Web App Development for the Real World in TECM 4400 | Technical Communication
February 12, 2018

Web App Development for the Real World in TECM 4400

By Bailey Herring

Technical communication students can get a taste of real work experience with TECM 4400, Dr. Chris Lam's web application development course.

Throughout the semester, multidisciplinary teams of students enrolled in TECM 4400 design, test, and pitch web applications of their own invention to groups of "community stakeholders," local business owners who make up the target audience for the students' work.

"4400 really emulates the workplace," Lam said.

To focus the design process, Lam asks his students to design their web apps to answer just one question: "What is a problem you, your community, or society faces, and how can you solve it?"

Starting on the first day of class, teams of students have three weeks to research and plan their web applications. At the end of that three weeks, Lam has each team pitch their idea to local business owners who could benefit from their work. During the previous class, Lam estimates nearly 40 local stakeholders attended these presentations.

"The presentations kind of look like that show Shark Tank," Lam said.

After their pitches, teams move into full development of their application for the rest of the semester. Lam says that the iteration and testing process students go through is very similar to traditional user experience (UX) design in the workplace.

As in the workplace, Lam creates multidisciplinary development teams by dividing students based upon their different skillsets. For example, during the fall semester of 2017, each team had at least one computer science major, as well as technical communication majors and minors. Because computer science students were more experienced with software design and creation, they took on the role of developer. Students majoring in technical communication primarily handled user research, marketing, and communication about their web application.

"Students feel like they can't be designers, but I want this course to prove otherwise," Lam said.

Guthrie Schoolar, a computer science major, served as a developer for one of these teams. He and his three other teammates worked on their app Budget(ish), a money accountability and budgeting app targeted at college students. For Guthrie, the marketing and pitching stages of the course were spent figuring out how to use Ruby on Rails, the web application development software his group used to build their app.

"As I was learning new ways to implement Rails solutions, I was able to piece together the app and figure out my problems along the way," Guthrie said.

From Guthrie's standpoint, the project quickly progressed from wireframes and mockups to coding, an experience he found valuable.

"This class is for anyone wanting to get practical experience doing UX research and working in a multidisciplinary team to create software that solves a compelling problem," Guthrie said.

Another member of the Budget(ish) team and tech comm major, Ellen Biggerstaff, served as the team's project coordinator. She was heavily involved in the user research, user interface design, and marketing aspects of the app.

"Overall, developing this app was based just as much in research and user testing as actual design, coding, and writing," Ellen said.

Creating Budget(ish) focused heavily upon research. Ellen and her team surveyed over 125 UNT students and conducted in-person interviews with many students on UNT's campus.

With this data in mind, Ellen and her team created two personas--profiles of hypothetical users made from real quotes and data--to help shape the app and its development. She wrote a blog post about her experience.

"We really wanted to narrow down our users' needs and behaviors before beginning the functionality outline," Ellen said.

Though Ellen and Guthrie served different roles on the team, both students (along with their two other teammates) were vital to the completion of the project. Dr. Lam cites this multidisciplinary approach as a key component to the course.

"That's the cool thing about [TECM 4400]. It broadens views about what technical communicators can do," Lam said.

Ellen and Guthrie each expressed their enthusiasm about TECM 4400.

"I really enjoyed the freedom and creativity we were given in this class," Ellen said.

"I have already recommended this class to many of my peers in Computer Science. This class has been one of my absolute favorites of all of the classes I have taken at UNT," Guthrie said.