IST students apply classroom knowledge to enhance local websites

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Websites for local organizations and University services recently benefited from the research of students in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, thanks to a semester-long project focused on human-computer interaction.

As part of the research in IST 331, a course that examines the foundations of designing information systems with the needs of the end user in mind, student groups analyzed how users interact with each website through three separate studies: the perceptual interaction lab, which evaluated color scheme and home page design; the task analysis lab, where users completed various assigned tasks; and the interface learning study, which analyzed the site’s learnability. Each group also turned in a final report with its findings and suggested changes to improve each of the reviewed websites.

“This approach allows students to balance theory and practice. In doing these labs and final report, students develop skills based on theory and data to understand the most complex aspect of these systems: people,” said Frank Ritter, professor of IST and the course’s instructor.

Evan Friel, a senior double-majoring in IST and telecommunications, said the most impactful part of the class was the real-world application.

“When I’m looking at user interfaces, not even just websites, I feel like I am more likely to notice when they are difficult to use,” he said. “Additionally, in some cases businesses who had their sites reviewed actually made the recommended changes. This is something students can include on a resume to show they actually made a difference through their schoolwork.”

Friel’s group reviewed the website for Sadie’s Waffles, a State College-based breakfast shop that specializes in authentic Belgian waffles. Sadie’s website allows users to view the menu, order online, and find contact information. After conducting user tests in the three lab studies, Friel and his group recommended that the business modify the site’s text and background color, as well as improve the navigation bar — two changes that the business has since implemented.

“Real world experience is a cornerstone of IST,” Friel said. “One huge benefit of this is being able to discuss your knowledge of IT topics and how to apply these topics in industry situations during interviews.”

Friel’s classmate, IST major Adrianne Kubiak, agreed. Her group made similar recommendations for 25Live, a platform used by Penn State students, faculty and staff to schedule meeting and event space on campus.

Their research suggested that 25Live could be improved by labeling widgets with more saturated colors, making them more distinct and easier to see. They also asked participants to create and find events on the platform, allowing the group to identify what aspects of the interface were challenging to the user and how the process could be improved.

“Our IST 331 project specifically allowed us to tackle a problem where there wasn’t a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, unlike more conventional assignments where the problem set is provided,” Kubiak said. “Working with 25Live allowed our group to work with a fully functional site and help improve it.”

“This course is a great way for students to learn and contribute to society at the same time. I’m particularly pleased that other 331 instructors, particularly Dr. Sarah Stager, have been able to use this approach as well — her students are working on a similar set of sites this spring. It shows that our juniors are already able to contribute in this technology area,” Ritter said.

Last Updated April 13, 2018