INTERACTIONS.ACM.ORG 72 INTERACTIONS MARCH–APRIL2017
FORUM HCI EDUCATION
re-implementations of interfaces from
one domain in another.
Students also need to think much
more deeply about the users and
their environment. Ghostbusting is
physical, with unusual challenges.
The ability to deeply analyze users
and their environment is a critical
skill for any HCI professional, and
fiction forces more of it than a familiar
The Ghostbusters are always
available. True domain experts
aren’t often available to spend a lot
of time with students. With fiction,
the students have a small, easy-to-access set of information to work with
in place of an expert. They can take
one two-hour movie, play it back any
time, analyze scenes, watch the users
in different scenarios, and judge their
own interfaces against the action they
see in the film. While they cannot ask
questions, they can point to specific
scenes to justify their choices (and the
instructor can point to specific scenes
to challenge them).
Fiction thwarts assumptions. Even
if a real-world expert is available and
engaged with students, I have seen
students assume many things about
the users, environment, tasks, or the
usability of their designs. Sometimes
this is because they don’t know the right
questions to ask the experts. Sometimes
the experts don’t really know how
to answer the students’ questions.
Sometimes the students simply commit
to an idea and don’t discuss it.
We encountered these assumptions
in my class’s first run of this project.
and usability testing. We conduct
evaluations and demos in class, which
keeps the students unified and allows
them to leverage one another as testers.
Class meetings continue with parallel
lectures, but the progress of the project
does not rely on the content of the
After running this project in 2015 and
2016, there were real, tangible results of
using fiction for this exercise:
• It forced a deeper analysis of users,
environment, and usability. Because
the project is so unusual, students
can’t rely on what they have seen or on
standard “best practices” guidelines.
While students could look deeply
at any population, the Ghostbusters
universe was strange enough that
most students felt they had to put
a lot of time into this analysis. The
only projects where I didn’t see this
depth were those that opted for a more
standard technology (e.g., designing
a ghostbusting scheduling system).
I eliminated that option in 2016 for
• The projects were much more
creative. Students seemed less fearful
of making mistakes in their design.
There was no “normal” way to build
ghostbusting technology, and this
reduced the perceived risk in trying
something crazy and different.
• Students learned a lot of tech
skills on their own, much more than
when I give a non-fiction-based
project. Students taught themselves
Arduino programming, built voice-
controlled devices, and found ways
to combine existing technologies
in creative ways. Students who
could already program sought out
more challenging applications, such
as building a VR space for ghost
education (see Figure 1e).
• It was a valuable exercise for
teaching students about designing
for special populations . Students
learned to analyze a population’s
needs with no ability to rely on
stereotypes or assumptions. The
lessons from the Ghostbusters carried
into our discussions of other special
WHY NOT 'REAL' USERS?
Educators teaching these introductory
HCI classes often believe that it is
important to give students experience
in designing for real-world users.
I believe strongly that, at least for
beginners, there are many reasons
fictional scenarios can be superior.
It makes students think harder. In
this crazy world, students cannot build
on existing technology. This precludes
projects that produce incremental
improvements, additional features, or
are often covered
in slime. Smartphone
have no place in
(a) (b) (c)
Figure 1. A few project prototypes: ghost traps (a, b, d), a redesigned proton pack (c), and a virtual-reality ghost-information system (e).