Several students designed touchscreen
interfaces on smartphones as the
main interface component of their
design. That simply will not work
in the Ghostbusters scenario. The
Ghostbusters wear rubber gloves on the
job, and they are often covered in slime.
They tend to run around carrying heavy
equipment. Smartphone touchscreens
have no place in this environment. To
correct these students’ assumptions,
we watched a short clip that showed
the Ghostbusters in uniform. Then
I had the students put on a set of
rubber gloves and use their interfaces.
Revisions were clearly necessary.
In fact, basically every scene in the
movie can be reenacted. This allows
students to test their technologies
doing the same things the Ghostbusters
would do. Being able to immerse
themselves in the environment and
act like Ghostbusters allows for a more
visceral understanding of the users and
their environment. This stopped many
assumptions before they got too far.
Reduce tech intimidation. Students
can become intimidated when building
prototypes for systems that may require
a particular technology when deployed
for real use. For example, if they were
designing a system for firefighters, there
would inevitably be some students who
couldn’t get past the fact that their
prototype was not fireproof. Even in
more common environments, students
can get stuck on certain technology
requirements, like building a functional
database to support an interface
project. While that’s not necessarily a
bad thing, these students often sacrifice
their interface design and testing for the
work on non-interface elements.
Fiction helps with this. Since there is
no way for students to build functional
spirit-related technology, they feel
free of the constraints that come with
something that might eventually be
a product. Once they internalize that
they don’t need a fully working system,
students let go of unnecessary details
throughout the project.
In the second run of this project, I
implemented changes based on these
lessons learned from the first offering:
• Some projects were too simple.
They met the requirements but could
have been implemented as a one- to
two-week assignment. On the plus side,
this suggests that the project could be
modified to serve as a midterm or long
homework. On the other hand, the
requirements for a major term project
needed clarification. I strengthened the
intermediate deliverables to require
more writing and analysis, and gave
closer attention to the “initial ideas”
phase of the project. I spent more time
vetting projects with students to make
sure they were ambitious enough.
• Some students became too focused
on building hardware, distracting them
from the main goal. This opportunity
to build hardware prototypes was
very exciting for some students, but
some were so enthusiastic about their
hardware ideas that they lost sight of
the larger design goal. In the second
offering, the assignment included a
stronger emphasis on building from the
user context, environment, and tasks at
every step. I asked students to connect
each design decision back to those
fundamentals to keep them focused on
the target users.
Is fiction the best option for all HCI
classes? Absolutely not. Working on
projects with real users; building a
portfolio with recognizable, useful
applications; and mastering the skills
associated with designing and testing in
a realistic environment are incredibly
important. However, when students
are starting out, learning the basics of
HCI and working on their first project
ever, fiction has benefits! It circumvents
many issues that lead to uninspired
students and ordinary projects while
forcing students to pay more attention
to the user analysis skills they should be
mastering early on.
1. Hewett, T. et al. ACM Curricula for
Human-Computer Interaction. 1992;
2. Churchill, E. F., Bowser, A., and Preece, J.
Teaching and learning human-computer
interaction: Past, present, and future.
Interactions 20, 2 (2013), 44–53.
Jennifer Golbeck is an associate professor
in the College of Information Studies at the
University of Maryland. She studies social
media and builds algorithms that understand
people from their data.
DOI: 10.1145/3029599 © 2017 ACM 1072-5520/17/03 $15.00