Details of my MSc proposal

In a few months I will begin “proper” work on the dissertation for a MSc with the Open University. Before starting I needed to choose a topic, so I chose Improved user interfaces for private family wikis.

In order to claim this topic, I need to submit a proposal by filling in a form on the university web site. I found the web proposal system a bit tricky to use, which is a little ironic given that the project in question is on the area of usability and human-computer interaction. I am a strong believer in sharing knowledge and experience, and the proposal form explicitly notes “All Data From Project Shared” so I am posting the whole proposal here. Any mistakes you spot have already been submitted, but I’d still appreciate it if you let me know!

Project Details

  • Unique ID: MCSS-72M2EQ
  • Presentation: M801-09B
  • Working Title (120 chars): Improved user interfaces for private family wikis
  • Data Sharing: All Data From Project Shared

Your Personal Motivation for this topic
Please describe why you have chosen this topic. Include any relevant personal or work experience in the area and whether or not your employer is supporting this topic or you are doing it for personal interest. Please give the details of the courses you have taken and the grade achieved in order that we can be assured that you have the required background to under take this topic.

This topic appears to be a blend of two areas: Human-computer interaction (HCI) and Wiki technology. Both of these areas are of interest to me both for my work and for my personal projects.

HCI is a vital part of software development applicable across all end-user software. For several years I have been employed to produce web and mobile user interfaces to complex systems). I also recently obtained a pass with merit in module M873 “User interface design and evaluation”

Wiki technology has been a passion of mine since I first encountered Ward Cunningham’s c2.com wiki. I have produced and maintained my own reasonably popular open source Java Wiki implementation (“Friki”, see http://www.wikimatrix.org/show/Friki ), acted as a Wiki “champion” in several employments and volunteer groups, and written an article series for an on-line journal teaching software development using a simple Wiki as an example (see http://blog.punchbarrel.com/2008/09/20/the-friki-way/ ). I am very familiar with the design choices which go together to make a working Wiki implementation

The combination of these two areas is very well suited to my skills. If required I can also bring to the table a significant body of open source Java code for the efficient production of web applications. The opportunity to undertake this project now is fortuitous. My Wiki software has been stable for a few years and I have been looking for a direction to improve the usability beyond the traditional Wiki edit button and text field. The opportunity to take such a project into the relatively unexplored area of closed-group social interactions between geographically dispersed members of multi-generational and extended families is a fascinating challenge.

I am a voracious researcher with a deep and reflective attitude to study and peer discussion (see my blog at http://blog.punchbarrel.com/ for one aspect of this). My imagination is already bubbling with suggestions of possible areas for research and experimentation.

OU Postgraduate modules taken:

M874 Software development for networked applications using Java: Pass with merit
DMZX871 Intelligent systems: analysis and design: Pass
M882 Managing the software enterprise: Distinction
M876 Relational database systems: Pass
M885 Analysis and design of enterprise systems: an object-oriented approach: Pass with merit
M883 Software requirements for business systems: Pass
M887 Web systems integration: Pass with merit
M873 User interface design and evaluation: Pass with merit

Other potentially relevant qualifications:

BSc (hons) in Computer Systems Engineering
Sun Certified Java Programmer
Postgraduate Certificate in Education (adult and continuing education)

Resources Required
The topic proposal will include some number of resources for this project. This might include software, hardware, a particular expertise, participants or users. Describe how you will obtain all the resources you will need (this should usually require fewer than 500 words).

My understanding of this topic is that the resources fall into a small number of distinct areas. One area is that of computer resources, both software and hardware. Another area is that of skills and experience to accomplish tasks within the project. A third area is that of people, most significantly users and trial participants.

For the first area I have access to plenty of hardware, software and network infrastructure resources from programming languages, development tools and libraries to desktop, laptop and server computers. In particular I run several different web-hosting servers each with the capability of running independent public web applications for deployment of prototypes or experiments.

For the second area I am an experienced software developer with broad experience of different application types and specific experience in developing collaborative web applications and Wiki software. Without wishing to pre-judge the direction of the research, one of the fields in which my experience is currently weakest is that of rich web application development (typified by AJAX and Flash). However, this is also a field in which I am already beginning to develop my skills.

The third area is potentially the most tricky. If multiple experiments are intended, a large pool of trial participants may be required. My own family are geographically dispersed. On the one hand this helps make them a suitable target group for analysis, but on the other hand this makes some forms of research (such as direct observation) difficult. In such cases I intend to engage the assistance of some of my many acquaintances and friends from social and cultural groups such as church and volunteer activities.

Background Reading
The topic proposal includes background reading for this project. Choose at least two of the most relevant readings and write a summary of each. You should present the main points of each reading and indicate why this reading is important for the project. Do not write more than 500 words per reading. Please note that if you do not make an adequate attempt at this section then your topic selection may be cancelled by the course chair or course manager. If you fail to complete an adequate topic selection before your reservation expires then it is possible you will not get a space on this topic.

Reading 1: Holland, C.A. and Holland, S. (2004) Smart Homes and Extended Families. In Goodman, J., Brewster, B. (Eds) Proceedings of Workshop on HCI and the Older Population, British HCI 2004, Leeds. pp 15-19.

“Smart Homes and Extended Families” is a relatively short paper introducing some thoughts on social interaction in geographically dispersed multi-generational family relationships. It begins with an introduction to the historical and social context which has shaped modes of interaction in such relationships, proceeds to cover some considerations in designing, producing and operating technological support frameworks, and then suggests further research and potential ways forward.

In particular, the paper explores the possibilities of enhancing the quality and value of interaction within complex networks of relationships and distributed living arrangements through the concept of the “smart home”. The communication and information processing capability of a computer-equipped smart home should provide ample opportunity to enrich the sparse interaction usually managed by geographically separated family members. When considered in conjunction with a general increase in technical experience and “computer literacy” among elderly family members, the potential for computer-mediated and computer-supported communication and interaction is significant.

The paper is applicable to this proposal in its general thrust and approach, although some of the specific technological suggestions do not immediately seem applicable. For example, current Wiki technology is largely text based (albeit with some implementations also supporting the inclusion of basic image, video or sound) yet the paper suggests the use of Direct Combination, a largely graphical technique. An important point is made in the paper that any implementations need to be simple for family members to control, valuable and acceptable to potential users. The increased social isolation, dilution and inhibition of relationships in dispersed families, together with the physiological and psychological impairment faced by many older people pose specific challenges to a software solution and its user interface.

The research approaches suggested in the paper are also broadly suitable for the proposed topic, emphasising biographical, ethnographical and cultural studies alongside technical evaluations.

Reading 2: Holland, S. and Holland C. (2005) The simplification of complex interactions for more inclusive social communication technologies In Goodman and A. Dickinson (Eds), Workshop on HCI and the Older Population at HCI 2005, Leeds, UK, Sep 2005

“The simplification of complex interactions for more inclusive social communication technologies” is also a short paper covering some similar ground to “Smart Homes and Extended Families”. Both papers overlap with the theme of this proposal in considering research possibilities in the area of technological support and enhancement of social interaction among distributed family members. This paper, however, emphasises the specific area of software and systems to promote and enhance interaction and participation from older family members, particularly to avoid problems of social isolation.

The paper begins by considering the context of the potential research. In particular the way that current solutions typically target highly dependent older people and their carers, but the majority of older people not so dependent. The claim of the paper is that a much broader range of older people could benefit from an improvement in the social aspects of communication technology, even those who currently make use of some electronic communications technology such as mobile phones or email.

Based on this premise, the paper asserts that many common communications technologies can he problematic when unfamiliar This aspect particularly penalises casual users and people new to the technology. Following this assertion, the paper continues to analyse some existing strategies – extreme simplification to a bare minimum, and aiming for purely transparent functionality. Both of these strategies limit the possibilities for richer communication, leading to a tension between the potential for ever richer, multi-modal, tailored interaction, and the need for simplicity of operation, reliability, affordability and acceptance by older people.

A research goal is then presented, that of investigating the possibilities of rich participation without a technical burden for those requiring simplicity. Characteristics of potential solutions include combining social and technical components, and integrating with existing in-home and mobile devices. The paper spcifically references the “direct combination” approach to human-computer interaction to support sharing and shifting of the management of complex interactions among a community of users. An overall emphasis is to increase usefulness while reducing technical complexity, either by producing independent prototypes or by “wrapping” an interface around some existing communication technology.

Proposed research methods include using social gerontologists to assess and sample diverse groups using participative methods and generate and critique a wide range of scenarios. At the same time HCI specialists will produce and evaluate designs, solutions and prototypes in conjunction with both the gerontologists and the end users. All solutions and prototypes will be interactively tested throughout the design and development process. The end result of the research would be a selection of working prototypes and data gained during both the initial research and the interactive evaluation.

At the moment the proposal system reports “Awaiting review by Specialist Advisor. You will be notified when the Review has been completed.” So I wait …