile application and focused on redesigning maps and bus documentation, which the bus riders loved.

Over the past three years, CIxD students have worked with city departments, appointed commissions, elected officials, and nonprofit organizations to address civic information problems.

back to top  Student Outcomes in CIxD

Through course evaluations, focus groups, alumni interviews, and other assessment mechanisms, students have consistently mentioned three main values they get from the CIxD service-learning opportunity.

A cool HCI education program that is too expensive to replicate isn't very useful.

Practicing user experience in the real world. Students consistently talked about how they appreciated the opportunity to practice burgeoning HCI skills in a situation that was "real." Unpacking what that meant, they felt like they had a stake in the outcome because they were working on problems people actually had. Because the city had a strong track record of adopting our solutions, students felt motivated to deliver a strong product. Second, students were able to see how their classroom skills were challenged by social contexts. They were constantly pivoting to simpler designs in order to make them more usable for the city. For example, a group working with the local homeless shelter wanted to create a new application, but the staff could not have maintained it. Instead, they made a clever set of tools from Google docs that solved the problem they were facing.


Using professional communication skills. Student groups often were presenting to large groups of citizens, interacting with software sales agents, managing busy city executives, explaining their ideas to reluctant civil engineers, and hundreds of other challenging professional communication situations. Students mentioned the importance of communication skills for building engagement around their ideas.

Rethinking their digital citizenship. Other learning objectives of the course were to encourage students to consider the meaning of community and civic engagement in the context of the digital environment. As one student said, "Our city's policies affect us every day, and it's too bad that we, the people training to be leaders in information issues for the 21st century, are actively surrendering our authority there. That should change, and hopefully CIxD will help us change it."

back to top  Partner Outcomes in CIxD

Project partners have been surveyed and interviewed to examine their experiences in CIxD. A partner from the Arts and Cultural Association echoes the comments of many partners in stating that "[the students] brought resources and abilities that we could never afford without this program." Jackson's assistant city manager explained that the CIxD interns provided professional-level work for an infrastructure project. "They were better than the marketing consultants we hired."

For many partners, the benefit to working with students went beyond the specific project. The partner from the Historic District Commission said that students took the time to understand the problem area and, furthermore, "they gave us a new perspective on defining and addressing the problem." That value is recognized at the highest levels. "I've seen the positive impact of the CIxD program on staff throughout the city," said the city manager of Jackson. "They are energized by these projects and the students' approach." He added that "the biggest impact of participating in CIxD is getting [the city] to think about the data we have and how to share it."

back to top  Call to Action

CIxD has been possible because the School of Information and the University of Michigan have provided resources that allow us to pay for staff time to work on managing city relationships, connecting different aspects of the program, and assisting faculty and students with the logistics of working with a city.

A cool HCI education program that is too expensive to replicate isn't very useful. The HCI community could think about how we support teaching activities that are based in service learning more broadly. One example is private companies that often generously support HCI-related conferences and may also be interested in supporting service-learning opportunities for professional HCI students. Schools within regions could create partnerships to share relationships with partner cities. It is in the interests of the HCI community that professional HCI programs produce students who have field experiences that help them think creatively and solve problems inventively. HCI, often in the lead of thinking about computer science education, should explore new ways to make service learning the norm for HCI education.

It has been an honor to be part of CIxD. Witnessing city officials and staff truly passionate about engaging with citizens is inspiring. Watching students work hard, overcome obstacles, and take risks to help cities think about interactions in new ways drives home how meaningful the field of HCI really is. Service learning, investing in engaging our students in deep, meaningful ways with their communities, will improve HCI education, and it's worth our time.

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1. Billig, S.H. and Waterman, A.S., eds. Studying Service-Learning: Innovations in Education Research Methodology. Routledge, 2014.


3. Mankoff, J. Practical service learning issues in HCI. Proc. of CHI '06 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2006.


5. Vlachokyriakos, V., Crivellaro, C., Le Dantec, C.A., Gordon, E., Wright, P., and Olivier, P. Digital civics: Citizen empowerment with and through technology. Proc. of the 2016 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 1096–1099.


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Cliff Lampe is an associate professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan. He studies how the sociotechnical features of social computing systems can be used for prosocial outcomes like relationship development and collective action.

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