MSIM student digs into research on small icons, big data

Thursday, December 7, 2017

In one research study, iSchool master’s student Erin McAweeney investigates whether the icons on our computers and mobile devices make sense to young users. In another project, she endeavors to find out what can be learned from a massive set of data on e-book and e-reader usage around the world.

While those avenues of research may sound vastly different, this Master of Science in Information Management student does see something they have in common.

“While they’re radically different in their aims and goals, there is this underlying thread of, ‘Who is using technology and how? And in what ways can the technology meet the person and not the other way around?’” McAweeney said. “It’s very iSchool.”

Natural curiosity and a fondness for data are evident in McAweeney, a second-year MSIM student. Her undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison focused on journalism, astronomy and astrophysics, and after graduation she landed an internship for the New York Times Paris bureau.

While in Paris, she took note of how people’s outlook can be changed by carrying a camera. If you know you want to take pictures and document what you see, she said, you are more apt to seek out beautiful or fascinating things in the world around you. When she returned to Madison, she returned to a job as an editor for Street Pulse, a newspaper that serves the city’s homeless population. Inspired by what she saw in Paris, she started a project called Fresh Lens, which involved a partnership between the paper and a local camera shop. The paper loaned disposable cameras to homeless vendors and asked them to photograph whatever they wished. She was struck by the beauty that many were able to create and capture.

“It was eye-opening to really see the effect that just a small piece of a very simple technology can have on how people want to share and spread their story,” she said. “That whole experience kind of opened my eyes to the unique ways in which we create and share information, so that’s one of the things that led me here.”

Questioning computer icons

That spirit of research and experimentation stayed with McAweeney as she pursued her graduate studies at the University of Washington Information School. At an orientation session, she spoke to Professor Jacob O. Wobbrock and Ph.D. student Abdullah Ali about the UW’s Mobile + Accessible Design (MAD) Lab. They remembered her interest and approached her a few months later about a study Wobbrock conceived about computer icons.

“Erin had the right combination of interests, passion, and dedication,” said Wobbrock, who leads the MAD Lab. “When I described the project to her, I could tell it piqued her interest and she began to think about it as something she could see herself really running with, and it turned out to be a great match.”

The study, which Wobbrock calls the Anachronistic Icons project, challenges the idea that the existing iconic symbols representing various computer actions are as recognizable and meaningful now as they were when they were created, sometimes decades ago. For example, in many applications, a 3.5-inch floppy disk is still used to represent “save,” but how many of today’s young adult computer users have ever seen a floppy disk? Do they see this icon as a floppy disk or merely an abstract square that means “save”? Similarly, a physical magnifying glass might represent “search” or “zoom,” but few of today’s millennial users have experience with such an object in the world.

In the study, McAweeney and Ali, supervised by Wobbrock, are using a research method that originated with Wobbrock in 2005 called “end-user elicitation.” They show participants – all millennials, ages 18-22 – a computer action such as “save,” “search” or “send,” and ask them to sketch at least three icons they think would represent it. Often, the participants first draw what they’re accustomed to seeing, but then they get more creative and even entertaining, McAweeney said.

“Sometimes young participants are still using the icons that they’re familiar with, like a floppy disk for save, but they have never actually interacted with the physical object in real life. One student saw a picture of a floppy disk on the ground and said, ‘Why is there a save button on the ground?’” she said with a laugh. “It’s a completely different relationship to the symbols in our interfaces.”

While there are some fun aspects to it, the study has some serious implications. Graphic designers need to consider whether their icons make sense for the next generation of computer and smartphone users, and mobile devices put a heavy burden on icons to make sense instantly so that users know where to tap.

“Icons are pretty important to consider because they’re everywhere,” Wobbrock said. “On the design side, if we can understand better how younger people perceive and understand some of these objects, that will give us insights for how we design the next wave of user interface icons, especially for new platforms like wearable displays. But to do this well, we need to understand the mental models of millennials and how they see the digital world. Understanding their perceptions of icons provides one window into those mental models.”

So far, 26 young adults have taken part in the study, with a few more to go. McAweeney, Ali and Wobbrock will then analyze the data and release the findings in a research paper in 2018.

Exploring big data

Along with her coursework and research in the MAD Lab, McAweeney also works with the iSchool’s Technology & Social Change (TASCHA) group, doing both research and communications. She’s assisting on research into millions of data points provided by Worldreader, which provides free e-books and e-readers to promote literacy around the world.

As a huge, messy dataset, the Worldreader records pose a completely different challenge than that of McAweeney’s other research. TASCHA researchers, including Jason Young, Bree Norlander and Lucas Koepke, are parsing the data to determine what kind of answers it can provide. It’s giving McAweeney a first-hand look at how researchers approach such a large task and what kinds of challenges they face.

“We have data from countries all over the world, and they all have different relationships to e-readers and to literature that they’re reading, and there are so many indicators and factors when you’re looking at someone’s use of a piece of technology,” she said.

The project suits her interest in research and the challenges and limitations of big data.

“This is my first experience using big data from start to finish to try to create some sort of research finding out of that,” she said. “I’m getting a clear taste of what that process is. I think it’ll be extremely useful for me in understanding the challenges that researchers face when trying to make sense out of massive datasets like this.”

Both the TASCHA project and the icons study question assumptions about the “normal” use of information and technology, with the goal of making it more useful and accessible for everyone. That theme has carried through McAweeney’s research work and her classes in the MSIM program. It is likely to be her focus as she advances in her career, which might include a doctoral program in the not-too-distant future. 

“I want technology to work for people, not the other way around,” she said.