Class puts people first, technology second

Story by Jim Davis | Illustration by Alexia Lozano Monday, September 12, 2022

It’s shortly before 8:30 on a Wednesday morning in June outside Room 139 at the University of Washington’s Condon Hall. Small groups of students huddle over laptops, feverishly typing revisions or rehearsing lines soon to be delivered.

Today is presentation day for Information Management and Technology 565, a course called Designing Information Experiences.

Half of the class will unveil their final projects for this upper-division course at the UW’s Information School. The rest will deliver theirs next week. All the projects take on the feel of business proposals in front of a group of angel investors.

First up is a team that presents an idea called Shift, a service to help work-from-home employees transition — or shift — from the workday to home life. Central to their concept is a set of virtual reality goggles that feature a video with relaxing scenes and music.

Other groups today include Super Hairos, which fosters communication between hair salon clients and their stylists; Gym Buddy, which teaches gym members how to use various exercise equipment; Partopia, which aims to improve morale and camaraderie between work-at-home and in-the-office employees; and Let’s Go, which links people who want to share and explore urban walks.

After the Super Hairos presentation, Professor Jacob O. Wobbrock notes the hair salon business is multibillion-dollar-a-year industry with clients who spend up to hundreds of dollars a session. National and regional chains would be interested in the data generated both on consumers and stylists by the Super Hairos app.

“This course was born out of a desire to center human experience as the driving force behind the creation of new technologies and services."

“This has business potential, I think,” Wobbrock says. “If none of you have plans after you graduate, you might want to get together and keep going.”

Technology features prominently in many of the presentations. After all, the iSchool studies the interaction between information, technology and people. This class, however, intentionally places experience first and considers how that experience is delivered as secondary, whether it’s via an app, a website, a service or even a piece of paper.

"We don't want to merely educate students to create technologies but not think about why they're creating the technologies in the first place,” Wobbrock said. “This course was born out of a desire to center human experience as the driving force behind the creation of new technologies and services."

Most of the students who take the class are in the iSchool’s Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM) program or the Master of Human-Computer Interaction and Design (MHCI+D) program, which is a cross-disciplinary program jointly offered by four departments, including the iSchool.

One of the students who presented on the first day was Jinyu Wu, part of the Partopia team. Wu, who is in the MSIM program, said the class was highly recommended by other classmates.

Her group realized that virtual work-from-home offices were taking a toll on workplace morale. They envisioned a scenario where a small tech firm was trying to engage workers in both Seattle and San Francisco.

They designed an app that features games for employees to play, including an activity where some workers find clues to help others guess a movie. (In this presentation, the workers find a broom, a robe and a hat that evoke a Harry Potter movie.)

Wu said the class requires a lot of reading with a heavy workload and tight deadlines. She’s happy with the class and how their project came together.

“I've learned a lot from my peers, whether it's about project management, user experience design in general, and just communication and collaboration,” Wu said

Wobbrock started the class in spring quarter 2016 with about 15 students. Each year, Designing Information Experiences has grown more popular. Last spring, the iSchool turned away students for the first time after more than 50 signed up.

The first part of the class focuses on philosophical and psychological readings that ask students to consider what an experience is, such as psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s work on the “experiencing self” as distinct from the “remembering self.” Kahneman shows that people’s emotional state during an experience may be different from their memory of that experience.

Take hiking, for instance. The actual experience can be miserable between bug bites, body aches and hot weather. But afterward, the hiker will remember what made the day enjoyable, the summit, the lunch and the walk back down the trail. It’s an important concept for designers to understand, Wobbrock said. Designers need to consider not just the experience, but how the experience is remembered and retold. In fact, much of the class focuses on giving people stories, which are ways of packaging experiences that have beginnings, peaks and endings.

The class also considers the customer journey. Students map out what customers — broadly defined as the consumers of experiences — are thinking, what they’re feeling, and what their uncertainties are.

One of the reasons that students take the course is to develop a portfolio piece to show potential employers, Wobbrock said. But he hopes they walk away with more.

“This class is going to change how you think, if I'm successful,” Wobbrock said. “Learning design tools is important, but you can go off and learn tools on your own. They change every couple of years anyway. But why are you using the tools that you're using, and what is it you're creating and why are you creating that thing?

“Breakthrough products or services tend to meet a fundamental need and do so in a way that the experience is satisfying and successful.”

Groups in the second session are Scent Explorer, which creates a digital kiosk to assist perfume shoppers; Break the Ice, an app that connects people for friendship; Loom, an online tailoring service for heirloom clothing; Memento, an app that allows people to hang out online together and create tangible keepsakes such as personalized postcards; and Packed, a service that allows travelers to rent clothes to be delivered to their destinations, easing the travel experience.

Scent Explorer considers how some retail experiences are better in person than online, such as perfume shopping.

“We thought that the problem of finding a fragrance was really interesting …” said Makeda Adisu, part of the Scent Explorer team. “The physical in-store experience is essential, because it's a very sensory thing. We thought there was a gap in how the digital and physical experiences were tied together.”

An app wasn’t useful in testing, because people needed to keep picking up and putting down their phone while trying fragrances, said Adisu, who is part of the MHCI+D program. So, they developed the concept of a kiosk to help customers sort through what they were looking for and print paper scent strips with notes.

Like Wu, Adisu took Designing Information Experiences in part based on recommendations of past students. She appreciated the structure of the class and what she learned.

“The class forces you to think deeply about the philosophy behind experience design and not just how do you apply this as a skill, but what defines an experience,” Adisu said. “It forces you to do a lot of hard thinking. Definitely a lot of work and definitely very challenging, but also rewarding.”

As for Wobbrock, he plans to keep offering his course each year, a course he regards as delivering a service experience to his students. “Experiences will always be central to people and to organizations, and the technologies and services that support experiences will keep evolving — just like my class.”