Developing Intercultural Skills with Helena Bernáld – The IT in Society Class

Every year we invite the knowledgeable and inspiring Helena Bernáld to give up seminar and workshop about intercultural skills and communication to the students in the IT in society class. If you ever want to listen to a good lecturer in this area I strongly recommend her! Her lecture is full of eye opening experiences and good examples. Helena Bernáld is also a certified coach with lots of experience from different organisations and contexts, and she is an expert in a stronger personal leadership and time management tools. She is indeed an inspiring and knowledgeable person.

The students in the class are collaborating in a distributed software engineering project with students from Uppsala University and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. The students at the two universities come from a number of different countries in the world. This sets the scene for a great learning opportunity related to intercultural skills! It also set the scene for all kinds of communication problems, so that the students can practice and learn to handle cultural differences.

The main purpose of the seminar is to inspire students to acquire global people skills necessary for a successful career as a global professional. In the seminar presentations are mixed with discussions and reflections. There is a focus on understanding of cultural profile and preferred communication style. Often Helena Bernáld dig deeper into the Swedish and American cultures as most students come from these two countries.

A side track: Helena Bernáld is also are talented interior styling expert and photographer. You can find her very inspirational blog here

A few years back we wrote a few papers related to this experience. You find two of the papers that we have written on this topic here:

  1. Bernáld, H., Cajander, Å., Daniels, M., Laxer, C., (2011). Reasoning about the value of cultural awareness in international collaboration. Journal of Applied Computing and Information Technology15(1), 2011.

  2. Bernáld, H., Cajander, Å., Daniels, M., Kultur, C., Löfström, A., McDermott, R., & Russell Dag, L. (2012). Intercultural competence in global collaboration courses in computer engineering. Advances in Design for Cross-Cultural Activities: Part I.


The Background to the IT in Society Class

Now we have kicked off this year’s IT in Society Class. There will be a series of blog post about this course this fall.

Some of the things that make this course very special are:

  • Region Uppsala act as a real client to the student project
  • We get a topic for the course from the client very year
  • It is a global distributed project.
  • The students come from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and from Uppsala University.
  • It is based on a pedagigical concept called Open Ended Group Projects

The IT in Society unit was introduced into the IT engineering degree program as a response to industry feedback collected using questionnaires and meetings prior to commencement of the degree program in 1995.  This input emphasized that scaffolding the development of teamwork and communication skills were high priority areas for our industry stakeholders.

Running this course unit has been a challenge every year since 1998, and it has been a quite inspiring challenge.   The open-ended group project idea suited this course unit well. But the (for the students, who had experienced a highly technical preparation in most of their other degree course units) unusual content (e.g. societal aspects) added complexity to setting up a productive learning environment.  Much effort over the years has been put into devising appropriate scaffolding to support the students, without compromising the underlying ideas behind the open-ended group project concept. There will be more info about this concept later on. 

There is a whole series of research publications based on this course. The most prominent one is Mats Daniel’s PhD thesis found here 

Experiences from Attending a Writing Retreat

Last week I attended a writing retreat that we organized in my research group. For us this was a new experience, and we made use of this online recourse in setting it up. We spent two days writing together sitting at the same table using a set schedule for coffee breaks and work.

I must say that I was very surprised by how powerful it was to work in this way. I seldom have problems concentrating, but in this setting, it was even easy to concentrate and we did lots of progress with our CHI submission.

Positive things about this way of organizing work:

  • It is easy to concentrate
  • It is satisfactory to focus on one thing only (writing)
  • You get LOTS of things done
  • You have people around you to ask in the break if you get stuck on something
  • Seeing others writing gives me lots of inspiration

The others attending the retreat were also very positive. This was really reflected in the answer to the evaluation form, see figure below.

writing retreat .jpg


The User’s Perspective in Scrum Projects

Scrum is seen by many as user centred, but how does it really work in practice? Me and Marta Larusdottir set out to investigate this question through an interview study with 21 people who worked with usability in Scrum projects. Marta came from the field of usability evaluation, and she was especially interested in what usability techniques they used in industry.

When we started doing the interviews we were really surprised to find out that the answer to the question: “What usability techniques do they use in practice?” is that there are very few formal evaluation methods that are used at all, and that the methods used are indeed all very informal. The user perspective in Scrum Projects in Practice was indeed only existing, and not explicit.

Conclusions from this study are also that the responsibility for the user perspective is very unclear in Scrum projects. Often the user perspective is neither discussed nor described in the projects. However, the user perspective is often present through informal feedback used to understand the context of use and inform design.

You find these results in this study:

Åsa Cajander, Marta Larusdottir, Jan Gulliksen. Existing but Not Explicit – The User Perspective in Scrum Projects in Practice. Paula Kotz´e; Gary Marsden; Gitte Lindgaard; Janet Wesson; Marco Winckler. 14th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (INTERACT), Sep 2013, Cape Town, South Africa. Springer, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, LNCS-8119 (Part III), pp.762-779, 2013, Human-Computer Interaction – INTERACT 2013. .

What Usability Methods are Used in Scrum Projects?

There are a whole bunch of usability methods out there, and we teach many of them in our courses. However, one can wonder what methods are really used the context of Scrum?

We investigated this question in the paper:

Jia, Y., Larusdottir, M., & Cajander, Å. (2012). The usage of usability techniques in scrum projects. Human-Centered Software Engineering, 331-341.

Not surprisingly the most used method is “Workshops” according to the survey we sent out. The second most common method was lo-fi prototyping. The most commonly used usability technique in Scrum projects is workshops, followed by lo-fi prototyping, interviews and meetings with users, all used by more than half of the participants.You see the whole table from the paper below:

How many have used each method.png

The technique that is most frequently used is lo-fi prototyping used by more than half of the participants two to four times a month.

When we asked practitioners what is the best usability method they answered that formal usability evaluation is one of the best methods, but one can note that few use it!

Conclusions from the study are that the most popular usability techniques are informal. They can be used quickly without much preparation. Formal usability evaluation with users is a highly ranked technique. HOwever, it is not commonly used.

EIT Health/ACM SIGCHI e-Health Summer School 2017

This summer I helped in organizing a summer school in user centered design and eHealth. The summer school was organized for PhD students and junior researchers in the area, and there were many who applied to the around 35 available positions.

Organizing a summer school was really great fun, and I got to meet a lot of interesting people who do research related to my own eHealth research area. It was also very good to see that the group taking the course became such a well-functioning community of practice during the week, and I am quite sure that they will stay in touch after the summer school has ended. One of the members of the summer school will be visiting my research group for six months as a part of her PhD Education, and for us that will be a great chance to get a new colleague.

My collegue Jonas Mol has written several blog posts about the summer school and all the fantastic lectures. You find his blog posts here:

  1. Day 1 (Intro, action research,…)
  2. Day 2 (Patient accessible electronic health records,…)
  3. Day 3 (Game demoes and workshop,…)
  4. Day 4 (Soma design, sustainable development,…)
  5. Day 5 (Project work and lectures)


What is Scrum and How is it Scrum Used?

I will kick off the fall by writing a series of blog posts on Scrum, Agile and User Centred design. This was one of my favourite research topics a few years ago, and I collaborated with excellent Marta Larusdottir from Reykjavik University in a studies around this.

Without doubt Scrum is the dominating systems development method in Sweden today. The name “Scrum”, is borrowed from Rugby where a Scrum formation is the one in the image of this blog post. The team is supposed to work tightly together as in this formation, one could guess :-). One can also guess that you are supposed to be male as a member of the team, as the majority of people who play rugby are male 😛

Scrum is really a very simple set of rules, as defined by for example Mike Cohn and presented in the image below:

Scrum .png

Scrum contains a whole set of roles and procedures too that you are recommended to follow, and of course these have unique and special names to make the concept more unique.

Many companies say that they use Scrum, or a Scrumish method. This could mean that they use one part of Scrum, or all of Scrum. We really did not know how organisations used Scrum, so we set up a study to find some answers.

In one of our studies Marta Larusdottir, Yuan Jia and I therefor tried to find out what parts of the Scrum method people use and hos usability is incorporated in the work. You find the below presented results in the following publication:

Yuan Jia, Marta Kristin Larusdottir and Åsa Cajander. (2012). The Usage of Usability Techniques in Scrum Projects. International Conference on Human-Centred Software Engineering, Toulouse, France.

We found out that the usage of the different fundamental activities and roles varied quite a lot. This is presented in the table below. A very large majority used sprint planning, whereas quite few used the burn-down charts. However, one can conclude that the percentage of people who said they used the different methods was generally quite high. There were no companies that claimed that they used Scrum, and then skipped large parts of the fundamental activites.

scrum activities .png



Summer Vacation

It’s summer in Sweden, and most people are on summer holiday 3-6 weeks. I will be working on a few things that need to be finished, but I have decided to take summer holiday from the blogging and I will be back with blog posts on the EIT summer school in Uppsala and Stockholm by the end of August.

UCD Blog Post 3: Problems Encountered when Trying to Institutionalize User Centered Design and UX in Organizations

There are many problems encountered when trying to institutionalize user centered design (UCD) or user experience (UX) related work in organizations. My PhD was called “Usability, who cares? Establishing user centered design in organizations” (I defended in 2010) was related to this topic. It describes our work with the institutionalizing of UCD and UX work in eight different organizations. Some of the things I present in the thesis that makes it difficult to work with UX and UCD are:

User representatives as Adding Extra Value:

  • Working with user representatives is considered optional, hence indicating a perspective on systems development where user participation is not seen as a central part, but as something that adds extra value
  • One of the most prevalent perspectives affecting this choice is time and efficiency. A consequence of the efficiency perspective is seen in the choice of users for the role of user representatives. Here individuals who are used to work in systems development projects, and who know the methods and language used are preferred as representatives, in the interests of efficiency. Often the same people participate in different development projects, and in interviews, some individuals have described that they have not worked with case handling in years. Hence, civil servants become “IT workers” to the extent that this is considered a career path in the organisations. Preferably, the user representatives should also be skilled domain experts, as well as skilled users of the computer systems.

“You pick your dream team. You agree on a theoretical level that it is important to pick new people from the organisation, but when it comes to practice it is difficult.”

Work is Seen and Understood in Terms of Simple Steps and Procedures

  • The studies revealed that there is a gap between the users’ work and the discourse in the systems development. In the systems development projects, the civil servants’ work is frequently discussed in terms of simple steps and operations, that may be predefined and automated in accordance with clearly defined rules and regulations.
  • In complex cases where the computer fails to generate a decision and where human” judgement is required; it was seen as a problem that civil servants have to make decisions. These “human” decisions were seen as subjective and open to interpretations – which is the reason why the computer fails to make them in the first place – and the civil servants making the decisions were seen as incompetent

Usability is a Fuzzy concept

  • Several informants from the IT departments described usability as a vague and unclear concept.

“Usability is really difficult to talk about since it means one thing to me and something completely different to someone else.”

  • Usability experts are few and they felt that they seldom had enough time to do all the activities required. Several of the informants believed that this was due to lack of understanding of what usability is and what usability experts do, as this usability expert describes:
  • In one of the organisations, the internal procurer and the project manager of their sub-project in Satsa Friskt maintain that usability and UCSD are possible to address without any usability experts. Specifically, they estimated that the project would achieve an approximate 80% success if conducted by people without any previous usability experience or specialist knowledge in the field. This indicates a perspective on usability as common sense, as something that is easily incorporated in systems development. Few people in the organisations understand how much work needs to be done in their organisation to incorporate the ideas of usability, or as the project managers of another subproject said:

“This project just gets bigger and bigger [deep sigh]! “


Usability and UX are Difficult to Measure

  • Measurement of usability and user experience is a method much sought after in order to introduce and motivate user-centred design activities. Our research group developed a web based usability index method at CSN that resulted in measurements of usability and UX on three different occasions. During a trial period the questionnaire gradually improved in which questions were clarified and some even deleted.

Working on Ticking off One More Thing on My Research Life Bucket List

Summer holiday is approaching quickly but I will spend some time the coming weeks working on ticking off one of the items on my research life bucket list as well as some other small things. The item that I am addressing on my research life bucket list is “submitting a paper to CHI”. Note that being accepted to CHI is not on the bucket list :-o, at least not at this point in time. The first thing will be to just submit a paper that we believe in and then we’ll see what happens.

As usual I will be working with my excellent colleagues from the HTO group on this paper, and so far, we have taken a few steps on the way.  The first step was to understand what CHI papers look like, and what this community see as quality in research. To address this, we looked up, read and discussed a number of CHI papers in the area of our study. Given that HCI is a very broad area with people coming from different related areas to study humans and technology, there is not one set of principles that guide the CHI papers but it is definitely possible to see some trends. After having read a number of papers I have come to understand that what is needed is a relevant area with an interesting question, a well-designed research study and a well-written paper. I have also seen that the CHI community publish a lot of survey studies, and that there were fewer studies with really qualitative methods such as diaries or field studies (but they existed too).

The paper that we’ll submit will be related to medical records online and a survey that we have done in the Disa project, and the DOME consortium. I have had discussions with my co-authors related to this paper, and we started working on it during the week that passed.

One can wonder if it is a good idea to have a bucket list, or a vision about what one would like to do in the future. Or is it better just to go with the flow and do what you see as good learning experiences. Perhaps you miss out on good opportunities if you follow your bucket list? Hmm. Or perhaps having a bucket list is one way of knowing what you want to do, and what you are inspired by doing. I have a short bucket list that I have had for a few years. I sometimes add things to the list when I get new ideas, but it is more or less a stable list. Do you have a bucket list as a researcher? What would be on your list?