Usability is a critical factor in IT systems – Aalto students and companies collaborate for better digitalisation

Aalto University students and teachers joined forces with partner companies during a course which teaches evaluating the usability and user experiences of digital systems
Group of people standing on stairs
Ferdinand Wittmann, Jan Kompatscher, Xueqi Qu, Xiaolin Jiang, Xinyuan Chen, Sibilla Silbano and Joonas Vuola were in charge of evaluating Trimble’s service concept. Image: Eira Erola

Aalto University teamed up with ApottiRoidu and Trimble Solutions to organise a course that focused on the usability and user experience of digital services. Students designed and carried out evaluations on various digital services in cooperation with the client companies. 

’The usability and user experiences of digital services for professionals and citizens is becoming evermore important in our society,’ says Johanna Viitanen, assistant professor at Aalto University’s Department of Computer Science. ‘The question is, how well do these digital systems support an efficient and sensible way of working, as well as whether users experience them as sufficiently convenient, encouraging and reasonable.’

Evaluating these systems is an essential part of developing digital services to reach these requirements. The course offered students ample practical experiences of and plenty of skills in using evaluative methods, which they can utilise in their future careers as designers, software developers or in management roles. 

The course has been organised since 1998, beginning at Aalto’s predecessor, the Helsinki University of Technology. The history of the course runs all the way to 1993, when it was originally established as part of a laboratory course. Since the early nineties, researchers and students alike have moved from laboratories out into the real-world with to help various organisations develop the usability and user experience of their digital services. 

Viitanen and Postdoctoral Researcher Kaisa Savolainen were in charge of teaching the course, both of whom are course alumni from 2003. Teaching assistants Eira Erola and Saara Peltomäki also took the course last year. The students enrolled in the course were master’s students from various fields such as computer science, electrical engineering and business. 

‘I enjoy courses where you can work with companies, because you get a chance to work with real-life problems. These problems might be similar to what you’ll be working with in your future career, and who knows – maybe you’ll be working with a future employer too,’ says Joonas Palosuo, a master’s student in human-computer interaction. 

Investing in future talent

The work done by students also supports the further development of services offered by companies, from the perspective of improving usability and user experiences.

‘The students have given really good comments and improvement ideas on the product's usability development,’ says Janna Myllymäki, product owner at Roidu, which is an IT company with a focus on measuring customer and employee experience. ‘The reports produced by the students were logical, visual, and clear. The students – as outsiders of the company – also gave a new perspective on developing the usability of the system.’  

The topics for evaluation projects are proposed by companies, with students forming project teams according to their interests. These teams carry out evaluations using both usability inspection and user-based evaluation techniques. 

‘The student groups have done great work understanding the system's usability and identified key areas warranting further study,’ says Henri Pitkänen,software manager at Trimble Solutions – an industrial technology company. Trimble offered students the chance to evaluate a service concept for the company’s 3D modeling software. 

‘Also, the provided suggestions have contributed to preliminary workflow models, grounding their perspective through usability analysis. The work has supported an ongoing research concept, as true unbiased evaluation that is free from prior exposure to the systems,’ says Pitkänen.

As part of the process, students also gain valuable experience in reporting and communicating the findings to a range of stakeholders. These stakeholders include course staff and fellow students, as well as the developers, product owners, and designers within the client companies.

‘Collaborating with real stakeholders provided to be an exciting and motivating experience. I was delighted and inspired by the opportunity to meet and communicate with the designers and developers working in the client company,’ says Qu Xueqi, who is a master’s student in the ICT Innovation programme.

People in the classroom
Oskar Sandås, Max Mäkipää and Aada Alastalo presenting their findings to Roidu’s representatives and other students. Image: Saara Peltomäki

Usability and user experience are the essentials of inclusive digitalisation

Students also worked with Apotti, which provides an electronic client and patient record system for public health care in the capital area. The teams evaluated the usability of the company’s client portal Maisa.

‘I have learned things that are immediately useful to me as I am working on a software project. The course has not been just about theories but rather really good practical skills that I can immediately apply and already have. I am really satisfied with the course,’ says master’s student Tom Railio from the School of Business.

Maisa is currently in use and students were given a real opportunity to impact the lives of over a million users.

‘The collaboration with students was fluent and the students were able to plan and implement the usability evaluations of Maisa service very well,’ says Petri Mannonen, usability expert at Apotti. ‘The findings and improvement implementations that the students made support further development and usability evaluation of the Maisa service that we have conducted at Apotti.’

Numerous students who have completed the course have successfully transitioned into the labour market, securing roles that focus on usability and user experience. The teachers have an optimistic outlook for this year’s participants, anticipating that some of the current year's participants may eventually find employment with one of the partnering companies.

Text: Eira Erola, Saara Peltomäki, Kaisa Savolainen and Johanna Viitanen

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Department of Design

The Department of Design is a diverse community of competent, creative and responsible individuals. In design, we appreciate technical skill, social significance and artistic expression.

 Johanna Viitanen

Johanna Viitanen

Assistant Professor
T313 Dept. Computer Science
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