Alumnus brings experiential learning project to communication students

Students learn the importance of testing interfaces and documents with real-life users
Students change a toilet fill valve as part of a Usability, Design and Testing class where students learn how to assess the usability and user experience./UW-Stout photo Brett T. Roseman
Pam Powers | October 8, 2018

Katie O’Connell ranked her frustration level a good 8 on a scale of 10 recently as she tried to change a fill valve in a toilet following written instructions as part of one of her professional communication and emerging media classes, Usability Design and Testing.

“I wish there were more pictures to show me what part is what,” O’Connell said. “I would call my dad at this point to come fix it.”

Extra parts, included for a universal repair kit, also frustrated the University of Wisconsin-Stout senior PCEM major, of River Falls. “Don’t give me what I don’t need; just include the necessities,” O’Connell quipped.

Students learn how to assess the usability and user experience of varied interfaces, including documents and instructions, by engaging users, said Associate Professor John Spartz, of the English and philosophy department.

“This is hands-on experiential learning that helps the students understand the objectives of the course,” Spartz said. ‘They understand the objectives because of activities like the one with Kohler. These activities allow us to iteratively practice the research methods deployed in the fields of usability and user experience, so this real-world example of the import of our methods is invaluable to the course and students.”

Associate professor John Spartz, at left, talks with students and Colin Marklowitz, at right, a 2014 professional communication and emerging media alumnus and digital media producer for the Kitchen and Bath Americas group at Kohler Co. Marklowitz was a recent guest speaker at the class. Next to Spartz is Alana Rucks, a junior PCEM major, who is a technical writer inter for Kohler bath products.

While some students attempted the toilet valve repair, others took notes and asked questions on how to improve the instructions and how their classmates were feeling during the repair, an example of a validation test — a usability method — for assessing the usability and accessibility of instructions in relationship to a process with a physical product.

UW-Stout alumnus Colin Marklowitz, a 2014 PCEM graduate, digital media producer for the Kitchen and Bath Americas group at Kohler Co., was the guest speaker in the class. He brought the toilet tanks and repair kits for students to use.

Marklowitz writes the content for online instructional videos for Kohler products and handles the production work for the mostly animated videos. He also ensures the Kohler brand is maintained in the videos.

Alana Rucks, a junior PCEM major, who is working as a student co-op at Kohler through December, assisted Marklowitz in the class. They also attended the Fall Career Conference for Kohler while on campus. Rucks has taken the Usability Design and Testing class and worked in the User Experience Center at UW-Stout.

“It is cool seeing that fresh perspective,” Marklowitz said of working with the students in the class. “They have good ideas and insights. We’re testing how well the instructions relay the information we’re trying to get across. We are not testing how well the students can perform a task but how well the instructions are relaying the needed information.”

Marklowitz, who had an emphasis in applied journalism in his PCEM major, said his university classes helped him prepare for his career as a technical communicator. “In journalism, you are telling stories and talking to a specific audience,” Marklowitz said. “In technical writing, you are writing for professionals or the do-it-yourselfers. It’s important to make it understandable and digestible.”

Rucks, a technical writer intern for Kohler bath products, enjoyed being on the other side of the classroom and seeing the other students’ reactions to the instructions. “I could empathize with them,” said Rucks, of Fond du Lac. “I would definitely be in their position. It was really good feedback. We need what users think and how to make things better.”

Eric Krause, a senior PCEM major, of Genoa City, tended to rely on the pictures more than the written instructions. He found having different languages together with each picture a bit confusing.

Partnership benefits everyone

The feedback from Krause was a good example of usability validation testing, Spartz said. Once the results are presented, it’s up to the company to decide how to move forward.

“We work closely with customer service to identify products or instructions that may need a bit more explanation than can be provided on paper and turn those into videos that provide a visual for customers to more easily follow along with,” Marklowitz said, noting there is an animated video featuring a step-by-step replacement of the fill valve.

Senior PCEM student Brooke Rossi, of Sun Prairie, said the project helped her appreciate how difficult it can be to write instructions. “I think I am more of a visual learner,” Rossi said. “I would have appreciated more pictures. My family tends to try to fix something once and if it isn’t working call a plumber.”

 

Having in-class activities and alumni returning to bring those activities makes the PCEM program and UW-Stout innovative.

Marklowitz enjoys getting a chance to talk and interview students, particularly about potential employment opportunities and what they can do to prepare for their future.

“As an alum, I really appreciate the fact that I get to come back and interact with faculty and students in my major and hopefully give them a good idea on what life is like postgraduation,” he said. “I feel that I had a very good experience at UW-Stout through the PCEM program.

“We go to the classes because I think a lot of students have this preconceived notion that technical writing is boring, and they don’t really have a good grasp on what it entails. By doing a demonstration, we can give them a taste as to what being a technical communicator entails, and it is always really rewarding to see them get engaged with the content and come up with different solutions to the problems presented to them,” Marklowitz said.

Spartz said this type of relationship between UW-Stout, Kohler and an alumnus is an asset to the university and students. Having in-class activities, employers committing to the career conference and employing graduates and interns are what helps students prepare for careers to meet company’s needs.

“The relationship that Stout and the PCEM program have with Kohler is what our polytechnic mission is all about,” Spartz said. “Connecting the classroom, students, alumni and industry makes our program and this university so innovative. Our students are extremely fortunate to live and learn at UW-Stout.”

UW-Stout is Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University, with a focus on applied learning, collaboration with business and industry, and career outcomes.

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Photos

Associate professor John Spartz, at left, talks with students and Colin Marklowitz, at right, a 2014 professional communication and emerging media alumnus and digital media producer for the Kitchen and Bath Americas group at Kohler Co. Marklowitz was a recent guest speaker at the class. Standing next to Spartz is Alana Rucks, a junior PCEM major, who is a technical writer intern forr Kohler bath products.

Having in-class activities and alumni returning to bring those activities makes the PCEM program and UW-Stout innovative.