Assignment 2: Inspirational Designs and Discovery — Grade Value: 50 points

Due Tuesday September 30, in class

“In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.”
— Carl Sagan


In this assignment you will be doing two related tasks:

  1. Observing users experiencing some issue you would like to solve
  2. Exploring the space of current solutions to that issue

At the end of the assignment, you should have a concrete question you wish to answer, as well as ideas on how your solution will differ from current solutions. You may also have observations of people who would be users of your project. You will then present that on Tuesday.


For this assignment you will spend time exploring products/services similar to, or competing with, your project idea. You may also can choose to spend time observing prototypical users. You should decide based upon how well you feel you know the central issue to your project.

On Tuesday, bring a low-fidelity, informative, large visual aid. It should be readable from several feet away (ie: use fonts larger than 12pt). Overly polished visuals will be graded down. Instead, focus on being able to verbally explain your observations and/or discoveries.

Notes about Discovery

Web search is your friend! Describe your idea in keywords, put them into a search engine, and look at the search results. This activity is similar to what business folks call “competitive analysis” and academics call “related work.” Find as much as you can. Some things you find will be quite related (i.e. a typical reaction to your idea is “Oh, you’re doing a Facebook for pets!”), but it is important to interpret “related” broadly. It may be that a carrot-peeler or a measuring cup is your inspiration for an elegant and ergonomic design.

From your search, select three products or services to analyze in more detail. Briefly analyze each one, looking at the important design elements and what they imply for your own design. Select visuals (screenshots, sketches, etc) that will help you explain what you've learned.

For example, if your idea was for a location-aware mobile ice cream shop search interface, you might choose Google mobile search as an inspirational product. You could then discuss how the service integrates the search results with maps, and point out how this would be useful for your own product but that the map would also have to visualize the places where your favorite flavor, Super-Duper Chip, was available.

Notes about Observation

The purpose of observation is to learn more about the issue or task you're interested in, usually to explore the pain points and potential room for improvement.

Choose a person, time, and activity that will be rich for observations of/around your project idea's issue. Ask that person to participate in this assignment and get permission. Plan to follow them for about an hour, observing her or him during the selected activity. Take photographs, write notes, and save any ideas that occur to you during your observation. They can all serve as parts of your visual aid.

This approach to discovery is called contextual inquiry; it was covered in CS147 and is discussed in this week's reading. Normally it is performed with a small population of 5-10 representative individuals, but you only need to observe 1 person.

After your observation is complete, distill your findings into specific needs. Report your observations, and these needs, on Tuesday.

Tip: One way to do get a little Observation with your Discovery is to read reviews (both amateur and professional) of the website or service.

Examples of Discovery from CS147 [Fall07]

Steve Marmon
Christopher Archibald