Spring Break—Information Style

Weekly Article
Feb. 25, 2016

The words “spring break” typically conjure images of relaxing, perhaps on a beach. But for 62 students from the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI), spring break means working a 40-hour week to help a public service organization better serve you by cataloging books, evaluating a website, or analyzing data.

So-called “alternative spring break” programs, where students participate in community service projects during their time off, have taken root at universities across the country. UMSI’s program combines service with professional training, since the projects are directly related to the information science topics that students study in the classroom. In school, it’s easy to get bogged down by projects that feel like busywork, but this program highlights how the skills students develop through their in-classroom work can translate directly into workplaces. Those workplaces, in turn, use knowledge hard won through research and teaching to improve how they organize, share, and display information, including, for example, on the websites we use everyday.

It’s not a night out in Miami, but the program is its own kind of fun. I would know: Three years ago, I was one of the Michigan students who joined a busload of classmates traveling from Ann Arbor to Washington, D.C. (The program also sends students to Chicago and Detroit.) My project was to help the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conduct a usability test on the website that housed all its datasets and publications.

The office was concerned that the site was too difficult to navigate, and consequently, that people weren’t getting the most they could out of the OECD’s research. My project manager had already developed a list of test questions and recruited several participants. The questions were framed as real-life scenarios, for example: “You are an education researcher writing a report on Asian student performance, with a particular focus on Korea. How well do Korean students compare to others students in the category of digital reading? What is Korea’s mean mathematics score in the 2012 Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA)?

Throughout the week, we went to offices around town and gave participants the test. For each question, the participant started from the website’s homepage and had five minutes to find the answer. My project manager and I told the participants to verbalize their thoughts as they perused the site. One of us would administer the test while the other took detailed notes about what about where the participant clicked on the screen and what her thought process was.

In preparation for the project, I spent an entire afternoon perusing the OECD’s data website. Consequently, I found four of the five data points when I gave the test a trial run. However, I had studied for that test; when people go to a website, even for the first time, they should be able to locate what they need without having studied the site. A usability test can help website designers and developers identify hurdles to navigating the site.

When my project manager and I performed the test with the participants, the results astonished me. These were intelligent workers with graduate degrees and white-collar jobs. And yet, they struggled to find the data points—that is, the basic information—with which to answer each question. By Friday of that week, we had collected enough observations for me to draft a set of recommendations for the designers of the site. And by the end of the program, I understood the value of usability testing and how to explain that value to others.

This type of work is common within the field of human-computer interaction, which focuses on designing technology and interfaces in ways that match how people think and use the tools. The field is growing, and not just within the technology sector. Consider that websites and mobile apps are increasingly the gateways through which we interact with retailers, financial institutions, healthcare organizations, and even public services. And as devices become “smarter,” using them will involve more than pressing an on-off switch. By participating in programs such as UMSI’s alternative spring break, students glimpse how the techniques they study in the classroom can help solve concrete, real-world problems.

I’m going back on alternative spring break this year, sort of: New America continues to participate in the program, welcoming two students to work with the Open Technology Institute (OTI) and 4 students to work with Opportunity@Work (O@W). The students will help design webpages, evaluate websites, and create a system to share information across different groups. They’ll spend their spring break trying to organize information, but they’ll likely gain some insight as well.

I recently checked in with my project manager from the OECD, and she said the website development team not only received the recommendations, but they also implemented a few changes related to the site’s search functionality. Even in the span of one week, I was able to help an organization tackle an information problem and understand the value of my studies. That meant more to me than any time out in the sun could have. Although I did make sure to spend a few days at the beach once summer break rolled around.