HCI students excel in case competition: "The user is not like me!"

Case competitions are a way for students to test their skills on a real-life problem, compete for prizes and bragging rights, and learn to work with others on a tight deadline.

This past spring, UW-Madison computer sciences students had resounding success in Intuit's second annual Innovation Business Case Competition, held April 21 in Madison.  The Silicon Valley company is best known to consumers for products like TurboTax and QuickBooks.

The winning team, competing as “Minimum Viable Team Name,” consisted of CS majors R.J. Heim, Jameson Zaballos, Kurians Paul and Mackenzie Scanlan (pictured L-R in the photo).  The quartet walked away not only with the satisfaction of a job well done, but also with a $1,500 prize.

The challenge they and fifteen other teams faced was to create a mobile or web app to help self-employed workers better predict future income.  In turn, this would help the self-employed gain greater control over the fluctuating finances many of them face.

Teams had one week to develop a solution, and just ten minutes to pitch it to judges.  Teams needed to demonstrate they had a solid plan to test if their idea actually met its goal of helping the self-employed.

All four members of the winning team took Dr. Tracy Lewis-Williams’ introductory course in human-computer interaction (HCI), CS 570, during the spring semester.  The course teaches user-centered software design principles, such as understanding user needs, designing and prototyping solutions, and evaluating interface design and usability.

Jameson Zaballos found the lessons from Dr. Lewis-Williams’ class to be invaluable in approaching the task, as did the two-member team of Cole Anderson and Shyamal Anadkat, who placed second in the competition.

“I feel lucky to have taken her class,” says Zaballos, from Whitewater, Wis.  “I knew Tracy would say, ‘The user is not like you.’  From the get-go, if you’re going to design, you have to talk to the user and understand their problems and their pain points before anything else.”

Zaballos, Heim, Paul and Scanlan used a number of techniques learned in CS 570, such as persona templates and affinity diagrams, to tackle the challenge.  They also interviewed potential users, including a freelance musician who found that he wasted time researching music clubs that would be a poor fit for his indie folk style.

Anderson and Anadkat, who placed second in the case competition, also found their HCI training to be invaluable.  Anderson took Lewis-Williams’ CS 570 course this past semester, and Anadkat has worked with Prof. Bilge Mutlu in the Wisconsin Human-Computer Interaction Lab, which Mutlu directs.

Anderson and Anadkat created a forecasting and scheduling widget aimed at drivers for ride services like Uber and Lyft, helping them make more money by understanding their busy periods and cluing them in to major events in town, like concerts, that could be a good source of revenue.

Says Anadkat, “We had a prototype we showed them.”  Anderson continued, “They had specific tasks to do. We made sure they were thinking out loud, talking about what they liked and what they had difficulty with.”  Their second-place finish netted them a $1,000 prize.

Lewis-Williams (pictured at right) was pleased to see the performance of CS students in the competition.  “Those students went beyond what I thought they could accomplish in a week. It was truly amazing to see their end products! It blew me out of the water.”

Stressing the importance of user-centered design and prototyping, Lewis-Williams says, “It’s really all about listening to the user.”