Students combine high-tech with a human touch in human resources project

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Human-centered technology design and development is a creative approach to real-world interdisciplinary problem solving that is focused on developing applications of technology for people. The approach uses various theories and methods of analysis to understand how people interact with different technologies, and incorporates social and psychological aspects of information and technology use.

Basically, the approach is designed to help professionals integrate human behaviors, both individually and socially, into the process of developing an information system application, according to Roderick Lee, associate professor of information systems in Penn State Harrisburg’s School of Business Administration.

Lee has developed a course that enables information sciences and technology (IST) students to learn these concepts through immersion in real-world applications.

For the course, Lee uses a service-learning model, and student teams in his class work on projects that implement the foundations of human-centered design through practical use. Lee explains that a benefit of this type of instruction is the focus on interpersonal development and teamwork: “They need to be able to work effectively in class, but they also need to be able to work effectively as part of a team.”

The projects often are for non-profits or other small organizations within the community, which may not have the resources to design interactive applications. Another benefit of this, says Lee, is that the student teams often feel a greater sense of importance and engagement in their work, as they know it is going to be used for an actual client. Providing opportunities for students to work within their community in order to immediately apply what they are learning is an element of education that Lee values.

For the fall 2018 semester, a team in the class, led by student Brooke Libhart, wanted a challenge that would allow them to apply the theories and concepts of the IST class in a hands-on way. At the same time, the college's human resources office was seeking a more effective method for collecting data from departing staff.

David Beardsley, a regional human resources strategic partner for Penn State Harrisburg, explained that the college’s Staff Advisory Council (SAC) was the catalyst for this project. With their input, the Office of Human Resources recognized the need for a formalized exit process for staff who have decided to leave or otherwise change positions within the University. HR associate Dawn Hamaty was aware of the type of service-learning projects Lee conducts with his classes and reached out to him for help.

This is the first time that students have worked with the human resources office on this kind of professional level to complete a project. Hamaty lauded the student group’s motivation and thoroughness throughout the development process. “It was amazing. [The students] really drove the project … We gave some initial thoughts and had a number of meetings where they asked pointed questions about our needs and how we were going to be using the survey, but ultimately they took the initiative and developed a very user-friendly survey.”

The exit survey that Libhart’s team designed is meant to gather a variety of data about departing staff. From the survey results, the human resources office will be able to better understand not only why the employee has left their position, but the attributes and competencies that should be present in the successor. There are questions ranging from why the employee left, to their experience in their role, to what opportunities they see for improvement.

Because human-centered design relies heavily on understanding the needs, motivations and behaviors of users, Libhart’s team worked closely with the office to design a product that can be adapted and modified, as well as ensuring that the user will intuitively be able to enter requested information. Libhart said that ensuring that the product could be used now and in the future was the team’s ultimate goal.

“The clients are the ones using the software, and it’s important for them to have what they want and need,” she said.

“We conducted several rounds of user testing to make sure our product was going in the right direction,” Libhart said. With each round, the students were able to check in with Lee to be sure they were applying the concepts of the course, and get feedback from the human resources staff on how the technology was meeting current needs as well as anticipated future needs.

The project needed to be dynamic, and Beardsley said it may be used beyond the Harrisburg campus. This is precisely why Libhart and her team developed a product that is adaptable to changing needs, and provided the training and a manual on how to use the application fully.

Beardsley and Hamaty continued to praise the student team on their commitment to the needs of the office while developing and implementing the exit survey.

“They were really professional and business oriented,” Hamaty said. Lee echoed the praise, saying, “These students were very motivated and engaged. They wanted to design an application that was going to live on once they graduated … they put in a lot of time, effort and energy to provide the stakeholders with what they needed.”