By Emily Chan, Harvard University, Summer 2019 REU
Hi there! I'm Emily, a rising junior at Harvard studying computer science with a minor in statistics. I'm a week and a half into the HCII REU, and I'm working on two projects with Marti Louw, one of which is Macroinvertebrates.org. I came to the HCII REU because as a computer science major and an artist, I'm interested in learning more about design, and I also want to experience what doing research is like.
Some of my personal goals for the summer are to understand how and why design choices are made, get hands on experience developing tools for users using design principles and user feedback, make something that I can show people/people will actually use, and learn about prototyping with smart devices.
My tasks for Macroinvertebrates.org for the foreseeable future include doing usability testing for the new dichotomous key, glossary, and search functionality; creating an improved popup kit for museums to use to engage kids in macroinvertebrate identification, trying to leverage the high quality media that we have and potentially using smart technologies such as NFC tags, etc.; and possibly working on developing identification quiz practice functionality for the site.
To gain an understanding of the design challenges at hand, we did an identification task using the current resources available to volunteers--field guides and key printouts. The sheer amount of materials was slightly overwhelming, so as someone with no experience doing macroinvertebrate identification, I just chose two field guides that had pictures and stayed with those. I identified five bugs, four using the field guides and one using the website. What I noticed when using the field guides was that the detailed text descriptions of the bugs was essential for family level identification, but the volume of the text also gets in the way when it comes to order level identification. My process was to first do visual pattern-matching to the order level, and then read the descriptions of ones that looked similar to the specimen to find traits that would help distinguish between families. I was surprised by how identification wasn't as difficult or time-consuming as I anticipated, but I also didn't use most of the materials, and never used a key.
When I switched to using the website, I tried a similar approach, but the website's organization was slightly different from a field guide (I couldn't just flip through quickly to scan for pictures and then selectively read descriptions), which took some adjusting to. The home page worked well for facilitating my initial pattern-matching approach, but I can see how if I were trying to identify a ambiguous looking larvae, I would want the home page to be more explorable (to be able to zoom in more), since some of the pictures were quite small. Once I clicked through to the order page, I definitely don't think I would have known how to get rid of the diagnostic characteristic boxes obstructing the actual pictures that I wanted to look at. However, since I was already familiar with how to do that, I was able to match the specimen to the common burrowing mayfly just by appearance, but I wasn't able to find the characteristics that might help distinguish between similar looking families in a convenient place.
For me, this raised the question of whether the purpose of Macroinvertebrates.org is primarily to be a learning resource or an identification resource.
An interdisciplinary team