Students become ‘amateur anthropologists’

If you’re a meter reader, timing is everything. You want to spot the offending car, write a ticket and slap it on a windshield faster than you can say, "tell it to the judge."

But your hand-held computer is cumbersome. You need two hands, and more time than it takes for an angry driver to come flying at your throat.

Enter ingenious computer science students from the University of Waterloo.


They’ll not only help you get that ticket written in record time, they’ll also make sure you can see in the dark and keep dry in the rain.

Maybe now you can write more tickets.

Thanks a lot, guys.

The students’ brainstorm is the result of a challenge by their professor to make technology serve people, rather than the other way around.

After spending every waking hour focusing on systems, circuitry and programs, students in a fourth-year course are asked to step back and think twice about what they invent.

"As creators of new technologies, the pressing question is no longer, ‘Can we build it?’ Rather, the important questions are now, ‘What should we build and why?’" said Michael Terry, assistant computer science professor.

Terry, formerly from Georgia Institute of Technology, teaches a course on human-computer interaction at the university. He pushes students to look at technology with fresh eyes.

"In the past, computer technology was designed ... without thinking of real-world needs," said Terry, whose first degree is in psychology.

"Industry is starting to recognize we have to understand what people do to better design for them."

For his course, students are "amateur anthropologists," Terry said. They shadow employees in a profession of their choice. They interview them. They take in the work culture and see what the person considers important.

Then they get to work designing technology that integrates well with what the employees do.

Their designs can’t have bells and whistles for the sake of bells and whistles.

"Rather than push people to all-digital solutions, students learn to design technology that mixes the best of the physical and digital worlds," Terry said.

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