IST students earn real-world experience improving local websites

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Students in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) know the integration of technology into our everyday lives creates unique challenges that require critical problem-solving skills. For students enrolled in IST 331, a course focused on the foundations of designing information systems with the needs of the end-user in mind, they are earning experience that is directly translatable to their future careers by reviewing and suggesting changes to existing websites.

Led by Frank Ritter, professor of information sciences and technology and the course’s instructor, students in the course act as information technology consultants, reviewing the data, theories, and analytic techniques related to how users interact with information systems. 

“IST 331 helps students not only realize that people are important in systems, but also provides the knowledge that system designers need to know about how people interact, think, and interact with each other to design better systems,” Ritter said.

Ritter also explained that the class provides experience in writing reports about usability, a skill that is essential for most careers in technology.

The class is broken up into teams who connect with local organizations and offer suggestions to improve their existing websites. The students then run usability tests and recommend changes to optimize the user experience. A major focus of the class is user-centered design, the concept that users and their needs are of crucial importance when developing technology systems.

Students in the class reviewed websites for a variety of organizations. According to Ritter, two of the most compelling recent projects focused on the websites for CentrePeace, a local furniture resale shop that hires and gives prison inmates a head start at re-entering the community, and Centre County PAWS, a State College-based animal shelter that finds homes for rescued dogs and cats.

When Ritter charged the class with improving the architecture of an established website for user optimization, PAWS instantly came to mind for Tamara Fox. A senior majoring in IST, she explained, “I’m a big advocate for animal adoption. I think PAWS is a really worthy cause, and they’ve certainly done a lot for the State College area.”

Fox and her group members —Tyler Suehr, Manav Mehrotra and Shivnarine Wilson — were excited to combine their education in user experience and their love of animals, all while helping a non-profit organization. “[The class] is a mixture between tech and psychology,” Fox said. “It takes what we know about development and programming, but puts it in a user-based perspective.”

To complete the project, the groups used three different usability studies to understand how users naturally interacted with the site. Each of the approaches played a part in the process of making suggestions to the organizations: the perceptual interaction lab, the task analysis lab and the interface evaluation study.

The perceptual interaction lab tested the readability of certain fonts and background colors, while the task analysis lab tested how long it took to complete various tasks on the website. The final test, the interface evaluation study, had participants evaluate the main page of the interface and describe their likes, dislikes and overall usability of the interface.

“Working with local organizations undoubtedly helps strengthen ties between the student groups, IST and Penn State,” Ritter said. The groups are encouraged to share their suggestions and discoveries with the organizations whose websites they reviewed, which often leads to further student involvement and implementation of their suggestions."

The most impactful change Fox’s group suggested related to the login and registration process. On the current PAWS site, the user has to create an account to adopt a pet or donate. By moving the login and register link to the main navigation bar, thus making it more visible, the students suggested that visitors would be more inclined to take these steps.

Tyler Suehr, a junior majoring in IST, said the class helped him bring technology to a worthy cause, as well as giving him experience in a real-world project.

“[IST 331] takes the theoretical ideas you learn in class and applies them to real life,” Suehr said. “That itself makes a bigger difference, actually applying the experience.”

Suehr added that most IST classes have a group project aspect, which helps students hone their project management skills. “The great thing about IST is there are so many ways you can go in the major,” Suehr explained. “It’s not strictly software development or strictly system design, and as a programmer, the class makes a phenomenal difference in the way you think.”

Last Updated April 03, 2017