Usability Engineering: Improving ARTECA Experience

I work as a UX designer and developer on the ARTECA project from the ArtSciLab.  Every day, I get to think about how to improve the ARTECA interface for our users.  One of the primary ways our team collects feedback from our users is through usability tests, which are run by fellow UX designer Shruthy Sreepathy and myself.  Every month, we bring in someone who has never seen ARTECA before and ask them to navigate through the site, following a set of assigned tasks.  Every time we run this process we discover new potential for improvements.

Recently, I decided to add something new to our usual procedure of testing.  To achieve a better understanding of how our navigation bar elements should be placed, I designed an activity with the purpose of understanding which layout for the navigation bar makes the most sense.

I created a printout on an 11 x 17 inch piece of paper with the basic skeleton of the page (top navigation bar, main navigation bar, main content), but with none of the navigation elements.  For these elements, Shruthy wrote out the names of the links and other navigation items on small, button shaped sticky notes.

After the main portion of the usability test, we closed the browser window and presented our subject with the 11 x 17 printout and the stickies in no order.  With no instructions or other reference, we asked the subject to place the stickies to assemble navigation on the web page that made the most sense to him.  During this process, the subject narrated his thoughts and explained his placement of the different navigation elements.

After running this activity two times, we noticed several patterns that emerged.  Both users expected to see the “Login” and “Register” buttons on the right side of the navigation, which is different than the current navigation which places these buttons on the left side.  Also, both users did not understand the difference between the “Join” functionality and “Register”.  These insights will inform our future designs for the navigation bar.

This activity is one example of a co-creation activity, where the designers work with users to craft designs.  Co-creation activities are a great way to explore how a user thinks, and they are also a lot of fun for us and the user.  Our results are just one data point but we hope to expand this activity and other co-creation activities to gain a richer body of insights for improving our site.  Sound interesting? Sign up here to be part of a future usability test.

Interdisciplinary Literature Come Together in ATEC Lab’s New Online Reading Platform

For scholarly work that exists outside the realm of traditional peer-reviewed journals, outlets for getting research recognized and read can be few and far between.

To overcome this challenge, the ArtSciLab, UT Dallas’ transdisciplinary research lab, recently launched ARTECA. The new online reading platform will serve as a curated space for academic literature at the intersection of the arts, humanities, science and technology.

A collaborative effort between the ArtSciLab, the MIT Press and the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology (ISAST), ARTECA includes an expanding collection of more than 200 books and access to three MIT Press journals.

“The ArtSciLab seeks to be a pioneer in the field of experimental publishing. We hope to probe, test and experiment with new ways for professionals to document their work and show it to others,” said Dr. Roger Malina, Arts and Technology Distinguished Chair and director of the lab. “ARTECA provides a way for us to ‘beta test’ the future for the art-science-technology community.”

Malina said the aim is for ARTECA to enable new collaborative practices within transdisciplinary social communities, an idea he embodies as a physicist and astronomer working in the arts.

Chaz Lilly BA’11, MA’15, a research assistant for the project and a doctoral candidate in the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication (ATEC), said the aggregator was modeled after MIT CogNet, a similar MIT Press platform that consolidates literature in the brain and cognitive sciences.

“There are a lot of issues in how we disseminate research in academia,” Lilly said. “We live in a digital world where online research and publishing is an immediate resource, but a lot of it doesn’t reach its audience without an access point.”

With CogNet, the MIT Press developed a platform that facilitates access to more than 700 books, six journals and 13 reference works, and subscriptions from more than 100 academic institutions. The hope is to re-create its success with ARTECA.

“We’re thrilled to be working with ISAST and The University of Texas at Dallas to expand the dimensions of scholarly publishing in the art, science and technology space,” said Nick Lindsay, journals director for the MIT Press. “The Press has a long-established history of bold experimentation in publishing, and ARTECA fits that tradition perfectly.”

While the site only houses books and journal issues, subsequent phases will introduce increasingly experimental resources such as podcasts, multimedia-based materials, a job board and online textbooks for massive open online courses.

The subscription-based platform has been made available at no cost to UT Dallas students and faculty linked to the campus network. Remote access is needed to use the resource off campus.

“With ARTECA, we are experimenting with a hybrid open access and paywall system,” Malina said. “Professionals who contribute to the content and quality of ARTECA will have open access.”

Malina said that authors who prefer to pay author fees and have their articles accessible via open access may do so. Other faculty and students will have access by subscribing to institutions’ libraries.

“We will also be developing functions and tools to promote and enable transdisciplinary collaboration,” Malina said.

 

UX Design Marks Its Spot as Growing Career Path for ATEC Students

From Dell Technologies to Capital One, companies that rely on the use of intuitive customer experiences are finding a wealth of talented designers among students and alumni from the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication at UT Dallas.

Cassini Nazir, clinical associate professor in the arts and technology program and director of design and research for the ArtSciLab, trains students in user experience design. “If businesses exist in a digital space — be it a website, app, digital kiosk — they need to invest in good design,” he said.

Cassini Nazir, clinical associate professor in the arts and technology program and director of design and research for the ArtSciLab, trains students in user experience design. “If businesses exist in a digital space — be it a website, app, digital kiosk — they need to invest in good design,” he said.

The ArtSciLab — the school’s transdisciplinary research lab focused on the intersection of art and science — is immersing students into the field of user experience, or UX, design.

Cassini Nazir, professor in the arts and technology (ATEC) program and director of design and research for the lab, said UT Dallas is emerging as a leader in UX education in North Texas.

“There’s a growing trend in more courses focused on user experience (UX) design and interaction design at colleges across the nation,” he said. “Many of these concepts have come out of human computer interaction concepts, but design research and UX have really emerged as disciplines in their own right. Industry has helped by investing in design researchers and user experience designers in their spaces.”

Nazir said more companies, both established and startup, are employing a design-centric ethos, cognizant of the role UX plays in customer relations.

The Design Value Index — an evolving metric that tracks the value of companies that meet specific design-related criteria — showed in 2014 that 15 design-driven companies had outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index by 228 percent over 10 years.

Several enterprise-level companies such as Intuit and Sabre want to work with the ATEC program to recruit talent, he said.

“UTD has really benefited from it because there’s a boom of businesses setting up offices in Dallas,” said Nazir, who is part of the Dallas Design Council. “Many of those companies have been hiring teams of designers, and we’ve been successful in filling those needs.”

Clear Line to Job Opportunities

Emerging media and communication senior Lina Moon was selected to be a part of Capital One's inaugural Design Development Program, where she will spend two years learning about different fields such as interaction design and coding.

Emerging media and communication senior Lina Moon was selected to be a part of Capital One’s inaugural Design Development Program, where she will spend two years learning about different fields such as interaction design and coding.

 The lab has had students move into design positions at companies such as Sabre, Cisco Systems, AT&T, Siemens, General Motors, Fossil and J.C. Penney.

Debi Terry Ndindjock BA’13, a digital experience designer at Dell, first gained an interest in UX design while taking the interaction design course as a sophomore.

Ndindjock considered herself as purely a graphic designer, but she said she was intrigued by the psychological aspects of design, realizing UX design merges the two concepts.

“The turning point was when (design consultant) Stephen Anderson visited our class and spoke about his work,” she said. “I knew that was what I wanted to do. Since it is a relatively new field, we get a part in defining the industry as a whole.

“UX design requires such varied skills and education: visual design, writing, research and technology. You get to get in where you fit in.”

Cathryn Ploehn BA’14 said the same course — taught by Nazir — also propelled her into the field. Ploehn also served as designer for the ArtSciLab.

“Cassini’s enthusiasm was a gateway to taking further related courses, and finally a capstone in UX,” she said. “The application of the concept of empathy to design and development captivated me.”

Ploehn, who manages UX design problems and data visualization for Visionist Inc., said that developing a sense of empathy is fundamental to what makes user experiences successful.

“Really listen to what a person says to you both inside and outside of a user research setting,” she said. “Try to feel what it is like to be somebody else. Practice by exposing yourself to points of view beyond your comfort zone.”

For senior and UX Club president Lina Moon, there wasn’t an aha moment that led to an interest in UX design.

“I think being part of the UX Club as an officer and working in the ArtSciLab really gave me the confidence to pursue the field further, as it gave me a good support network and provided me access to more collective knowledge,” Moon said.

In July, Moon started a full-time position with Capital One’s inaugural Design Development Program.

The two-year program pairs students and recent graduates with a mentor who guides new associates through different fields such as interaction design and coding.

The growing demand for UX designers can be attributed, at least in part, to the growing demands of consumers of digital products. Nazir said designers often play the role of customer lobbyist, researching and voicing the needs of consumers to their business.

“Audience expectations of what constitutes a good experience are now much higher than they were in the past,” he said. “If businesses exist in a digital space — be it a website, app, digital kiosk — they need to invest in good design.”

Clark Scholars Boost Research Skills Through Summer Program

Twenty-four UT Dallas students, most of them freshmen, got a head start on their undergraduate experiences by spending nine weeks this summer conducting research on campus.

The Anson L. Clark Summer Research Program, coordinated by the Office of Undergraduate Education, saw projects ranging from the development of prosthetic casings to the design of “smart” agricultural systems. Students recently displayed their research results during a poster presentation and symposium. Incoming UT Dallas students who have been awarded Academic Excellence Scholarships are eligible to apply to be Clark Scholars. No previous research experience is necessary.

“Every year I’m amazed at how these students progress in nine short weeks, both socially and in their grasp of advanced research methods,” said Courtney Brecheen, associate dean in the Office of Undergraduate Education. “For many, participation in this program is their first chance to socialize with other university students and become acclimated to campus. It doesn’t take long before they really come together as a group, and by the end of the summer, they have mastered the art of articulating complex research to a general audience.”

The 2016 class of Clark Scholars collaborated with mentors in School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication (ATEC), the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. Nearly all of the students intend to continue their research with their mentors’ lab groups during the upcoming year, Brecheen said.

Dr. Paul Pantano, associate professor of chemistry and past recipient of the Provost’s Award for Faculty Excellence in Undergraduate Research Mentoring, serves as the program’s scientific adviser.

Among the participants was Joel Ewing, a first-year ATEC student, who worked with Cassini Nazir, ATEC professor and director of design and research of ArtSciLab, and Dr.Roger Malina  Distinguished Professor of Arts and Technology, to design a website. ARTECA — a collaboration between UT Dallas’ ArtSciLab, which Malina directs, and the MIT Press — will be an online curated space of essential content in an interdisciplinary field where art, science and technology meet.

2

ATEC student Joel Ewing helped design a website that aggregates scholarly content in an interdisciplinary field that combines art, science and technology. Dr. Roger Malina, Distinguished Professor of Arts and Technology, was his faculty mentor.

 

“The problem was, there was no central place to access materials related to this field,” Ewing said. “When ARTECA is launched, UT Dallas students will have free access to it, and other universities can subscribe. My role as a designer was to look for and address issues that affect user experience.”

Hannah Barber, a first-year student in biomedical engineering who led a collaborative project with ATEC students to design and produce decorative casings for lower limb prosthetics. She worked with faculty mentor Dr. Robert Gregg, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and bioengineering, along with students of Andrew Scott, associate professor of arts and technology.

Computer science students Daniel Garcia and Christopher Janusa spent the summer working together to develop “smart” electronics for agriculture applications. Their faculty mentor was Dr. Subbarayan Venkatesan, professor of computer science.

“There is a need for agriculture systems that are automated, simple to use and configurable,” Garcia said. “This could include systems like automated irrigation and temperature control.”

The students envisioned a smart system that includes sensors and actuators that monitor, for example, temperature and soil moisture, and could be integrated with weather data to automatically adjust irrigation and other actions according to the forecast. Users could use a web interface to regulate the system, Garcia said.

The Clark Summer Research Program is funded by an endowment from the Clark Foundation, whose philanthropy has supported scholarly endeavors at several Texas colleges and universities, such as the Anson L. Clark Memorial Lecture and the Dr. Anson L. Clark Presidential Scholarship at UT Dallas.

Bridging the Silos: Curriculum Development as a Tool for Crossing Disciplines in the Arts, Sciences and Humanities

To be published in the Leonardo Electronic Almanac Special Issue:  The Culture of Digital Education

Abstract
A survey of current cross-disciplinary offerings in higher education is needed to understand the mechanisms that were employed to offer them and their pedagogical basis. We present here a study that analyzes a compendium of arts-science-humanities cross-disciplinary courses that was created through several Calls for Contributions from 2009 to 2013.

A web site was created and over 100 submissions were posted at utdallas.edu/atec/cdash/ . The data from the courses was analyzed as to the nature of the cross-disciplines, level of offering (graduate vs. undergraduate), geographical location, level of collaboration (number of instructors), and the department(s) offering the course.

A comprehensive re-visioning of curricular structure to encourage collaborative teaching of integrative courses and programs is needed. Suggested actions include specific ideas to enhance networking and visibility, sharing of syllabi and course materials, and a research effort to demonstrate the effectiveness of cross-disciplinary art-science-humanities courses.

This preliminary study points the way towards further efforts in curricular design and research that will be required for cross-disciplinary arts-science-humanities courses to be integrated into the college curriculum.

View the full paper here

Kathryn Evans, Senior Lecturer in Music, School of Arts and Humanities,
kcevans@utdallas.edu
website

Roger Malina, Professor and Associate Director, Arts and Technology (ATEC), and CNRS Aix-Marseille University. School of Arts and Humanities,
roger.malina@utdallas.edu
website

ArtSciLab Paper by ATEC PhD Candidate Accepted by Union College Symposium on Engineering and Liberal Education

An ArtSciLab paper by Kathryn Evans, Senior Lecturer in Music and ATEC PhD Candidate at UT Dallas, has been accepted for the Union College “Engineering and the Liberal Education” symposium in Schenectedy, NY.

Below is an abstract:


 

“Does studying music enhance higher order learning skills in undergraduate non-music majors?”

Authors:

Kathryn Evans, Senior Lecturer in Music, School of Arts and Humanities, Frank Dufour, Associate Professor, Rosanna Guadagno, Associate Professor and Roger Malina, Professor, Arts and Technology, The University of Texas at Dallas

Abstract:

Many studies have looked at the correlation between music study and academic skills. A review of over 11,000 studies between 1950 and 1990 conducted by Harvard Project Zero tested the claim that studying the arts leads to some form of academic improvement. Only three areas were found that demonstrated a clear causal link between education in an art form and achievement in a non-arts, academic area. Two were in music: a medium-size causal relationship between listening to music and spatial-temporal reasoning and a large causal relationship between learning to make music and spatial-temporal reasoning. (Winner 2001). The majority of these studies have been conducted with students in primary and secondary education, but little research has been done on students at the undergraduate college level who study music, either as a minor or for general interest. Most pedagogical studies in music address the needs of music majors and not non-majors.

This pilot study looked at students at the University of Texas at Dallas who enrolled in music studies (either music performance, music theory or sound design) who are not majoring in music. Many are students in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) areas. Through phenomenological research methods, we looked at the experiences of students who study music or sound design and how they perceived it affects their academic skills in other areas. Emails for students currently enrolled in music or sound design courses in AY2014-15 were obtained from registration records and they were solicited to take an on-line survey, with an option to volunteer for an in-depth interview. Over 800 students were solicited in February 2015 and a response rate of 20% has already been obtained. Additionally, over 30 students have volunteered for the interview. Initial data and a preliminary analysis will be presented.

ArtSciLab Paper Accepted for Understanding Visual Music 2016, Brazil

An ArtSciLab paper by Andrew Blanton, Connectome Data Dramatisation: The Human Brain as Visual Music, has been accepted for Understanding Visual Music to be held June 10, 2015 in Brazil.

Below is an abstract:


 

Connectome Data Dramatisation: The human brain as visual music.

Authors: Andrew Blanton, MFA; Sruthi Ayloo, MS; Micaela Chan, MS; Scot David GreshamLancaster, MA, MFA; Roger Malina, PhD; Tim Perkis; Neil Savalia, BA; Maximilian Schich, PhD; Anvit Srivastav, MS; Gagan Wig, PhD

Abstract

We, as a collaboration of scientists and artists, have built a visual and sonic representation of highly connected areas in the human brain. This model was developed to not only be a tool of scientific research but also as a tool for art creation. In the process of developing the software, the tool was built to interface with musical instruments for real time visualization and sonification. Working conceptually with the idea that scientific data can be repurposed for art creation, the Connectome is performed as both a sonic and visual representation of fMRI data, manipulating the model in real time as a form of multimodal data dramatisation.

Introduction

Partnerships between artist and scientist allow for creative forms of collaboration that can push both scientific and artistic research. With the Connectome Data Dramatisation project, our principal interest was in the creation of a hybridized tool, one that could work as both scientific instrument as well as artistic work. Beginning with a dataset that consisted of 441 neural bundles or nodes systematically differentiated into 21 areas or systems of interest in the human brain based on fMRI data collected by one of us (Gagan Wing) as part of the work of the UTDallas Cognitive Neuroimaging Lab.[1]

Area Centers Coded by System Membership

Our team was able to extract visual and sonic representations of the connections between those areas using custom software. We then developed that representation further in the form of an interactive three dimensional node edge graph and sonification of the 421 highly connected areas of the brain (in the case of the visualization, the width of the edges).

This would form the basis of the representation. With the addition of the ability to activate nodes from external data feeds via Open Sound Control[2] different nodes could be excited at will creating a virtual, three dimensional instrument that could be used for visual and sonic performance. Using four small drums, the visual and sonic representation of connections between areas of the brain can be played in real time. Custom software receives input in the form of audio signal from each drum and excites specific areas of the brain. Each section of the brain that is played will present a unique visual and sonic representation.

Historical Perspective

Building on previous explorations in bridging art and science through the development of new technology, we were actively looking to understand how this project is situated within the history of visual music. In looking at the work done at Bell Labs in the 60’s and 70’s[3] and with the work of artist such as James Whitney[4], the question emerges, what are the components of a successful art and science collaboration? How do separate practitioners collaborate while furthering each of their own research? Phill Mortin and Dan Sandin’s image processing units[5] also played a role in both the conceptual development as well as the technical development of the work. How is information shared and disseminated after it’s creation? Other contemporary artist were looked at as well including the work of Noisefold[6] in their sound extraction techniques form visual information, Ryoji Ikeda[7] in his visual and sonic representation of data as well as Semiconductor[8] in their blending of art and science amongst others working with visual music as a contemporary practice.

Visual music has been historically tied to the development of technology. This holds true now as much as it has in the past. Current rendering technologies are evolving rapidly within the gaming community and practitioners of visual music are greatly benefiting from real time rendering advancements within the gaming communities. Robust community support and the indie gaming movement have provided new tools for interfacing with gaming environments[9]. Two areas that are underdeveloped with regard to these environments and practitioners of visual music can provide insight are in the development of procedural animation, and the assimilation of data into these environments. With this project we have begun to build a framework that can both provide a series of procedural animations with regard to node edge graphs as well as interface a gaming environment with a dataset of approximately 77,000 connections. In doing so we have tried to maintain the work as both a piece of art and a scientific instrument.

Future Work

In the process of building this project, we have worked with many technologies to find the right combination of frameworks and development to allow for extensive flexibility in artistic representation of the data set. We have worked with Max/MSP Jitter[10], Unity[11], Syphon[12], Three.js[13], node.js[14] midi.js[15], coffee collider[16] and D3.js[17] in a exploration to find what technology would serve the representation of this dataset best. Beginning with a representation using three.js hosted on a node.js server we were able to bring in live data via OSC to trigger the model. We found ultimately that building everything in the web browser provided great accessibility for global use of the tool, however, confining the project to the web browser also creates limitations with regard to power for rendering and audio synthesis. We have built a framework that now uses the Unity game development environment specifically for it’s strength with regard to real time rendering and are working on integration of Pure Data[18] via the Kilimba Unity extension[19]. This process will allow us to build a platform addressing the two primary areas of dataset integration into gaming environments and procedural manipulation as well as sonification and visualization of said dataset.

Summation of Findings

The creation of the Connectome project has led to some interesting further work in collaborations between artist and scientist. Beginning with the fundamental question can scientific instruments be used as tools for art creation and can artist tools produce scientifically valid results, our team was working to further a dialogue between artist and scientist while creating real value for each party involved. In doing so we have opened up another path of exploration in the form of using game development platforms for data visualization and sonification as well as the reappropriation of these platforms for use in real time audio visual work. By creating a core representation, we were able to build a model that could be manipulated in real time using incoming Open Sound Control data and provide a scientifically accurate representation of the underlying dataset.


[1] Area of interest in this case were areas of concentration of neurons in the brain as identified by researchers at of the Center of Vital Longevity Cognitive Neuroimaging Lab at the University of Texas at Dallas. http://vitallongevity.utdallas.edu/cnl/ accessed march 7 2015.
[2] http://opensoundcontrol.org/ accessed March 7 2015
[3]http://www.ieeeghn.org/wiki/index.php/Archives:Bell_Labs_%26_The_Origins_of_the_Multimedia_Artist accessed March 7 2015
[4] William Moritz on James Whitney’s Yantra and Lapis http://www.centerforvisualmusic.org/WMyantra.htm accessed March 7 2015
[5] Museum of Modern Art https://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/5958/releases/MOMA_1982_0014_14.pdf?2010 accessed March 7 2015
[6] http://noisefold.com/
[7] http://press.web.cern.ch/press-releases/2014/01/japanese-artist-ryoji-ikeda-wins-third-prix-ars-electronica-collide-cern
[8] http://semiconductorfilms.com/
[9] http://pjim.newschool.edu/issues/2011/01/pdfs/ParsonsJournalForInformationMapping_Medler-Ben+Magerko-Brian.pdf
[10] https://cycling74.com/ accessed March 7 2015
[11] http://unity3d.com/5 accessed March 7 2015
[12] http://syphon.v002.info/ accessed March 7 2015
[13] http://threejs.org/ accessed March 7 2015
[14] https://nodejs.org/ accessed March 7 2015
[15] http://mudcu.be/midi-js/ accessed March 7 2015
[16] https://github.com/mohayonao/CoffeeCollider/wiki accessed March 7 2015
[17] http://d3js.org/ accessed March 7 2015
[18] http://puredata.info/ accessed March 7 2015
[19] https://github.com/hagish/kalimba accessed March 7 2015