Improving the development process for context-aware systems

Assistant Professor Mark Newman has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Award, the most prestigious award the NSF makes to junior faculty who show exceptional leadership promise. The awards support early career development activities of teacher-scholars in research and outreach.

Newman’s five-year, $454,838 CAREER grant will be used to develop better techniques in the early stages of design for software applications that involve human-computer interaction.

Start date: 7/1/2012
End date: 6/30/2017

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Cheap sensors, high-speed wireless networks, and mobile device technologies are opening up new possibilities for human-computer interaction and enabling important applications in areas such as health care, collaborative work, and sustainable resource use. Yet, according to Newman, we still lack appropriate tools and methods for the design and development of applications to take advantage of these capabilities, which hampers our ability to realize the technology's full potential.

One particular challenge when working with "context-aware" systems – that is, systems that sense and respond to the situations in which they are used, such as a person’s current location or social setting – is the difficulty of evaluating these systems in the early stages of development. This is primarily due to the difficulty of creating the anticipated context of use during the time that it takes to develop the program. As a result, designers must invest excessive effort into building robust, deployable prototypes early in the development process. They may make a premature commitment to design choices that have been not been fully explored and may be unable to apply best practices for user-centered design.

While previous efforts to support context-aware development have sought to make it easier to take prototypes into the field for testing, Newman’s approach turns the tables: he seeks to bring the field into the lab by providing continuously available representations of an application’s anticipated context of use. Such representations can be used for exploring and validating design alternatives with very little effort.

Newman’s RePlay system provides baseline support for the capture and playback of sensor traces representing an application’s context. Throughout the grant period, the system will be extended to include support for the capture and use of large sensor trace data sets; rapid, parallel prototyping of both interactive and infrastructure components of context-aware systems; and the ability to re-create complex contextual conditions during controlled user tests to an extent that is not currently possible.

Newman’s educational mission is to prepare rising HCI professionals for the constantly changing world of technology they will face throughout their career. As part of this project, he will be teaching students how to integrate data capture, context representation, and novel forms of user testing into software design and development practice. These methods will be incorporated into existing design and evaluation courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels. In addition to sharing his course materials to other educators via the Web, he plans to present tutorials and workshops on the use of capture and playback tools during design at meetings and conferences hosted by professional design organizations.


CAREER: Improving the Development Process for Context-Aware Systems with Integrated Capture and Playback, National Science Foundation: $454,838


The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…"