CSU-X Lab studies human and computer interactions

From the December 5th edition of the Cleveland Stater

By Doug Vehovec

At the crossroads where computer and behavior sciences meet, an emergent field of study seeks to understand the interaction between human users and computers. The user perspective draws on communication theory as well as design and psychology, while the computer component offers qualitative data like processing speed and memory capacity. The integration of the two fields allows one to utilize the strengths of the other. Doing so provides researchers with a clearer picture of the relationship between humans and our ever-increasing interaction with machines.

These interactions are studied in user experience (UX) labs. Often developed internally by companies looking to understand what appeals to their consumer base, these labs use specialized software and scientific analysis to discover the meaningful aspects of the interaction.

On Nov. 18, Cleveland State University hosted the first day of experiments in the CSU-X Lab, a research project funded through a grant award. The lab is headed by Dr. Cheryl Bracken, a communications professor at Cleveland State.

“We wanted to figure out how to take our existing theoretical research and embrace this idea of applied research,” said Bracken. “We thought, if we brought all that together and packaged it, we could build a lab that would be beneficial to both faculty and students. But it would also allow us to serve the greater Cleveland area.”

The “we” that Bracken speaks about are former colleagues Drs. Yung-I Liu and Paul Skalski. Since developing the lab, Liu took a new position and is no longer at Cleveland State. And the university community still feels the poignant loss of Skalski to medical complications earlier this year.

Aided now by three Cleveland State grad students, Bracken uses the lab’s cutting-edge equipment and techniques to conduct research comparable to that being done nationally. Jen Ford, Jen Poland and Hocheol Yang work in the lab as an independent study.

Yang’s involvement with the lab arose through previous work with Skalski. He was introduced to Bracken and her research, and was eager for the opportunity to work with her in the lab.

“Dr. Bracken is famous in this field,” Yang said of the lab’s director. With his earlier work in the field of physiological analysis, the native South Korean brings his own considerable experience to the table.

After a few weeks running tests in the lab, Yang works the controls on the software and sensor devices like it’s old hat. To demonstrate the lab’s capabilities, he pulls up a research sample which shows an aggregate heatmap of subjects experience with various still images.

The work involves several components. First, researchers create content that users are shown on a monitor. At these early stages of study, content is limited to still images – typically advertisements. The study uses fictitious products to increase the control element of the experiment, by removing preconceived notions from the equation. Bracken’s prior work in advertising and marketing research proves helpful in generating content used to gauge responses.
Graduate assistant Hocheol Yang works with
some of CSU-X Lab’s customized content.

Bracken explains that one of the groundfloor premises of the lab is to test the old adage that “sex sells.” Different versions of ads for the same product are presented to users. Variations in things like the sex of the human model and whether or not they’re scantily clad allow researchers to gather quantitative data to determine the ads’ effectiveness.

“The primary concentration is on ‘high sexy’ and ‘low sexy,’” Bracken said of the initial experiments in their most simple terms.

Yang’s heatmap example shows that people look chiefly at a person’s face, regardless of other variables, and ad copy to a lesser extent. Bracken explained that faces are what people tend to look at first, and then hands.

The research is still only in the preliminary stages, and it will take time to properly analyze the data. But Yang is enthusiastic about the lab’s work, which he believes is strengthened by the use of both quantitative and qualitative research methods.

“It’s very interesting to see exactly where people are looking,” Yang said. “I love to do experiments and see how people react to Internet stimulus and text. These things really change lives, and understanding them is really important.”

Armed with the customized content, researchers use sophisticated software to analyze users’ physiological responses. The software calculates things like fixations, where users look on the screen and for how long. Overlaying that data over the image gives researchers a map that shows them exactly what the users experience was like.

In terms of both size and hardware availability, CSU-X lab is comparable to others like it across the country. And in some ways its capabilities even surpass others.
For one thing, CSU-X runs tests with a minimum of 20 subjects per condition. Other UX labs typically test two or three people at a time, making adjustments based on just a few responses. The difference lies in the kinds of results researchers hope to find. In Bracken’s case, the academia-focused aspect of her research translates to a need for more thorough data with broader application opportunities.

The expanded nature of work in CSU-X requires a larger investment in tools and materials. This means the lab needs not just better, but simply more equipment in order to maximize the potential.

To illustrate the point, Bracken revealed that the next step in the project is to begin studying moving images, as well as user interactions with more common devices like cellphones and tablets.

“The study I’m running in the spring is going to look at usability of mobile devices and compare older adults and college-age students,” she said.

To conduct the research, she purchased special attachments for those sorts of devices that can perform the same functions currently used with the lab’s desktop computers, like the heat-mapping feature.

“I said ‘I want two,’ and the guy was like ‘no one’s ever bought two before.’”

The guy in question has clients like Google and Cisco, giants in the communications technology field. The work in CSU-X builds on that work, and adds a layer of theoretical research that she hopes will prove marketable to companies seeking to optimize the value of their communications.

With the first few weeks of research conducted, Bracken is encouraged by the results so far. She and her lab assistants, like Yang, have a full slate of studies planned for the spring semester. With the additional equipment and expanded tests that include video and other moving images, the CSU-X Lab is poised to enrich the field of user interaction research.

“We’re very confident that we’ll publish a lot of research and have an opportunity to start working with clients in the area,” said Bracken.

Witnesses to CSU’s evolution through 50 years

From December 5th edition of the Cleveland Stater

By Doug Vehovec

In 2014, Cleveland State University will celebrate its 50th anniversary. For the last half century, the university has stood a fixture of downtown life and expanded – at times slower than others – up and down Cleveland’s historic Euclid Avenue. Today what was at one time known as Millionaire’s Row is home to a thriving campus enmeshed into the landscape of the city.

Nestled among the halls of academia, a man plies his trade in a shop on the ground floor of the Union Building. The university leased the building with a $3.3 million award in 2012 and repurposed it to house the student health clinic along with offices and classroom space with an eye toward preserving its historical character.

The window of the shop faces north, a portal out to the street where the shop’s owner, Jim Marino, witnessed Cleveland State’s evolution since it began germinating after the state assumed control of Fenn College in 1964. The former engineering school is known as a pioneer in cooperative education in Ohio, giving students the opportunity to balance classroom work with on-the-job experience with local businesses. Fenn College remained Cleveland State’s center of engineering, and just weeks ago was rechristened as Washkewicz College of Engineering after a $10 million gift expected to greatly enhance its capabilities.

On a familiar sort of Cleveland day, passersby huddle against the sharp cold beneath an ashen sky. The street is largely deserted save for the sparse few walking purposefully down the sidewalk. Two workers in hardhats pass by the flat-fronted Union Building and the red-and-white-striped pole that denotes the establishment within. They take a moment to survey the sign showing their services.

“Now that’s an old school barbershop!” one exclaimed.

Inside, Marino and Sonny, who operate Magic’s Shoe Shine from inside the barbershop, swap stories of the holiday with another patron who is there for a haircut and shoe shine. They’re joined by another barber, Marino’s son Jimmy.

Marino takes careful consideration while trimming the man’s beard. He is resolute in the task, and the man closes his eyes while the deed is done, comfortably safe in the skilled barber’s hands.

The art of the shave is what first attracted Marino to life as a barber. As a boy, he loved going to the barber shop ran by one of the immigrants in the heavily Jewish neighborhood around Kinsman Road where he grew up.

“I was fascinated watching them work,” Marino recalled. “Men would get a shave and walk out of there looking 21 instead of 71, at least to a kid’s eyes.”

Determined to open his own shop, Marino dabbled in other work-like factory jobs to earn the money to open his barber shop. He wanted “to see the finished product” he said, and although he was the first in his family to take up the barber’s trade, he’s all too happy to work alongside his son today.

Like Sonny and his father, Jimmy gives credit to Cleveland State for influencing the revitalization of the area. He’s been working with his dad for 24 years, and also remembers the plentiful parking lots that mark the university’s past.

“What [Cleveland State presidents] Berkman and Schwartz have done has been great,” Jimmy said. “They’re the two best in the school’s history.”

He notes that the campus’ growth and huge increase in residents has been great for business. Not only are there more students who come to get their haircuts, but more businesses like restaurants have sprang up in the area, and they bring more people downtown.

“With all the different stuff CSU is doing, it’s only going to get better,” adds Sonny.
A proud barber by trade, Marino opened shop in 1963 just a few doors down from where he is today. Marino’s Haircutting has been a part of university history since the very beginning, catering to the burgeoning university’s presidents, faculty and staff from its humbly accounted storefront. In addition to haircuts, Marino’s offers facials, manicures and classic-style shaves with a straight razor.

Marino Trio“When I first opened, there was just Fenn College here,” said Marino. “It was just the big tower on 24th. But downtown overall was much busier. Since then, lots of businesses have come and gone. If it wasn’t for the university, we’d be a ghost town.”

Marino jokes that it’s his own stupidity that’s kept him downtown all this time instead of relocating to the suburban shopping centers that siphoned off a healthy chunk of Cleveland’s business a few decades past. The warm laugh shared between Marino and Sonny belies the truth. The two men have worked together for the past 46 years and are as much a part of Cleveland as the early 20th century building in which they conduct their business. The camaraderie they share with their customers and each other is what keeps them downtown and people coming through the door year after year.

“Happy customers keep business,” explained Sonny. As if on cue, regular patron Brian Breittholz approaches, fresh from the barber’s chair. Sonny had just finished giving the man’s shoes his masterful touch. Breittholz, the assistant vice president of alumni relations at Cleveland State, is no stranger to Sonny’s work, yet still beamed with satisfaction at the job well done. The shoe’s luster will act as armor against the wintry weapons of snow and salt. Clearly impressed, Breittholz proclaimed Sonny the “best shoe shine guy in the country” while putting the proffered shoehorn to use.

Both Marino and Sonny agree that Cleveland State has had a lot to do with the vitality of the neighborhood. Their testimony bears out the university’s longtime reputation as a commuter school. Most of their memories of the school’s early days describe the prevalence of parking lots visible from their front window – something archival photos of the area make all too clear. There were plenty of businesses that brought people in for the shop’s services too, until a decline in the 80s when Cleveland’s consumer culture migrated to outlying communities.

But the same thing that’s kept Marino downtown all these years is the same reason people like Cleveland State communications professor Leo Jeffres have popped in for their regular grooming since the 70s. Marino might tell your it’s the services they offer and the good work they do. But Jeffres knows it’s more than that.

“If you’ve been going long enough, these guys that start off as acquaintances, you get to know like friends,” Jeffres said.

He notes that it’s the personal things they do for customers – and the personalities – that make Marino’s a center of activity reminiscent of an earlier time. He recalls the day he decided to do away with his comb-over, and how the guys at the shop made it into a big event. Marino chuckled at the memory. “That was Jimmy’s idea, he made it a fun time,” Marino said, pointing to his son working just a few feet away, while Sonny puts the finishing touches on a pair of black leather boots dropped off earlier in the day.
From outside the window, a group of students pass by, glancing into the shop. Inside, they see the men, father and son, working together. They could be students from any time in the past 50 years, or the sons and daughters of alumni themselves. Perhaps their parents passed by on their way to Swingo’s, or before heading away from downtown, after class, back to their home in the suburbs.

Outside the window, Marino has seen Cleveland State transform both itself and the neighborhood.

Inside, the patterns of life speak of an earlier era.