Graduate students learn real-world problem-solving through interaction design

May 23, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In order for students to truly understand the complexities that relate to the design process, it is essential to create an interactive environment where they can practice product analysis, statistics, fidelity prototyping and innovative design techniques.

Project-based learning accomplishes this by teaching students the skills and information necessary to complete projects. Most often, these projects are solutions to real-world problems.

The College of Engineering’s course EDSGN 548/IE 548 Interaction Design provides graduate students with an integrative perspective on the types of human-centered design techniques that can be used to analyze existing consumer products and develop innovative solutions.

The course, taught by Scarlett Miller, assistant professor of engineering design and industrial engineering, reimagines graduate student project teams as mini design firms. Miller uses a rapid-fire teaching style, allowing students to immediately apply concepts, like client interviews, content analysis, prototype development and testing, to their design projects.

“Our whole goal is to develop products that are usable,” she said. “We define usability to be efficient, effective and invoke some kind of emotion.”

For the last four years, students completed company-sponsored projects. Teams worked with companies like Microsoft Hardware, IBM Hardware, Videon Central and FXPAL.

But after partnering with the State College startup LiveIt! last year, Miller realized the opportunity to foster an entrepreneurial spirit in students through engagement with local companies.

“Where we can have the biggest impact in our class is actually in these smaller projects,” Miller said. “The need and the potential impact are greater because these startups do not have the design teams or funding that larger corporations do.”

During the spring semester, four teams comprised of graduate students from engineering design, industrial engineering, mechanical engineering and information sciences and technology worked on user-centered design projects sponsored by Penn State faculty members and their startup ventures.

Supported by Jason Moore, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, the dynamic haptic robotic training (DHRT) system project focused on developing a user-interface for a training system for Central Venous Catheter (CVC) insertion. The completed interface and training modules will be implemented at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center this summer.

The team for the Penn State Operating Station, a project sponsored by the Penn State Institute for Natural Gas Research (INGaR) and spearheaded by Monty Alger, director of the INGaR and professor of chemical engineering, and Sven Bilén, head of the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP); professor of engineering design, electrical engineering and aerospace engineering; and chief technologist for the Center for Space Research Programs, focused on designing an online, real-time monitoring system that displays the use of sustainable energy at the University Park campus to help lessen Penn State’s carbon footprint.

The Kids About Town (KAT) platform, sponsored by Meg Small, assistant director for Innovations and Social Change; director, Prevention Innovation Lab; and research associate, Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development, is a social entrepreneurial offering investigating the integration of social-emotional learning opportunities in retail spaces. The graduate student team worked to develop a social-emotional mobile and tablet application based on MyPlate, the new food pyramid model, that engages both children and parents during grocery store trips.

About Face, a project supported by Frank Ritter, professor of information sciences and technology, investigates a solution to reduce the spread of infectious disease through sensors. The team spent the semester working to determine user needs and developing a working prototype. Additionally, the students researched patents in the infectious disease sensor space to determine opportunities. A patent on their research and design is currently being pursued.

Through the course, students are taught how to elicit customer wants and needs through conducting and analyzing user interviews. This is an important first step because it helps the students get to the root cause of the problem. After this process, Miller then teaches creativity techniques to foster initial design development and low fidelity prototyping — a step in the design process where engineers and programmers work to fix flaws in the product or identify large design obstacles.

Jian Chen, an engineering design graduate student, said this process taught him to focus on much more than simply the physical design of a product.

“You must talk to the customer, learn their requirements and use that in your design. When we are trying to design something to solve a problem, sometimes the biggest problem is the customer doesn’t even know what the problem is,” he said. “We, as designers, need to figure out what the problem is. I’ve learned that the interview is a very useful, powerful method to help figure out the problem.”

This sentiment was found to be true in Chen’s project. After completing research on energy consumption at other universities and analyzing data provided by Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant and Sustainability Institute, the team found labs on campus to be the greatest consumers of energy. Instead of focusing on a real-time monitoring system for all of Penn State, the students found that a user-friendly monitor display and an incentive scheme would be more able to meet the goals of the project and better encourage the behavioral changes needed to reduce user energy consumption in research labs on the University Park campus.

After creating initial design concepts, teams then develop a medium fidelity prototype for their products and enter the usability testing phase. At this point, the design is taken to potential users to test the effectiveness of and satisfaction with the device.

Miller said this is a critical step of the design process.

“It’s important to gain feedback from potential users to ensure our devices are not only usable, but evoke an emotional connection to the product," she said.

Feedback from this user testing is used to develop a product design plan and recommendations for the stakeholders of the project. Project supporters are presented with the opportunity to continue to sponsor the class or to work with Integrated Design Solutions (IDS) to truly bring the design to life.

Miller said it is rewarding, especially for engineering design graduate students, when IDS works on designs because it is almost impossible to take an idea from plan to implementation in the course of one semester.

“We can start with fuzzy ideas of what companies want and develop implementable and satisfying design solutions,” she said. “I think something unique that we have [at Penn State] is that we are able to take these well-developed design plans and hand the idea off to IDS to implement these ideas through our design services.”

For engineering design student Maria Alessandra Nusiner, the original fuzzy idea for her team’s energy operating station venture differed greatly from the design plan that was presented to the project’s stakeholders.

“I’ve learned that you always need to find your own answer or your own solution. We were originally given a problem statement, but after we completed our research, we found it wouldn’t actually make a difference if in general, energy was reduced in dorms and faculty and staff offices,” she said. “We actually found it would make a bigger impact if we focused our efforts on energy reduction in research labs.”

Due to discoveries like this, these projects not only provide students with an opportunity to add to their design portfolio, but also for them to leave a lasting impact on the University — and potentially the world.

“It is interesting to work on a project that will have an impact on the overall society,” Niranjana Sundaresan, an engineering design graduate student also on the operating station team, said. “As engineers, apart from problem-solving, we are also looking into the broader scope of what is motivating us and what will have a long-term impact.”

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Last Updated June 18, 2021