Computational Literacies Lab

B. User research

Assigned Week 3 (February 13). Due Week 6 (March 5).

Your Initial Conjectures center research and design questions from the perspective of the researcher or designer, but what is the experience of the participants? How do they make sense of their environments, tools, and activities, and how might they respond to your new designs? Domains ranging from anthropology to communication to human-computer interaction have develped methods for learning about how others understand their own practices and cultures, and how they might understand and participate in transformation of these cultures and practices through design.


Your assignment is to conduct user research in preparation for your own design process. This may be done in one of several modes, enumerated below. Regardless of which you choose, the essence of the assignment is to collect data about how someone else (or a community of others) understands themselves and what they are doing, and then to interpret this data. Interpretation allows you to synthesize your data in terms of your own interests and questions; it also allows you to reflect on your positionality: the impact your presence may have had on the behavior you observed and how you, as a research instrument, may have been biased, inclined to notice or interpret what you saw in certain ways.

  • Ethnographic observation: Visit a learning environment and take fieldnotes, documenting what you see and hear, being sure to distinguish observations from interpretations. Write fieldnotes during your observation or immediately afterwards. Then process these observations, adding interpretive notes inline or in a summary statement. Plan to observe for about an hour.
  • An interview with a teacher or student. Transcribe the interview and summarize your interpretations. Plan for a 40-60 minute interview.
  • Artifact-based interview: Conduct an interview with a user of a related technology. Document the interview (ideally through video) and summarize your interpretations. Plan for a 40-60 minute interview.

This milestone must be conducted individually. Multiple students may visit the same learning environment concurrently, but everyone must take their own fieldnotes and write their own interpretations. If your group conducts interviews, each member must conduct a separate interview.


Regardless of whether you conduct an observation, an interview, or some other method, your observations should contain detailed observations as well as your own interpretation, with observations and interpretations distinguished in some way. If you are conducting an interview, your notes and your interpretation may be interleaved, in separate columns, or the interpretation may come afterwards. If you are conducting an interview, the observations may simply be a transcript of the interview; your interpretation may be follow-up writing, or annotation of the transcript.

Compile your user research report as a single document, starting with brief context listing your group name and members, and explaining the methodology you selected for user research. If you created an interview protocol or other artifacts of your method, include these. Then attach each member's research. Upload this report to the submission folder (link shared in Discord).

Additionally, prepare a copy of all group members' research, with each unit of observation or interpretation on a separate line, with whitespace in between. (Even better, if you can manage it, is to format these in two columns, so each unit is in something like a square.) Bring a paper copy to class--we are going to do an activity which involves cutting these up.

Assessment criteria

  • Observation: If you conducted an observation, the site was clearly relevant to your conjectures. If you conducted interviews, the participants were representative of your target users--and ideally not people you know. Your documentation captures specific details about the learner and/or the learning environment. Observation is an active process; the lens of attention is oriented to details of interest. If an interview was conducted, the questions you asked felt intentional and oriented toward topics of interest.
  • Interpretation: Interpretation is clearly demarcated from observation. Regardless of whether your interpretation is done inline or in a summary at the end, you reflect on your own positionality--how your presence, identity, and interests may have affected what you observed--and on the significance of the findings in terms of your research interests and your project. How do your observations help you answer questions about your design conjectures and theoretical conjectures?