IA04: Observation Study

Due: Email meethu@cs.umd.edu by Thursday, February 13th (before class)
This assignment is to be completed with one partner.

Assignment Overview

Formative inquiry is often performed at the beginning of a design project to better understand a given problem space and associated human behaviors, social contexts, and environmental constraints therein. In this assignment, you will practice using formative inquiry methods--namely, in-situ observation--to understand how people currently use the University of Maryland paid parking system.You will analyze this data, identify where and how people struggle, and sketch out alternative designs.

Note: although this is under "individual assignments," you are to do this assignment with a partner.

There are four parts to this assignment:
  1. You must go to one or more parking areas of your choosing that have electronic pay stations (see http://www.transportation.umd.edu/paystation.html for locations) and collect observational data about how people who pay for parking interact with the parking system. In this case, that may include interactions with parking meters, paystations, or devices to access Parkmobile or the Parker app. Your observation should look beyond the specific interactions with technology and observe use of signage, difficulties figuring out how to pay, etc. You should identify distinct tasks, such as "paying for parking at a paystation using cash." Another example might be "paying for parking using Parkmobile." For two tasks that you identify, I want you to observe how people accomplish that task--list the steps necessary to complete the task. See if you can identify "expert" users vs. "first-time" users. Keep in mind that the same basic task may be accomplished with completely different steps by different users, so the type of person may be part of the task (e.g., inexperienced user paying with Parkmobile vs. experienced user paying with Parkmobile). What mistakes apply only to first time users? What are the confusing parts of the interfaces (e.g., how does the signage seem to confuse people?)
  2. Your observational data should include notes, pictures, and, in some cases, video (e.g., recorded via your smartphone). Bear in mind, however, that you should not be intrusive. You do not want your presence to affect how people ordinarily behave. IDEO refers to this as the Fly on the Wall method--a type of Contextual Inquiry. The goal is to observe and record behavior within its context, without interfering with people's activities. The data you collect should be anonymized (for example, your pictures/videos should not have identifiable information--you should try to avoid recording faces the best that you can). Because you won't be able to see people's smartphones, you probably won't be able to tell where people have a problem, but you should be able to see that they do.

  3. Then, analyze the information you've collected to identify problems, patterns, and insights.
  4. Finally, sketch out some alternative designs that help fix the problems you've identified.

Although you won't directly observe people's smartphones, it might be useful to know the steps in the Parkmobile app.

Your Report

Your report should be structured as follows:
  1. Briefly explain the two tasks that you decided to study and why.

  2. For each task, create a top-level header ("Heading 1" style) with the name of the task. Underneath the header, describe the steps necessary to accomplish this task (e.g., the first step is to find the parking zone number). Use supporting images (with annotations) to help provide a clear breakdown of the task. Alternatively, if you recorded a video demonstrating these steps, you can refer to the video (with link) in the text rather than using supporting images.

  3. Create a sub-heading ("Heading 2" style) called "Challenges, Errors, and Successes." In this subsection, enumerate the challenges, errors, and successes that you observed for this specific task. Categorize the challenges and errors into low, medium, and high severity (where high severity is an issue that would likely result in failure or extreme frustration). Use supporting images/figures to help describe these issues.

  4. Create another sub-heading ("Heading 2" style) called "Recommendations for Design." In this section, suggest specific design fixes/alternatives that could fix or reduce your identified problems. Be creative but practical. Provide at least one sketch with your recommendations.

  5. Loop back to step #2 to describe your second task.

  6. Create a top-level header ("Heading 1" style) called "Concluding Remarks." Here, provide at least one sentence describing what you learned from this assignment, one sentence describing what you didn't like about this assignment, and one sentence explaining how this assignment could be improved in the future. :)

As with many assignments in this class, Meethu and I reserve the right to award bonus points for excellence and creativity.


Please email your report including inline images taken during your observational study and your sketches to meethu@cs.umd.edu by Thursday, February 13th (before class). If you took video that you think highlights an issue particularly well, please upload this to YouTube and include a link in your report. Make sure both names are on the report.