OU blog

Personal Blogs

Picture of Christopher Douce

Using the cloud to understand the user experience

Visible to anyone in the world

In mid-July I went to an event at University College London that was all about interaction design and the user experience.This blog post is a quick summary of some of the key points that I took away from the event.

The theme for the evening was all about how to do remote user testing.User testing is a subject that is covered in the Open University M364 Fundamentals of Interaction design module. Interestingly, the evening also had connection with another module that I have a connection with: TM352 Web Mobile and Cloud.There were three talks during the evening.For the purposes of this blog, I'm just going to say something about two of them.

Remote user testing

The first talk of the evening was by a representative from a company called WhatUsersDo (company website).Here's a quick summary of the business: if you've got an interactive product and you need to test it with real users, you can contact this company who have a bank of on-line testers.These testers can then be videos and recorded using your products or interfaces.When the testing has been completed, analysts can review the data and send it back to you in a neat report.

In essence, you can get lots of qualitative data relatively easily.You also don't have go through the challenge and drama of recruiting participants and organising lab sessions.Lab sessions, it is argued, are expensive. Instead, remote testers can their laptops (and smart devices) which have embedded video cameras and microphones.

The thing is: how does a recording find its way from a research participant to a user experience analyst?The answer is simple: the cloud helps them do it.Apparently the WhatUsersDo infrastructure is undergoing continual change (which isn't too surprising, given the pace of change in computing).Apparently, the business uses Amazon EC2, or Elastic Compute Cloud (I think that's what it's an abbreviation for!)Other bits of interesting technology include the use of Angular.JS (Wikipedia) and MongoDB (Wikipedia).

SessionCam

SessionCam (company website) also helps users to do user testing, but adopts a somewhat different approach to WhatUsersDo.Rather than to ask users to talk through their use of a website (for instance), SessionCam actually records where the users look when the move throughout a website.

I was very curious about how this worked.The answers seemed to be pretty simple: through the use of 'magic tags' that were embedded in a web page.It also works through the magic of cookies.I also had another question, which was: if the system is tracking user 'movements', then where does all this data go to?The answer was also pretty simple: to the cloud.Like WhatUsersDo, SessionCam also makes use of Amazon cloud storage.

A really interesting aspect to all this, is that the company was able to gather and store information about thousands of user interactions.The company could then create what was known as 'heat maps'.These were rough pictures of where users go to on a website.

Reflections

This event has taught me two things: the first is the interesting ways that cloud technology can be used to create a niche business or service.Secondly: the unassailable fact that I need to always keep up with changes in software technology.

I've seen Angular mentioned on an increasing number of job adverts.A quick skim read about it mentions some bits of tech that I have used at various times: HTML, the DOM, Javascript and JSON - but I haven't used Angular in anger.In fact, I know hardly anything about it.The same applies to MongoDB: I know what it is, and I know what it does, but I have never found the time to mess about with it.This is something that I really ought to do!(And the same applies with the use of Python, and this might well become a subject of another blog post).

In some respects, these companies represent two mini case studies about the use of cloud technologies.A couple of months back, I went to a talk about a company that shared financial data 'through the cloud'.There are loads of other examples out there.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Using the cloud to get to the OU campus

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 21 Nov 2019, 11:25

I get to visit the Open University campus in Milton Keynes with alarming regularity and getting there is always a bit of a trauma; I need to take three trains and then a shuttle bus.  After doing this journey for about two years, I’ve managed to get the timing down to a fine art, but sometimes things don’t go as smoothly as you hope:  I sometimes miss the shuttle bus and I have to catch a taxi. 

I can’t help the feeling that catching a taxi, on your own, is an extraordinary extravagance.  About a year ago, when my train was delayed, I got chatting to a fellow train traveller who was sat opposite me in the same carriage.  I noticed that he was rifling through some papers that contained the unmistakeable university logo.

‘Are you heading to Walton Hall?’ I asked.  It turned out that he was, and my fellow traveller, like me, was planning to catch a taxi to the campus.

‘Fancy sharing a cab?’ I asked.

I turned out that my fellow traveller, who I had never met before, had pretty much the same job as I had: he had the job title of staff tutor, but was based in Wales and worked in the Health and Social Care faculty.  He had travelled up to Milton Keynes after spending a night out with friends in London.  If I hadn’t nosily spotted his university papers, we would have incurred double the amount of expenses, and missed out on an opportunity for a nice chat.

Sharing lifts

Hundreds of people work at The Open University campus in Milton Keynes.  There are so many people travelling between the university and the train station that the university puts on a shuttle bus at peak hours - but what happens if you travel outside of peak hours?  The answer is you either catch a cab (which is costly), or you try to catch a local bus which takes ages and is pretty infrequent.

I don’t mind sharing taxi rides with colleagues.  The problem is that because there are so many of them that I don’t know who they are!  Even if I did know who they were, they might be in another carriage and have hailed and taxi and left the station forecourt before I had a chance to catch up with them.

One solution might be to loiter around the taxi rank and bellow: ‘is there anyone here who is going to THE OPEN UNIVERSITY? Does anyone WANT TO SHARE A CAB?!’ and see what happens.  The problem is that since I’m exceptionally English and doing things like this instils in me a morbid fear of being arrested.

Connections

When I was travelling to the campus one morning, an idle thought went through my mind.  I thought: ‘wouldn’t it be good if I could just take out my mobile phone, start an app, and push a button that says “I’m on the train from London to Milton Keynes – and I would be happy to share a lift to the campus if anyone is up for it…”’ 

This imaginary app would then tell me whether there was anyone else who was on the same train as me, or offer me an alert if anyone on the train would like to share a ride to my destination.  Another variation of this would be to try to find strangers to share journeys with, who might be going to roughly the same part of the city that you were travelling to.  To keep it simple, I thought, ‘no, that would just increase the complexity – let’s just think about this in terms of a single organisation’.

I imagined my app would be able to display the first name of fellow travellers, the faculty or department that they were in (which would be really useful in terms of facilitating a conversation), and also have a picture – so you know what a fellow traveller may look like when you get to the taxi rank.

There would be two obvious wins and one positive side effect.  The two wins were economic (it saves the university money), and environmental (less fuel is burnt to get to the campus).  The side effect is that you might be able to have some great chats, which might help you to keep up to date with what’s going on across the university.

Technical questions

So, how might we make this idea a reality?  Well, we need to figure out how to write an app.  Secondly, we need to figure out how to save data (so we can make a record of who is travelling on which train).  Thirdly, we need to get some data somehow (so we can get information about different trains).  Finally, we need to do a bit of ‘data crunching’ somewhere so we can be alerted as to whether there are other people on our train that we could share a lift with.

Creating an app

So, how do we go about creating an app?  The answer is: there are loads of different ways.  You can either create ‘native apps’ or you could create ‘web apps’ using HTML 5 and Javascript. 

When it comes to native apps, you might want to create an app for either an Android phone, or an iPhone.  If you’re thinking of developing an app for an iPhone, you might use xCode, which is a toolset from Apple (where there is a fancy new programming language called Swift). 

If you’re thinking of developing for an Android phone, you might consider using Android Studio, NetBeans (NBAndroid) or MIT AppInventor (I’m sure there are other tools out there!)  The problem, of course, is that some OU staff use Android phones, and some use iPhones.  To attempt to take the pain away from the nightmare of different platforms, there’s something called PhoneGap (but I don’t know too much about that… it’s all new to me!)

Storing data

Assuming that we build an app, then how do we store (and share) data?  This is where the cloud comes in.  The problem is that I don’t want to spend any money setting up services.  Plus, it’s been an absolute age since I’ve done any of that stuff.  Another solution is to make use of services from existing businesses that have already done all the hard work for you.

There are a quite a few different providers.  One of the biggest is Amazon.  Amazon offers a service that allows you to ‘plug into’ their existing computing and network infrastructure, allowing you to create and use your own virtual machines, which then can store data (since these virtual machines can host databases, like MySQL).  Rather than having to pay, host, and power a whole server (which, arguably, is likely to remain idle for quite a lot of time), you can instead pay for how much processor time, network capacity and data storage you consume.  It’s as if a server has become a utility.  Rather than having to worry about backups and whether you need to buy more processing power, this can all be looked after by a third party: you pay for what you use, allowing you to concentrate on the task of writing code and solving your problem.

Of course, you might not want to use Amazon.  If not, there are loads of other cloud data and service providers you might use.  Two of them who come to mind are that of Rackspace and Microsoft.  The interesting thing about Microsoft (and providers who are similar to them), is that you can choose where your virtual servers live.  If most of your customers are located in North America, it probably makes sense (in terms of network performance) to have your virtual servers served from that part of the world.  If more of your users are located in Europe (such as users who are travelling to and from Milton Keynes), you’re likely to want to host your virtual machines in data centres in Europe.

Another thought is: perhaps you don’t want to store your data in machines that are managed by Amazon or Microsoft.  If so, another approach could be to set up your own private cloud (providing you have your own infrastructure to do this, of course).  You might want to do this if your organisation has already invested quite a lot of capital into IT resources, or government or institutional policy dictates that you wish to make sure that your data is only within the remit of a particular jurisdiction.  Everything in life is always a compromise.  You might want to use your own private cloud as opposed to using a public cloud, but a private cloud is likely to cost in terms of hardware, power and administrative overheads.

If I were seriously writing this app, what would I do?  I would ask the IT people in The Open University to see if they have got a cloud system that I could use.  Whilst I wait for them to get back to me (which can sometimes take quite some time) I also might try to experiment and create a prototype using a public cloud provider, since some of them can give you ‘trial accounts’.

Getting data

Let’s say I’m going to a module meeting in Milton Keynes and I’m sat on the 8.46 train from London Euston.  There are two things I need to do: I need to say ‘I’m on this train’, which means storing a record so other people (meaning: other Open University colleagues) can see that I would be up for sharing a taxi, and also recording which train I was on.  The problem is: I don’t want to go through the trouble of entering ‘8.46 from Euston, London Midland’, since I’m lazy and I don’t have too much patience.  Plus, we need to iron out any ambiguity.

One way to solve this problem is see what trains are currently running (because, what happens if my train is delayed?)  Thankfully, Network Rail provides loads of data feeds (Network Rail), which we could use to choose the right train (and, I’m wondering whether we might be able to use the magic of GPS positioning too!)

As a brief aside, being a London resident, I’m a great fan of an app called CityMapper  (CityMapper website).  It gives you loads of information about different bus routes, trains, underground stations, and hooks up to Google Maps so you can see where you’re going.  An interesting question is: how does it work?  One answer lies with the availability of different data feeds, such as the data feeds that Transport for London provides (TfL data feed summary page).  

Why do TfL provide all this data?  The answer is: that TfL are in the business of providing transport, they’re not in the business of creating new apps for new-fangled computing devices: that’s not their core business.  Once feeds are made available, they can be used in new and creative ways.

Back to our ‘taxi ride sharing’ scenario: let’s say we’ve got a group of four people on the train that are prepared to share a ride to the campus, then what happens?  Who is going to make the call to the taxi company?  One thought is that the colleague who instigated a ‘taxi share request’ could do that job.  Or, alternatively, the taxi app might do it for us (if our chosen taxi company has some kind of mechanism to accept taxi bookings from recognised apps). 

Other issues

When we start to think about all this, we come up against questions of user identity and what it means in terms of a mobile device.  Some of my mobile apps make use of my Google+ account, whereas others make use of Facebook.  This can make things a whole lot easier, but it does worry me a little, mostly because I don’t know the extent to which my data is being used (we’re again back to the question of compromise: convenience traded off for ease of use).  One thing that we might want to do is to create our own ‘identity’ management system.

Another issue is that we’re beginning to step into is the currently fashionable area of smart cities (Wikipedia); the possibility that journeys through urban environments can be aided and abetted by the use and sharing of data.  (Not to mention costs and communications).

Final thoughts

Just as I was finishing this blog, the following email popped into my inbox: ‘would anyone like to share a taxi from MK station tomorrow?  I have a choice of trains, the first one arriving MK at 10:02, if that fits with anyone else’s plans?’

I remember this other time when I was travelling to the University of West of England from Paddington to Bristol Parkway train station.  When I got to Bristol Parkway, I had to catch a taxi from the station to the campus.  When I arrived on campus and started to walk where I needed to go, I recognised someone.  That someone was the gentleman who was sitting on the next row along from me.  Again, if only we had known, or had talked, or hadn’t been so English about our early morning journey, we could have shared a taxi together.

A final question is: given all the things that I’ve found out, am I going to go ahead and create this app?  Sadly, I’ve got a whole load of other deadlines to attend to, which means that I can’t afford to invest the time – but I would really like to, and I hope that someone does go ahead and creates it!  I, for one, would really like to give it a try.

In the meantime, what I have decided to do is to make more of an effort to chat to the people who catch the same shuttle bus as I do.  This way, if the train ever gets delayed, I might have more of a clue about who I could share a taxi with. 

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

New Technology Day - June 2014

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 8 Oct 2019, 17:42

This post is a quick summary of a New Technology Day event that took place at The Open University London regional centre on Saturday 14 June 2014.  I’ve written this post for a number of reasons: for my esteemed colleagues who came along to the day, so that I help to remember what happened on the day, so that I can share with my bosses what I’m getting up to on a day to day basis, and for anyone else who might be remotely interested.

One of the challenges that accompanies working in the area of technology, particularly information technology and computing, is that the pace of change is pretty relentless.  There are always new innovations, development and applications.  There are always new businesses doing new things, and using new techniques.  Keeping up with ‘the new stuff’ is a tough business.  If you spent all your time looking at what was ‘new’ out there, we simply wouldn’t get any work done – but we need to be understanding ‘the new’, so we can teach and relate to others who are using ‘all this new stuff’.

The idea for this day came from a really simple idea.  It was to ask colleagues the question, ‘have you heard of any new technology stuff recently?  If so, can you tell me about it?’  Rather than having a hard and fast ‘training’ agenda the idea was to create a space (perhaps a bit like an informal seminar) to allow us to have an opportunity to share views and chat, and to learn from each other.

Cloud computing

After a brief introduction, I kicked off with the first presentation, which was all about cloud computing.  A couple of weeks back, I went to a conference that was all about an open source ‘cloud operating system’ called OpenStack as a part of some work I was doing for a module team.  The key points from the presentation are described in a series of two blog posts (OU Blog)

Towards the end of the presentation, I mentioned a new term called Fog Computing.  This is where ‘the cloud’ is moved to the location where the data is consumed.  This is particularly useful in instances where fast access times are required.  It was interesting to hear that some companies might also be doing something similar.  One example might be companies that deliver pay-on-demand streaming video.  It obviously doesn’t make a lot of sense if the movies that you want to see are located on another continent; your viewing experience may well be compromised by unforeseen network problems and changes in traffic.

It was useful to present this since it helped to clarify some of my understandings, and I also hoped that others found it interesting too.  Whilst the concept of a ‘cloud’ isn’t new (I remember people talking about the magic of an X.25 cloud), the technologies that realise it are pretty new.   I also shared a new term that I had forgotten I had written on one of my slides: the concept of a devop – someone who is also a developer and an operator.

JuxtaLearn project

The second presentation was about the JuxtaLearn project, by Liz Hartnett, who was unable to attend.  Liz, however, still was able to make an impact on the event since she had gone the extra mile to make an MP3 recording of her entire presentation.  Her talk adopted the PechaKucha format.  This is where a presenter uses 20 slides which change every 20 seconds.  Since her slide deck was setup to change automatically, it worked really well.

We learnt about the concept of the threshold concept (which can be connected to the concept of computer programming) and saw how videos could be made with small project groups.  I (personally) connected this with activities that are performed on two different modules: TU100 My Digital Life, and T215 Communication and Information Technologies, which both ask students to make a presentation (or animation).

OU Live and pedagogy

The next talk of the day was by Mandy Honeyman, who also adopted the PechaKucha format.  Mandy talked about a perennial topic, which is the connection between OU Live and pedagogy.  I find this topic really interesting (for the main reason that I haven’t yet ‘nailed’ my OU Live practice within this format, but it’s something that I’m continuing to work on).  I can’t speak for other people, but it has taken me quite a bit of time to feel comfortable ‘teaching’ using OU Live, and I’m always interesting in learning further tips.

Mandy has taken the time and trouble to make a version of her presentation available on YouTube.  So, I’ve you’ve got the time (and you were not at the event), do give this a look.  (She prepared it using PowerPoint, and recorded it using her mobile phone).

The biggest tip that I’ve made a note of is the importance of ‘keeping yourself out of it’, or ‘taking yourself out of it [the OU Live session]’.  When confronted by silence it’s easy to feel compelled to fill it with our own chatter, especially in situations where students are choosing not to use the audio channel.

One really interesting point that came out during the discussion was how important it is to try to show how to use OU Live right at the start of their journey with the OU.  I don’t think this is done as it could be at the moment.  I feel that level 1 tutors are implicitly given the challenging task of getting students up to speed with OU Live, but they will already have a lot on their hands in terms of the academic side of things.  I can’t help think that we could be doing a bit better when it comes to helping students become familiar with what is increasingly become a really important part of OU teaching and learning.

It was also mentioned that application sharing can run quite slowly (especially if you do lots of scrolling) – and one related thought is that this might well impact on the teaching and learning of programming.

A final point that I’ll add is that OU Live can be used in a variety of different way.  One way is to use it to record a mini-lecture, which students can see during their own time.  After they’ve seen them, they can then attend a non-recorded discussion seminar.  I’ve also heard of it being used to facilitate ‘drop in sessions’ over a period of a couple of hours (which I’ve heard is an approach that can work really well).

Two personal reflections that connect to this session include: we always need good clear guidance from the module team about how they expect tutors to use OU Live, and secondly, we should always remember to give tutors permission to use the tool in the ways that make the best use of their skills and abilities, i.e. to say, ‘it’s okay to go ahead and try stuff; this is the only way you can develop your skills’.

The March of the MOOCs

Rodney Buckland, a self-confessed MOOCaholic, gave the final presentation of the morning.  The term MOOC is an abbreviation for Massive Open Online Course.  From the sound of it, Rodney has taken loads.  (Did he really say ‘forty’?  I think he probably did!)

He mentioned some of the most popular platforms.  These include: Coursera, Udacity and FutureLearn (which is a collaboration between the OU and other universities).  Rodney also mentioned a swathe of less well known MOOC platforms, such as NovoEd.   A really interesting link that Rodney mentioned was a site called MOOCList which is described as ‘an aggregator (directory) of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from different providers’. 

Rodney spoke about his experience of taking a module entitled, ‘Science of the solar system’.  He said that the lecturer had really pushed his students. ‘This was a real surprise to me; this was a real third level physics module’.

A really important point was that MOOCs represented an area that was moving phenomenally quickly.  After his talk had finished there was quite a lot of discussion about a wide range of issues, ranging from the completion rates (which were very low), to the people who studied MOOCs (a good number of them already had degrees), and to the extent to which they can complement university study.  It was certainly thought provoking stuff.

Assistive technology for the visually impaired: past, present and future

The first presentation after lunch was by my colleague Richard Walker.  Richard is a visually impaired tutor who has worked with visually impaired students.  He made the really important point that if an associate lecturer works for an average of about ten years, there is a very significant chance that a tutor will encounter a student who has a visual impairment.  Drawing on his previous presentation, there is an important point that it is fundamentally important to be aware of some of the challenges that visually impaired students can face.

Richard recently interviewed a student who has a visual impairment by email.  Being a persuasive chap, Richard asked me to help out: I read out the role of his student from an interview transcript.  The point (to me) was very clear: students can be faced with a whole range of different issues that we may not be aware of, and everything can take quite a lot longer.

Another part of Richard’s presentation (which connects the present and the future) was all mobile apps.  We were introduced to the colour recogniser app, and another app called EyeMusic (iTunes) which converts a scene to sound.   Another really interesting idea is the concept of the Finger Reader from the Fluid Interface group at MIT.

A really enjoyable part of Richard’s session was when he encouraged everyone to explore the accessibility sessions of their smartphones.  Whilst it was easy to turn the accessibility settings on (so your iPhone spoke to you), it proved to be a lot more difficult to turn the settings off.  For a few minutes, our meeting room was filled with a cacophony of robotic voices that proved to be difficult to silence.

Towards utopia or back to 1984

The penultimate session of the day was facilitated by Jonathan Jewell. Jonathan’s session had a more philosophical tone to it.  I’ve made a note of an opening question which was ‘how right or wrong were we when predicting the future?’

Jonathan referenced the works of Orwell, Thomas More (Wikipedia) and a vision of a dystopian future depicted in THX 1138, George Lucas’s first film.  Other subjects included economic geography (a term that I hadn’t heard before), and the question of whether Moore’s Law (that the number of transistors in a microprocessor doubles every two years) would continue.  On this subject, I have sometimes wondered about what the effect of software design may be if and when Moore’s law fails to continue to hold.

Other interesting points included the concept of the technological singularity and a connection to a recent news item (BBC) where a computer was claimed to have passed the Turing test.

A great phrase was infobesity – that we’re all overloaded with too much information.  This connects to a related phrase that I have heard of before, which is the ‘attention economy’.  Jonathan made a similar point that information is not to much a scare resource.  Instead, we’re limited in terms of what information we can attend to.

We were also given some interesting thoughts which point towards the future.  Everything seems to have become an app: computing is now undeniably mobile.  A final thought I’ve noted down is Jonathan’s quote from security expert, Bruce Schneider: ‘surveillance is the business model of the internet’.  This links to the theme of Big Data (Wikipedia).  Thought provoking stuff!

Limits of Computing

The final talk of the day was by Paul Piwek.  Paul works as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computing and Communications at The Open University.  Paul works on a number of module teams, and has played an important role in the development of a new module: M269 Algorithms, Data Structures and Computability.  It is a course that allows students to learn about some of the important fundamentals of computer science.

Paul’s brief was to talk about new technologies – and chose to explore this by considering the important question of ‘what are the limits of computability?’  This question is really important in computer science, since it connects to the related questions: ‘what exactly can we do with computers?’ and ‘what can they actually be used to calculate?’

Paul linked the title of his talk to the work of Alan Turing, specifically an important paper entitled, ‘on computable numbers’.  Paul then went onto talk about the differences between problems and algorithms, introduced the concept of the Turing Machine and spoke about a technique called proof by contradiction.

Some problems can take a long time to be solved.  When it comes to computing, speed is (obviously) really important.  An interesting question is: how might we go faster?  One thought is to look towards the subject of quantum computing (an area that I know nothing about; the page that I’ve linked to causes a bit of intellectual panic!)

Finally, Paul directed us to a Canadian company called DWave that is performing research into the area.

Reflections

After all the presentations had come to an end we all had a brief opportunity to chat.  Topics included location awareness and security, digital forensics, social media, the question of equality and access to the internet.  We could have chatted for a whole lot longer than we did.

It was a fun day, and I really would like to run another ‘new technology day’ at some point (I’ve just got to put my thinking hat on regarding the best dates and times).  I felt that there was a great mix of presentations and I personally really liked the mix of talks about technology and education.  It was a great opportunity to learn about new stuff.

By way of additional information, there is also going to be a London regional ‘research day’ for associate lecturers.  This event is going to take place during the day time on Tuesday 9 September 2014.  This event will be cross-faculty, cross-disciplinary event, so it’s likely that there might be a wide range of different events.  If you would like some more information about all this, don’t hesitate to get in touch, and I’ll point you towards my colleague Katy who is planning this event.

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Mandy Honeyman, Tuesday, 17 Jun 2014, 15:40)
Share post

This blog might contain posts that are only visible to logged-in users, or where only logged-in users can comment. If you have an account on the system, please log in for full access.

Total visits to this blog: 928099