During the summer of 2014, I partnered with my professor Marty Siegel to redesign the introductory design class for graduate students at Indiana University: Interaction Design Practice.
This class has been taught in some form or another for almost 30 years, and it is the cornerstone of Professor Siegel's philosophy on how design should be taught. With my background in instructional design, and my experience taking the class the previous fall, I jumped at the chance to work on this project.
Interaction Design Practice(IDP) is the class that introduces Master's students in the Human Computer Interaction - Design(HCI/d) program at Indiana University. Students do design projects in teams of 2, 3 or 4 people depending on the project or the makeup of the class. In the previous iteration of the class, the class was split up into 5 2-3 week projects during the semester, while Project 6 would take up the entire semester.
The goal of the class is to 'play the whole game' of design. Students are not given specific directions on how to complete their designs, but only broad goals and prompts. When they turn in projects, they are critiqued on these projects, and are expected to use that feedback to improve their next project. In addition, much like the real world, project requirements and teams are sometimes changed while the project is ongoing, and teams are given challenges during presentations to give them a chance to think on their feet.
This creates a very difficult course for students, where their expectations and preconceptions are constantly challenged. Breakdowns from the students are normal and expected.
Another aspect of the class is the mentor system. Marty empowers students from the previous years as mentors for the current students. This gives the mentors a chance to see the class from a new perspective and reinforce the lessons they learned by seeing another person struggling with the same issues they struggled with.
Marty started our discussions by telling me: "Everything is up for grabs". He was concerned about discussions he'd had with alumni who were now in a position to hire their own designers. They were telling him that the students coming out of the program were missing the highly detailed designs that students from other schools were producing. Marty wanted his students to be able to drill down into the details of a design, much like an architect would. He told me: "I want them to be able to design down to the plugs in the wall."
We also examined aspects of the class that were problematic in the previous fall. One issue was the semester long project 6. The goal of this project was to give students experience wireframing, but there was a concern that the project didn't give enough experience to get students on the right track with the tools.
The other major issue Marty wanted to tackle centered around the Whole Game Sketch. The Whole Game Sketch is Marty's method for getting new designers to think about the entire process of design, and specifically, to think about how their own process is developing. In previous semesters, the students would create these sketches as the last task of each project. Marty was concerned that students didn't take the sketches seriously, and they were simply an afterthought.
Marty was also concerned with how international students were engaged in the classwork, and how they integrated into the program. He was specifically interested in making the international students feel more comfortable asking questions and engaging in class.
The final concern was how the final two projects focused on SIGCHI. In the past, projects 4 and 5 were both focused on the prompt from the CHI Student Design Competition. This gave students a head start on submitting to the CHI conference. Marty felt like having two projects for the prompt might outweigh the benefits of having another project where the students could wireframe, or have an additional portfolio piece to develop.
My task was to help Marty think through these problems, and offer suggestions based on whatever resources I could find, build the schedule for the class, and complete other preparatory tasks.
Marty offered a couple of academic papers. One was written by Colin Gray, who had just recently defended his dissertation. His research focus was how designers are taught, and had studied people in the HCI/d program for the past 2-3 years. The other was a paper Marty authored himself on the importance and meaning of the Whole Game Sketch.
I began by reading Colin Gray's dissertation (http://colingray.me/research/dissertation/). For this paper, Colin completed an ethnography of the past 2 and a half years of the HCI/d program. This was a great resource for understanding how people in our program interact, and specifically how the mentor/student relationship works in IDP.
I also began talking to my classmates in my cohort. I interviewed several cohort members with different cultural backgrounds in order to get a broad overview of how the course worked for them. I asked them about their experiences with projects, presenting, the Whole Game Sketch, mentorship, and where the class was lacking. I heard not just about their experiences in this program, but also about their experiences in their internships.
I specifically asked international students what would make them want to talk more in class. A clear goal for Marty was creating a more open environment for questions and discussion in class. The international students told me that one thing that would make them want to talk more would be seeing more people that looked like them speaking up in class and acting as leaders.
I also interviewed Colin Gray directly. In our phone interview he discussed how Indiana University was different from other design schools, specifically about the design studio culture of other schools. He discussed how in other schools there were many artifacts of the work of older students situated around the studio. Younger students could look at this, and see the work that students in the program were capable of producing. He felt it was very important for second year students in the program to work in front of first year students to give them a sense of what was expected of them.
As we progressed through the process, Marty and I met once per week. These discussions involved what research I had completed, and how changes we were discussing would affect the class.
During these discussions I was able to help Marty understand the implications of decisions from a student perspective, discuss which lectures from the previous year were particularly effective, and advocate for different students as mentors. I was also able to offer my own ideas, based on the research I had done.
Through our discussions we decided to make the following changes:
Students would now be required to iterate on projects 2, 3 and 4. Each of these iterations would include a wireframe as part of the deliverable. This directly addressed Marty's concern about students having experience creating detailed designs, as well as give them an opportunity to complete more wireframe projects.
For the iterations, students would be required to summarize feedback they received during presentation critique, select a small portion of the design, and create at least 12 iterations on that part of the design. Once they had done their iterations, they would be required to mount them on a poster board to leave in the studio. Finally, the team would create a final sketch from their iterations, and each member of the team would create a wireframe based on that sketch. They would be able to select their wireframe tool of choice.
The fidelity would vary based on the project:
- Project 2 - Students required to simply get the visuals of the feature on the screen.
- Project 3 - Students required to create an interactive wireframe of a single feature of their design
- Project 4 - Students required to implement their entire design as an interactive wireframe.
Rather than 6 projects, with one running through the course of the semester, we would reduce to 5 projects, 3 of which would include iterations. In addition, project 4 would no longer be an introduction to CHI. We would only use project 5 for CHI.
Topics - Fall 2013:
- Project 1 - Redesign a Thermostat
- Project 2 - AllTrails.com rating system design
- Project 3 - Design for Identity
- Project 4 - CHI introduction (Body Data)
- Project 5 - CHI completion (Body Data)
- Project 6 (semester long) - Eames Website Wireframe
Topics - Fall 2014:
- Project 1 - Thermostat Redesign
- Project 2 - OnePassword password generator design
- 2i - Project 2 Iteration
- Project 3 - Design for Home
- 3i - Project 3 Iteration
- Project 4 - Self-driving cars
- 4i - Project 4 iteration
- Project 5 - CHI prompt
Iteration projects would be assigned at the same time as the subsequent project. This would give students additional pressure and the experience of having to coordinate two teams at the same time. This was also a practical concern, as scheduling the iteration projects non-concurrently would not have allowed enough time to complete all of the projects.
Whole Game Sketch
Instead of creating their Whole Game Sketch as part of projects, students would instead create this sketch as a separate project. In addition, they would be assigned to a small group with a mentor to discuss their process outside of class. This would also give mentors another chance to spend time with and talk to a small group of students, improving relations between mentors and students.
Students would be required to create their whole game sketch 3 times during the semester. This strategy was designed to separate the sketch from projects. The hope being that students wouldn't create it simply as a last-minute afterthought.
The mentors play a very important role in IDP. Each team is assigned a mentor or multiple mentors depending on how many are available. Their responsibility is to guide teams while letting them struggle through the complexities of a design project. This is a difficult constraint to work within because as designers we are trained to empathize, and seeing others struggle when you have the answer to their problems is a challenge. Mentors must play a careful balance between helping the students develop as designers, and also allow them the opportunity to make mistakes.
In this iteration of the class, we decided to elevate the role of the mentors. In previous semesters students learned about them through interactions in teams and throughout the semester. This semester, we decided to include mentor names and bios in the syllabus. In addition, a small group of mentors would write a short paragraph about other mentors to include in the syllabus as well.
This strategy was designed to help the students value their mentors more and turn to them more often by humanizing them early in the semester.
The final major change in IDP was to provide some training in improvisational techniques from the theater department. The goal here was to give students experience building up an idea by using the 'Yes, and...' technique common to improvisational acting. Our hope was that students would become more comfortable building up ideas over time, rather than shooting them down too quickly. A secondary goal was to give them more confidence in presentation.
These sessions lasted over three class sessions, and students commented on how enjoyable the experience was. In addition, mentors and other second years who were not mentors attended and commented on how they wished they could have had this experience during IDP.
Understanding how these changes will affect the students cannot be known without a larger study over a longer period of time. As of this writing, students are still going through this iteration of the class, so it is hard to tell how the changes are affecting them vs previous cohorts. However, reactions to the class are positive.
But what I've learned over the course of this experience, is that next summer, when Marty is planning for the fall, all of the changes we made will be 'up for grabs' again. Interaction Design Practice is never the same experience twice.