Computer science class demands user focus from start of design process

Megan Woodruff (CE’17) and Phil Hawkins (CS’17) present Pocket Docket to the Human-Computer Interaction class. (Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University)

Future engineers and others who excel in an increasingly popular computer science course must start by thinking past the coding challenges, past the array of possible devices, and all the way to the customers they want to reach.

For the fall 2015 semester, one Vanderbilt University School of Engineering team considered the worried family members of patients in assisted living. Another, security-savvy tech users who need an easy way to encrypt files. A third, politically active Americans who want a quick, detailed look inside the Beltway.

Associate Professor of Computer Science and Computer Engineering Julie A. Adams launched her Human-Computer Interaction course at the graduate level in 2005, but higher demand for it among undergraduates prompted her to open it to them three years ago. The topic is a passion of Adams’, who worked in the human factors groups at Honeywell and Eastman Kodak Company before returning to academia.


Her recent class of 18 undergraduates split into teams of two or three, came up with a tech concept, built it and tested it – perhaps most importantly for this class – involved potential users from across Vanderbilt’s campus in the entire process.

“You can have the best mobile app idea in the world, and if people can’t pick it up and use it within a few seconds, they won’t,” Adams said. “A lot of companies don’t think about the user interface until the end. I teach this course with a focus on user-centered design.”

“What do people feel is a requirement for the user interface? Databases, web scrapers — in my mind, those are outside the scope of the interface. I want to keep students focused on the requirements for the interface.”

Last semester, Adams required students to complete a nearly functional mobile app prototype before fall break, then used it herself and provided feedback. Beginning Nov. 1, her students tested their completed apps on 10-12 users – as many as the short time frame allows for – then assembled a statistical analysis using the limited data points.

Teams demonstrated the apps and presented their findings to Adams and classmates just before winter break. Some of the highlights:

Whiteboard Connections
Tiffany Silverstein (CE’17) and Leah Guest, a senior cognitive studies major

Guest said she took the engineering course, which is outside her major, because she knew it would be a useful building block for a career in user experience design. It also provided the

opportunity to help design something intensely personal – an application that could potentially help her monitor a great-grandmother living in a nursing home. Guest remembered not knowing what was going on and feeling helpless because she lived so far away when her grand-grandmother broke a hip getting out of bed.

Leah Guest, a senior cognitive studies major, and Tiffany Silverstein (CE’17) explain their data analysis around Whiteboard Connections.

Whiteboard Connections allows family members to plug into information about nursing home patients – their daily moods, when and what they ate, whether medications were delivered on time and any problems they may be facing. Over time, they can compare patients’ moods to which nurses are on duty.

There are spaces to write notes to each other, the staff and the patients themselves, Silverstein said. “Right now, families, caretakers and patients don’t have a shared vehicle to communicate. There’s typically one family member who calls or visits the facility routinely and has to figure out what’s happening, then has to tell everyone else.”

After populating the app with sample information, Silverstein and Guest gave their users a number of tasks to complete. Those included determining when a patient had dinner on a particular night, his mood on a number of dates and why he was sick on a certain day.

File encryption app
Michael Tetreault (CS’15), Joshua Zink-Duda (CS’16) and Jonathan Osheroff, a senior in cognitive studies with a CS minor

From left, Michael Tetreault (CS’15), Jonathan Osheroff, a senior in cognitive studies with a CS minor, and Joshua Zink-Duda (CS’16).

The team started by looking at what hadn’t been done with smartwatches yet and found encryption to be an open field. They designed a watch app as a key to decrypting files on phones or tablets.

The phone app connects to the watch, the user grants authorization, and then the watch app decrypts and opens the file on the phone. When the user is finished, the process happens in reverse to encrypt the file again.

“It particularly can help medical employees comply with HIPAA – if they lose their phones with patient files on them, it won’t be a breach of security,” Tetreault said.

While the app itself is intriguing, they had a particular focus for Adams’ class: Can users successfully encrypt and unencrypt files using watches and phones?

After addressing glitches in the software itself, the team found users who were comfortable with what sounds like a complicated process.

Pocket Docket
Megan Woodruff (CE’17) and Phil Hawkins (CS’17)

Woodruff and Hawkins launched their app in response to a friend’s suggestion – she wanted a way to track legislation of interest to women’s rights activists and had seen a movie-tracking app Hawkins created previously.

Similar to – except more user-friendly, in the students’ opinion – the app contains a full list of all U.S. senators and representatives, congressional leadership and bills. Users can build a personal “docket” to track the officials and issues that interest them.

The course’s user-testing component helped them make adjustments, Woodruff said.

“Our design of the interface for their fourth task, which had to do with the legislation page, didn’t work well. Users had to click buttons to get to certain information,” she said. “We thought it was intuitive, but it was not. People wanted to slide them.”

Hawkins said users particularly enjoyed the real-time aspect.

“You can see the bills the House and Senate are talking about right now,” he said. “You can say, ‘This is fascinating,’ track it, look at people involved with it and then go back to your docket and check on something else.”

Hawkins and Woodruff said they’d like to put their creation on the Apple Store since it’s already been completed for the class.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering