The trip to Landmark College this past semester was extremely beneficial to my studies, and hopefully to the students who were a part of the workshop. It was great to see a room of students who had given up a Saturday to be a part of a session like this.
I have worked with children and school groups before, teaching archaeology, paleontology, and geology at a science camp in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (The Park’s website at http://www.nps.gov/joda/index.htmin the high desert of Oregon. Many of the groups included high school seniors, young adults just a step away from college. But the students at Landmark College (many of whom were freshman and only in their first semester) were far more engaged and interested in the topic of software interface redesign than I could muster from the students in these school groups who were standing in one of the largest, and most ecologically diverse fossil beds in the world, full of breathtaking views!
Over the years I have been fortunate to run, or help run, usability tests on many different topics. My work with all the different participants I had on these traditional usability studies, in some ways helped prepare me for this and in other ways definitely did not. I’m grateful for all of the practice I’ve had at attempting to draw out further information by having the participant ‘think aloud’. For a project like this though, iterative application design with a special needs group is nothing like these traditional usability studies. My group was reworking a scheduling app, that would help remind students to do things like write a paper, take medicine, go to class, and so on. The first group of students I worked with were at first very quiet, and I found that I needed to really draw them out with questions to lead them into discussion. Once they got going though, a great deal of their ideas were extremely good, and shaped a good application into one far better. The second iteration of application design with these designers was quite different from the first, mainly because this group was extremely gregarious. In the first group the focus was almost on trying to get all of the students to talk and voice ideas, in the second it was more of an attempt to hear one voice over the rest. But this passion and intensity, when tempered and focused (towards the application and away from drawing monsters), produced ideas that were unique and greatly strengthened the functionality and features of the app in a completely different way from the first group.
I also found it interesting how many of the students at Landmark College were serious gamers, clearly having whiled away many an hour playing LAN games of Starcraft and many other games. Yet just as fascinating, few of the students had played or heard of many of the highest rated and popular games of the past few years. In that respect it appeared that the gaming community was somewhat insular, and most of the students seemed used to playing games that were ‘tried and true’. All in all I can say that this was an extremely rewarding trip for me: learning new ways of working with users, better understanding the needs of this specialized group, and was great practice in both having the user think aloud, and working to provide a structure for participants who may not be quite as focused otherwise. This is definitely a trip I will remember for a long time.