ResearchSpace: design of an on-line community

Design team members: Steve Lebourveau and Barry Piquette

Supervisor: Liwana Bringelson

Background

Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is an organisation that provides people with technical skills the opportunity to help the developing world. Its members are dispersed across Canada, and its potential stakeholders are scattered around the world. Communicating is critically important for such an extensive organisation. Although the Internet has proved very useful in allowing all kinds of organisations to improve world-wide communication, it has produced mostly one-to-one (through e-mail) and one-to-many (through WebPages) solutions. The needs EWB would like to address with the ReseachSpace project suggest that a many-to-many solution is required. These needs include:

Researchers need to communicate with Non-Government Organizations (NGO) and other organisations/people in the developing world to gain knowledge about the challenges faced.

Researchers also need to communicate amongst themselves to determine if and where relevant research is taking place before embarking on research projects.

Students need to be able to communicate with faculty members in order to arrange supervision for class-related projects.

Project description

ResearchSpace, the proposed solution to these challenges, was originally conceived as simply a database that can be accessed by those looking for information on technological matters for the developing world. George Roter, EWB President, describes it as analogous to 'open-source' programming, a concept that involves individual programmers working on software, then releasing the source code so that others can work to improve it. With ResearchSpace, researchers will do research on solving a particular third-world problem, then publish the results on ResearchSpace, so that others can see the results and contribute.

This design team is implementing ResearchSpace as an on-line community. This means including various forums for discussion and interaction in the design. This will facilitate project management over large distances, and will allow users to learn from one another's experience and expertise in addition to the more factual knowledge that could have been obtained from implementing the original conception of ResearchSpace. This added dimension to the project will provide members with "...opportunit[ies] for collaborative learning and knowledge building [and aim to] reduce professional isolation... [and to] expand the opportunity for learning at several levels of richness: seeking solutions to technical questions, keeping up-to-date with recent advances, and extending the boundaries of collective knowledge." [1]

Design methodology

ResearchSpace was developed using a user-centered design spiral which consists of four stages: analysis, design, implementation and testing. The user-centered aspect of this process implies that the users are the main focus of the design. End-users are used throughout the process to ensure adequate input and feedback. Four complete cycles of the spiral will be needed to guarantee a highly intuitive and usable product (see Figure 1).


spiral design method
Figure 1: Spiral Method

Analysis

In this stage, the problem is defined and important criteria are generated for use in the design stage. Users provide the design team with valuable insight into the needs, desires and capabilities of the end users - the customers. This was done through interviewing and e-mailing stakeholders in order to obtain desired features (chat rooms, messageboards, library) and potential tasks (what users expect to do with ResearchSpace, e.g. Find material on water purification).

Design

Typically, this is where one or more ideas are conceived using the results of the analysis stage. Using the user-centred design approach, there is only a need to produce a single design, as this design will be moulded to fit the conceptions of the users. A campus analogy was chosen for ResearchSpace, and the intended features of the site were distributed amongst the various buildings within this university community.

Implementation

This is where the designers fabricate one or more prototypes of the design(s). The proposal from the design stage was implemented into a low fidelity prototype, meaning a non-functional but representative model. ResearchSpace was first created on paper, with Post-it notes and paper cutouts representing frames and pop-ups in the real world.

Testing

Here, the prototype is tested with users as subjects. Since the goal of the project was to create an intuitive and usable product, the prototype was tested for types or errors and error rates. A discount usability method was used to discover the faults of the initial design. Using the tasks identified in the Analysis stage, users walked through the prototype attempting to perform the tasks. When difficulties were encountered, they were noted.
Following the fourth stage of the process, the team begins the second phase or run through each of the stages. The testing results are analysed, and if required, the problem is redefined and new criteria are developed for the next design stage.

References

1. Liwana S. Bringelson and Tom Carey, "Different (Key)strokes for Different Folks: Designing online venues for professional communities", Educational Technology & Society, 3(3), 2000.