Pittsburgh to Seattle by Way of Bangalore

SL Rao

SL Rao received a Master of Design degree in Interaction Design in May 2013. Prior to starting a new job at Microsoft, she spent the summer in India, as part of a team of CMU students working in Bangalore. She describes that experience in the article below. The team also kept a blog of their adventure.

As interaction designers we’re introduced to how people communicate and interact. We’re encouraged to apply these principles to the way people interact with technology to create usable and empathic devices that are customized around people’s needs. Slowly over time we forget about this because we constantly design for the visual world. We design touch screens and Websites. We obsess over details and learn what works best. This is what I’ve been doing for the last two years (mostly). I LOVED it. I saw how beautiful I could make things with different lights, textures, colors. 

Then I moved to back to Bangalore for two months after being selected to be a part of the innovative Student Technology ExPerience (iSTEP) internship team that is managed by research group, TechBridgeWorld, at CMU. The internship is open to students across CMU’s Pittsburgh and Doha campuses and attracts students from various disciplines. Computer science, robotics, math, public policy, civil and environmental engineering, business, and electrical and computer engineering are some of the many programs that iSTEP alumni have been a part of. iSTEP is a unique internship that provides students with the opportunity to conduct research in underserved communities around the world. Since my human-centered-design research experience was limited to the U.S., I had to quickly learn how to evaluate non-screen interfaces and work with a community that has very different needs from the average user group. You cannot use generalized strategies to analyze data. You read, learn, try, test, revise, and try again.

Let me tell you more about the work I’m doing here. I’m working as an integral part of an eight-member team selected to test and enhance two different devices that support blind students who are learning to write Braille. The Braille Writing Tutor (BWT), one of the devices, was prototyped in 2006 and left for use at the Mathru School for the Blind where we’re working this summer. The device is connected to a computer and allows student to learn the placement of dots in a Braille cell. Students can also learn to write Braille using the slate and stylus through different games and exercises. The device provides audio feedback based on the input provided. 

The device provides students and teachers a tactile and auditory interface to interact with. In addition to suiting the needs of the primary users (primary school students) the device has to satisfy the needs of the other stakeholders (teachers and the school) in terms of the cost of the device and simplicity. Half of the team is heavily involved with the software development of the devices while the other half works on user research. Madeleine Clute, a rising senior in SCS is working on enhancing existing modes on the tutor and introducing Kannada (local language) and Hindi (national language) Braille in addition to Math Braille.

The second device (Stand Alone Braille Writing Tutor, SABT) is an enhanced version of the BWT which works off of four AA batteries and is aimed at overcoming the issue of power cuts in the developing world. The team is testing this device for the first time this summer. Over the last month we conducted initial user tests with teachers to understand the appeal of the interface, the form of the device and ease of comprehension of the modes, instructions etc. Then we tested it with students after making changes to software of the device. Vivek Nair, a junior at CIT, is working on adding modes similar to the BWT to this device. 

As the lead of the Needs Assessment team I have the responsibility of ensuring that both the teams are on the same page. I also coordinate and conduct testing, interviews, and other research processes that the team employs. The team has had to devise different kinds of user research strategies to gain the maximum feedback. For example, the new device SABT is being tested for the first time and the team decided to introduce “in context” testing – the team provided teachers with the SABT and observed how they used it in class. The aim of this was to understand if the teachers are motivated to use it during their class, since it is more portable compared to the original BWT. This testing session revealed a lot to the team about the usability of the device and possible ways the device will be used.  

Eight weeks have passed by very quickly. A typical day begins at 9am when we get to the Mathru School for the Blind. The Needs Assessment team sits together for what we call the “Team Cuddle” and discusses the weekly agenda and what each member has to cover by the end of the day. The team manages marketing (Facebook, Twitter, sending out newsletters, and updating the blog), user testing and needs assessment of Mathru’s new school, the Mathru Center for the Differently Abled. Our day is split between user testing, observations, conducting various design research activities, and analyzing and documenting our findings. We communicate regularly with TechBridgeWorld at CMU to keep them updated on our research and findings, to ensure we’re on track and for support and advice. Our day ends at 5pm with light refreshments and the satisfaction of knowing that the work we’re doing is directly impacting the community.

Jumping right into understanding and evaluating non-screen interfaces has given me the opportunity of really applying the skills I’ve honed in the School of Design at CMU. It is an amazing experience and I wish that I had more opportunities to do this kind of work.

Date Published: 
Friday, August 30, 2013
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