onsdag 30 mars 2011

Mobile application design & development

Two students of mine recently presented their respective masters' theses. They had worked together & in parallel and their theses complement each other neatly.

Both theses were excellent, but as the topics are slightly peripheral compared to my main research interests (nowadays), they will not be listed under the "finished-theses" tab in my companion blog (a blog with suggestions for thesis topics). I instead post this text as well as links to the theses themselves (pdf documents). Do note that these theses are both written in Swedish.

Johan Alexandersson's thesis is called "Mobilapplikationsutveckling till smartphones - hur utvecklingsprocessen kan förbättras" ["Mobile application development for smartphones - how the development process can be improved"]

Andreas Blackne's thesis is called "Mobilapplikationsdesign: En utvärdering av designprocessen för mobilapplikationer till smartphones" ["Mobile application design: An evaluation of the mobile application design process for smartphones"].

As master's theses go, I think both of these are impeccably done. It was a pleasure to be their advisor and the process went like a breeze. Most readers might want to stop reading here, but I anyway append their abstracts below in the case someone has a special interest in this area.


Abstract to "Mobile application development for smartphones - how the development process can be improved":

The development of mobile applications for the new generation of mobile phones, also known as smartphones, has become a worldwide phenomenon, not least in Sweden. Many companies have realized that this market is growing for each day and has therefore chosen to broaden their activities in this area. There are also many companies whose sole activity is to develop mobile applications. The problem is that this still is an unexplored area for many companies. For this reason, they still haven't formed any well-functioning work processes to use during the development. Instead, they use complex processes that, in fact, are suitable for development of software.

The difference between traditional software development and mobile application development is that the mobile application development projects are completed in a shorter amount of time, and that there are a fewer amount of people involved. This is something that the companies have forgotten to take into account when they designed their own development processes. The goal of this study has therefore been to develop a new approach that is better suited for this type of projects. The new approach will also describe which steps that should be included in a mobile application development process, and the order in which steps should be performed to achieve the best results.

This study is based upon interviews with people from ten Swedish companies. All the interviewees have different responsibilities, but are in one way or another involved in the development of mobile applications in their company. All the companies have basically told the same thing, both regarding their current situation, and how they would like their future situation to look like. For this reason, it has been easy to determine which parts of the development processes that can be developed and improved. It has also been easy to determine which parts of the process that is directly unnecessary for mobile application projects. The mobile platforms covered in this work are, iPhone, Android, Symbian and Windows Phone 7.

Abstract to "Mobile application design: An evaluation of the mobile application design process for smartphones":

New ways of interaction produce unprecedented problems in use. Therefore, especially for ground-breaking technologies such as the smartphone, it is important to design usable user interfaces allowing users to interact with the device in an easy, efficient and satisfying fashion. Additionally, the production of mobile applications is still a fairly undeveloped field, leaving great room for improvement in order to produce better designed mobile applications. The aim of this study is to, through conducting qualitative interviews with people operative within mobile application production, evaluate how the design process for mobile applications can be improved and/or made more efficient. The results of this study show that the design process is—amongst other things—determined by the nature of the company and how design centered they are. Moreover, the results show that there, for most companies, exists a lack of thinking in terms of design, resulting in shorter design processes, which, according to the study, primarily stems from limitations in time, money and knowledge. The conclusions of this study demonstrate that the design should be performed by people with adequate skills in interaction design to ensure a high level of usability and a good user experience. The design process should also be given enough space in the agile methodologies characterizing modern software development..

lördag 26 mars 2011

Astroturf robot wars

This week I specified and published a thesis topic concerning "Astroturf robot wars" together with a colleague of mine (Hannes). Astroturf in this context refers to "fake grassroots movements" that are paid for by someone with an interest in affecting or controlling the public discussion. The background to my interest in the area is:

1) my own experiences of hanging out on forums that are invaded, infested and overrun by vocal pro-fossil fuel anti-global-warming denialists (etc.) who seemingly show up the very second someone has posted something, and who never give up. I have several times tried to understand who these people are and how come they stay around and continue to post messages no matter how unwelcome they are and no matter how many times their arguments are refuted. Don't these useful idiots have other things to do rather than to post the same things for the XXth time? Are they in fact paid by someone to wreak havoc on the forums?

2) I think the latter view might not be that unfeasible after having read a number of texts on that topic by British journalist and author George Monbiot:
--- On astroturf robot wars and software for impersonating an army of "ordinary citizens" on the web (Feb 2011).
--- On astroturf campaigns trying to control who and what is being heard in the cyber-commons (Dec 2010).
----How the tea party movement was jump-started by fossil fuel lobbying seed money (Oct 2010).
--- On systematic disinformation that is spread by corporations with political agendas and money to spare - but hiding behind innocent-sounding organizations that do their dirty work (Dec 2009).

From reading these and other texts, I now realize that it might be the case that these persons are not private citizens at all, but rather paid-off employees working for (for example) a PR or computer security firm. Since it would be too expensive to pay a highly educated (but amoral) person for posting a handful of blog comments every day, they need better tools and these have now turned up in the form of for example "persona management software".

It is on the basis of these developments that I and Hannes specified the "Astroturf robot wars" thesis topic which can be found here. That text contains a better introduction to the topic at hand as well as actual suggestions for what could be done by a student and references to materials to read up on.

söndag 20 mars 2011

Can a student fail at a Swedish university?

This text veers away from my ordinary texts that are usually based on personal experiences of something that happened during the past week. This text instead goes into the territory of educational politics of the Swedish university system. It was triggered by a conversation with our dinner guests yesterday (high school teacher Anna and Ph.D. Mårten).

I have, as a university teacher, met some students who are clearly out of their league at a university. I basically think everyone should have the chance to try to be a student, but some (for example people who don't like to read books) are not up to the task unless we drastically lower the bar.

Let's say I meet a third-year student who is in the process of writing his bachelor's thesis (I would meet him in the role of being his advisor) or who has almost finished his thesis (I would meet him in the role of examiner of the finished thesis). When I am examining someone's work, a student who produces a crappy thesis will hear about it from me. Although it is the student has to bear the full brunt of the crappiness of his thesis, sometimes I really feel sorry for him as I think that some of the critique should have been given by the thesis advisor at an earlier point in time, or better yet, the advisor should have given advice so that the situation (almost-finished but crappy thesis) could have been avoided in the first place.

The student in question most often fully understands the critique and furthermore realizes the extent and the scope of the mistakes he has made. He might understands much about what went wrong during his thesis work and what he should have done (earlier) in order to avoid it. At this late point in time, there is unfortunately not much to do about it but to bite the bullet and accept that the thesis will get a relatively low grade.

At other times however, the student might not accept the critique, or does not even understand it, and the problems with his thesis might be of a magnitude and a kind that any advisor would be hard pressed to "fix" no matter how much time she would have spent advising that student (barring writing the whole thesis herself). The thesis might at times represent nothing but a long line of bad judgement calls on behalf of the student. Furthermore, sometimes students have such a bad command of language that it is difficult to understand the text, and even more difficult to judge the quality of the thoughts that are in the text - somewhere. A number of questions then present themselves of which the premier one is: how can this student have made it this far in the higher education system? The next question is: what do I do now?

The question of what to do is difficult and politically sensitive, but I for sure know what I myself would have wanted to do at a number of occasions - and that is to fail the student. Do note that I didn't write that I would fail the thesis, but rather the student. Some students just don't have what it takes to be at a university and they really shouldn't. Not that they necessarily never will be able to get a university degree, but right here and right now their presence at the university is a drain on scarce resources, and no-one is happier for it except maybe (but not necessarily) the student himself.

When I reflect upon this issue, I have myself been the advisor of at least three or four such students. I a better-functioning world, someone would at some point - before they reached the third year of their studies - have told them that perhaps this whole thing (higher education) is not for them. But to say such a thing even - or especially - if formulated as "friendly advice" requires an authority figure (a teacher or so) who actually wields his authority. It furthermore requires a structure (rules, colleagues, bosses, sympathetic administrators) that fully backs that teacher up.

The alternative is an impersonal system where no one person has to take it upon himself to personally deliver the bad news, i.e. a system where a student at some point actually runs out of chances. At a Swedish university, it doesn't really matter how slow or unsuited a student is, because he will never be kicked out, and he will always receive yet one more chance (for example to write an exam). The student in question might quite quickly run into financial trouble (as you actually have to perform to be able to get new student loans), but a frugal or financially independent student can remain a student forever without actually accomplishing anything in particular. He might even wear his "opposition" down and "fix" one course after another by sheer force of will and determination and by expending enough time and energy - even if he has no talent and little knowledge of the subject at hand.

Here I'd like to invoke Neil Postman who writes that every new technology has winners and losers, and that every new technology brings pros and cons. Hopefully there are more winners than losers, and hopefully there are more pros than cons. The point here is that always giving every student one more chance, and never being able to fail a student might brings a warm, fuzzy feeling to many, but although less apparent, there are also substantial cons (disadvantages, costs) to such a practice.

Some of those costs are born by the university in terms of time and decreased job satisfaction on behalf of teachers and administrator. How much time should you spend writing an answer to the 76th e-mail from the same student and concerning the same issue? Other costs are born by fellow students as the quality of their education and the value of their degree decreases when "anyone" can get it. Some costs are born by companies who are suckered by the fine diploma and hires an ignoramus. Which again bring costs the university in terms of decreased public support and decreased confidence in the actual value of a degree ("what are spending our money on?"). Some costs are born by society in the form of more numerous, but less qualified engineers, teachers, economists (etc.) doing a shoddy job instead of fewer doing a better job.

The problem is difficult to solve and an analysis of underlying reasons is sensitive (spinelessness, conflict-avoidance? misjudged "care" for students' tender egos? ideological blindfolds? lack of (perceived) legitimate authority?). I think it is quite clear though that there are no incentives whatsoever today for any one person to make and to stand by these difficult decisions. Furthermore, it might be the case that (especially young) people in our society are not used to setbacks of any kind and would feel offended and wronged by someone pointing out (however gently and however much it was justified) that "they might just want to think it over and ask themselves if they are spending their time and efforts in the best possible way - taking into account that they have failed so miserably during (let's say) their first year at the university".

How big is the chance that we will talk about and solve this problem? How big is the chance that we will try to solve or just ameliorate them? Not very big, I would say. So in the meantime I will personally have to struggle with those (fortunately) few students who are failing and flailing and who lack the insight to realize that they are out of their league.

According to the 80-20 rule, 80% of my time as an advisor can be spent taking care of business originating from 20% of the students. It's really not that bad, but it is clear that the weakest 20% of the students will always need extra time and support - no matter how much they are already receiving. The problem is that the least able students "steal" time from the more able students who will always excel no matter how little attention or time they get from their teachers. As a teacher I would personally want to spend less time with less able students and more time with the sharpest and most ambitious students - helping them reach even higher. Less able students represent a drain on my time, on my energy and on my enthusiasm, and they will always need more support in order to make it through the educational system.

PS (March 2014). We are very polite nowadays. It's of course unacceptable to tell someone he/she is "stupid". It is also not considered acceptable to tell someone that an opinon of his/hers is "stupid". History professor Dick Harrison writes about students feeling aggrieved by facts they don't like when he teaches (the article is written in Swedish).