Posted on 01st August 2015

British HCI 2015 conference workshop

On 14 July 2015 we ran an academic workshop at Lincoln University as part of the annual British HCI conference, attracting researchers from the UK (and beyond) interested in the field of Human-Computer Interaction.

The theme of the workshop was “Designing with and for autistic users” (read call and rationale here). The British HCI conference seemed a natural home for our project.

When designing an interactive toolkit for young autistic adults (which is the main project aim) considerations of how “human” users interact with the toolkit, how the toolkit presents itself, and what effect these interactions have on the user are critical for the success and adoption of the toolkit.

If we can design this toolkit in a way that a) makes it useful and relevant, b) makes it easy to use, and c) makes students want to use it, then we have been successful.

The conference workshop was an early step in that direction as it allowed us to present our research so far, test our assumptions and learn from other experienced researcher in the field.

The workshop lasted a whole day and was well attended. We had 12 academics and professionals from all over the UK and also from Poland and Australia. Three User Experience Designers from the BBC attended to extend their knowledge about the needs of a diverse audience, and they took many useful insights back into their practice.

Researchers Sue Cobb from Nottingham University and Chris Leach from Sutherland House School who work a lot with autistic secondary school children shared interesting experiences following many years of collaboration. Alex Woolner talked about the iSpectrum project that involved co-designing video games with people on the autism spectrum. Catherine Crompton shared her varied and valuable insights of supporting autistic people psychologically and from a joined up social services perspective.

Dr Alex Woolner, Coventry University

Catherine Crompton, Edinburgh University
Dr Sue Cobb, Nottingham University
Chris Leach, Sutherland House
John McGowan, University of Dundee
Julie Maybury, BBC
Daniel Gonzales, BBC
Rosemary Fitzgerald, BBC
Mark Venn, Portsmouth University
Dr Agnieszka Landowska, Gdansk University, Poland
Mike Pluke, European Telecom Standards Institute (Specialist Task Force 488)
Susana Alarcon, Sydney University, Australia
Dr Marc Fabri, Leeds Beckett University, UK (organiser)
Penny Andrews, Leeds Beckett University, UK (organiser)

A particular focus was on participatory design methods, where users are deeply embedded in research, design and development – and not just during the final evaluation stage. This may pose particular challenges when working with autistic end users, especially during the early stages of design when concepts and prototypes are not yet well developed, and co-design activities require imagination and abstract future thinking.

For the workshop we put together a list of practical tips for organising participatory design activities with the type of autistic people at the centre of the Autism&Uni project – of normal to high intelligence, verbal and with no learning impairments. An abridged version, amended following the workshop, is shown below. It should be noted that when working with younger, or less verbal, or less academically able autistic people, our practical tips may need adjusting accordingly.

  1. Provide plenty of information in advance about what’s going to happen, where, and who is involved
  2. Make researcher/designer expectations very clear
  3. Choose a quiet location with plenty of space for each person
  4. Encourage participants to bring a familiar person, e.g. a parent, sibling or friend
  5. Schedule many breaks
  6. Make activities structured, but be flexible if interesting discussions happen
  7. Consider participants’ background and special interests when designing activities
  8. Wherever possible, show outcomes and result straight away
  9. Avoid ‘what if’ questions and role play
  10. Be aware of misinterpreting observed behaviour – always check the full context
  11. At the end, explain what happens next, how insights will be used and how that will be shared
  12. Give opportunities for late feedback e.g. a week after
  13. Ensure any tested outcome works outside of the “lab” environment
  14. Ensure that outcomes lead to affordable, accessible, usable AND useful products/services

Overall this one-day workshop turned out to be an inspiring and thought provoking event that taught us a lot about the differences in approach when working with autistic people of different ages (children vs young adults) and different abilities (verbal vs non-verbal). It was fantastic to meet like-minded people from different backgrounds and different schools of thought. The Autism&Uni project was certainly enriched from this.