Reflective Documentation Tool Leads to Sterman's Best Paper Award

5/30/2023 8:35:29 AM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Illinois CS professor Sarah Sterman’s work as a Ph.D. student into a reflective documentation tool for User Interface Design students, which her workgroup called Kaleidoscope, received this recognition at CHI ’23.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Fascination in a unique combination – creative processes and connecting computing to these processes as a way to enhance the way people work – spurred new Illinois Computer Science professor Sarah Sterman on toward award-winning research.

Sarah Sterman
Sarah Sterman

The idea for her paper, “Kaleidoscope: A Reflective Documentation Tool for a User Interface Design Course,” stemmed from studies she conducted into how designers use documentation and version control systems in a wide range of creative practices, from creative coding to tapestry weaving to violin making.

Specifically, she came to believe that design is a domain in which documentation can play a huge role – as people share prototypes, give feedback, present their designs, all while relying on some form of documentation.

She and her co-authors then drew from their insights into many different creative outlets to help user interface design students learn expert strategies and think about their own process through documentation tools.

The end result their paper presented, a tool called Kaleidoscope, went on to win the Best Paper Award at CHI ’23: Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – the flagship conference for Human Computer Interaction (HCI) researchers.

“Creative process shows up in all sorts of places in our lives, from artwork to the kind of creativity you use to debug a tricky software problem or conduct research. The tools we use in our work shape how we do that work,” Sterman said. “Think of the adage if you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. As an HCI researcher, I’m thinking about how to design our software tools to help us develop and maintain effective creative processes.

“The Best Paper Award was very exciting, as we were all thrilled the work resonated with so many people.”

Sterman also noted that the team began developing Kaleidoscope in the summer of 2020, when she was a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley.

The campus had gone fully remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the User Interface Design course became a remote-only offering.

“There was both a need for tools to help the students collaborate on their design projects, and an opportunity for us to study how such a tool was used,” Sterman said.

The project, funded through the university’s Berkeley Changemaker Technology Innovation Grant, began as the group built a version of this system prior to the semester starting. Sterman said they iterated the tool over the course of the semester through student and instructor feedback.

“This allowed us to introduce new features in response to changing needs in the course, and we developed a deep understanding of the system in authentic use,” she said. “One of the big goals of the system was to help students reflect on their design process to improve not just the outcomes of their projects but their understanding of design strategies and skills. A key takeaway we identified was how to use documentation systems to support both explicit and opportunistic moments of reflection throughout a design project.”

What they then further developed was a documentation tool that presents the whole history of the project across multiple media types, centralizing a process otherwise scattered across several specialized tools.

“We’re hoping that the insights from the paper will have impact both in research and in pedagogy, and will help educators integrate more tools and scaffolding for process-focused reflection in their classes,” Sterman said.

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This story was published May 30, 2023.