Students showcase their skills at HCI/d Connect

Students at HCI/d Connect

The world is a fast-changing place, and the designers of tomorrow better be ready to adjust on the fly.

That ability was put to the test under the watchful eyes of possible employers as nearly 80 students from the School of Informatics and Computing took part in HCI/d Connect, an event organized by SoIC's Career Services office and designed to showcase the skills of students in the Human-Computer Interaction/design program. Students in search of internships or full-time jobs were treated to employer presentations before getting the opportunity to show their skills during a 60-minute design challenge. Following a question and answer session, the students took part in a career fair.

“We want students to understand what the design process is and how to succeed at it,” said Marty Siegel, a professor of informatics and Director of Graduate Studies. “The students in the HCI program are used to doing these kinds of projects, but it’s an opportunity for the employers to see the process, the collaborations, the creativity. They can see our students know how to approach a problem and adapt when they run into a bump in the road.”

The design challenge was created by Arjav Badjatiya, a second-year HCI student who also works as a graduate intern in the Career Services office. The challenge tasked students with creating a “smart” backpack that incorporated technology that could help a graduate student maintain his or her daily schedule by reaching classes on time with the required books and materials needed for classes. Students were given an hour to develop a product incorporating a list of considerations, including maintaining the overall feel of the item being a backpack and ensuring the product didn’t become too heavy.

Roughly 30 minutes into the challenge, the students were given a “curveball” that changed the parameters of the design of their backpack, forcing students to scramble. The curveball—the design parameters were changed to fit the specific aims of one of two sporting goods manufacturers—was designed to challenge the students’ adaptability while also showcasing their ability to adjust for employers.

“Employers are always watching you, so it’s important for you to put your best foot forward,” says Anchal Aggarwal, an HCI graduate student who plans on graduating in 2018. “

Employers spent their time during the design challenge wading through the tables of the 16 teams to talk to the students and take notes on what they were seeing.

“You’re lucky in life if you never encounter a curveball,” said Samantha Soma, a User Experience Leadership Program manager for General Electric. “This gives the students a safe way to respond to a challenge, and because they’re working in a team, it lets them see other people’s ways of responding. It’s not only self-reflection, but if you can learn from others, that’s more important than having flawless results but never being changed by the process.”

Dennis Schleicher, a senior manager in customer experience design for Kohl’s, has attended the event over the past couple of years, and he has always been impressed with the way SoIC’s students have responded to the challenge.

“It’s a stretching exercise,” Schleicher said. “Usually you have a lot more time in a corporate setting, but a compressed situation like this allows you to highlight the more important aspects of your plan. One of the things that I’ve seen change over the past couple of years is that more and more people write their agenda and include their time management, so that has been a nice improvement. They understand that there are restraints they have to work in and try to manage to those.”

Susan Xu, a team leader in User Experience Design and Research at Lexmark, liked the approach of both the event and the program in general.

“The program is fantastic,” Xu said. “It is so closely linked to market needs. I’ve seen so many schools try to stick to their traditional definition of curriculum and keep Computer Science with Computer Science and Psychology with Psychology, and they don’t see the need to have a cross-disciplinary program. But that type of skillset is needed. It’s very practical what the students are learning, and they’re very strong. For the school to provide this type of teaching in the program—it’s not just completely academic, textbook driven. It’s very practical.”

The opportunity to display their soft skills, such as being a leader without being overbearing, was also critical for students. The ability to work as part of a team is as important as any trait students could have put on display.

“In the end, great design comes from great teams,” Siegel said. “I don’t believe you can have a great design and a dysfunctional team.”

For more sights from HCI/d Connect, visit our photo gallery.

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Ken Bikoff
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Phone: (812) 856-6908