Contextual Interfaces
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Learning to Make: Lowering Barriers to Entry for Novices

By Anantaya “Grace” Wonaphotimuke

Starting something new can be scary. Learning new skills or entering a new social environment, even if it is a digital environment, can be overwhelming and stressful. The novice or newcomer has to overcome emotional, social, and technological (in the case of a digital environment) barriers. For my research, I am interested in how to help ease someone into learning and becoming part of a community.

For this investigation, I looked at an online community of practice where “making” is a shared interest. The members of this community participate and engage in the production of physical and digital artifacts, develop their creative skills, share their processes, and seek inspiration and advice from others. They learn and create a shared repertoire through participating in the community.

To understand the making community better, I observed different live maker events and interviewed people who joined the event. Due to the structure and goal of the events, the information disseminated was specifically tailored for beginners. However, each novice has different background knowledge and experience with making. For instance, a person who has previously done hand-sewing is going to pick up the steps or instructions for using a sewing machine faster than a person who has not done it at all.

The novices learn at different rates, and their learning experiences contribute to different emotions and levels of participation

Likewise, the participant who has done programming before, even if it was a different programming language, will be able to learn the new programming language faster. Thus, the novices learn at different rates, and their learning experiences contribute to different emotions and levels of participation. I observed this from interactions between novices. Novices with some background experience sometimes shifted their role from participating to helping a novice with no background experience. However, being in the space physically has advantages over being in a digital space. The face-to-face interaction within these live maker events facilitates novice learning better than the online community due to the immediate, tailored responses for questions.

Although many online creative communities have a section dedicated for novices, novices are still lumped into the same “beginner” category. Since the online community lacks the richness of face-to-face interaction, it is challenging for novices to find information that suits their needs and goals (which depend on their background experience) or to reach out and request help from the online community.

Through my research, I identified the need for a gradient of novices, the Novice Gradient, to inform the design of a contextual user interface and information architecture. The Novice Gradient asks the design of the contextual user interface to consider the user’s past experience or familiarity and the user’s behavior based on this past experience so that the contextual interface can anticipate the user’s next behavior while providing appropriate information. The goal of this contextual user interface is to lower novices’ barriers to participate and present information in a way that supports online community engagement. The contextual interface can help ease novices into their community by facilitating learning and tailoring information necessary to engage with other members. The interface can facilitate the novices’ learning goals while simultaneously supporting help-seeking interactions within the community. The contextual design looks at the current activity, while recalling past instances (Beyer 1998), allowing the interface to consider the nuances of being a novice and to support the novice in becoming a fully participating member of the community.

The Novice Gradient asks the design of the contextual user interface to consider the user’s past experience or familiarity and the user’s behavior

I based the Novice Gradient on existing frameworks and models, including the Community of Practice framework, Activity theory, and the Five-Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition. The Community of Practice framework is defined as a system of interrelated forms of participation, where members come together through a shared interest (Wenger 1998). In the Community of Practice, newcomers move from partial participation to full participation as they become more engaged in the community. By moving toward full participation, the novices engage and learn about the practice and the community (Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998). Since the novices are connecting and interacting with other people through a digital medium, in this case on online community, Activity theory is appropriate for investigating the way people interact with their environment through the use of digital tools and how those interactions and tools change over time (Kaptelinin 2006; Wilson 2006). Activity theory specifically looks at the action that results from the individual’s attributes, such as past experience, perception, motive, emotion, and ways of reasoning (Davis 2012). Thus, past experience plays an important role in how the digital tool changes. Moving further, the Five-Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition defines different stages of learning a skill from being novice to expert. From beginner to expertise, each stage is identified by the differences in components that relate to the situation the learners are in; perspective that is formed from past experience; decision, analytic or intuitive, that is also based on experience with the skill; and the commitment of the person at each stage (the more they are involved and immersed in the learning situation, the more comfortable they are performing the skill) (Dreyfus 2004). These three frameworks consider the individuals and their actions, since each individual is different. In this investigation, the main actions of the novice are participating and learning in an online community. Thus, the Novice Gradient takes the attributes of an individual and their actions into account.

The Novice Gradient defines three types of novices: newbie, novice, and advanced beginner. These novices have different past experiences that inform where they are in the gradient. Since past experience influences how the novice approaches the current situation according to Activity theory, the newbie is someone who has no prior knowledge or experience with any domain similar to the current domain. The novice knows somewhat about the current domain based on the past experience with a similar domain. The advanced beginner is someone who can transfer or apply the prior knowledge or past experience to the current situation.

These conceptual frameworks and the Novice Gradient are applicable to different online learning communities; for instance, it may or may not be applicable to K-12 learning, but this investigation is only looking at learning as a hobby. However, to ground the framework, I have developed scenarios and personas of different types of novices and explored the tools, functions, and features needed to lower barriers to entry for learning Processing in the Processing online community. The investigation also explores ways to incorporate community elements and strategies to help ease and encourage the user to participate in the community. As a result, learning to make is a complex process. Each novice level would need different tools, functions, and features that provide different information. In other words, even though the same tools, functions, and features were present, the information displayed was also different for each novice level.

If the system creates a safe space for the novice, how would the system encourage risk taking and push them further into the community?

Although I developed the conceptual framework of the Novice Gradient to inform the design of the information architecture and user interfaces and explored the possible system, it poses more questions for further investigation. If learning through participation occurs in different digital medium (not online screen-based website) or space (like a shared public space), how would the information be arranged to facilitate and encourage participation and knowledge sharing? If the system creates a safe space for the novice, how would the system encourage risk taking and push them further into the community? Moreover, people will be moving back and forth when they are learning a new skill. For instance, if the advanced beginner leaves that community for a while and he or she does not engage in that community and its information, the advanced beginner might be moving backwards in the gradient. This poses a question for how the contextual interface can facilitate or change its behavior to accommodate that individual.

The intention of this investigation is to encourage newcomers to participate in the maker community, especially the online maker community. By participating (communicating and sharing knowledge and experience) in the community and acknowledging that people are different, members of the community can collaborate, build relationships, and, hopefully, become more empathetic towards one another. Although technology mediates and helps connect people together, sometimes people forget that they are connecting with other people, not the digital tools, spaces, or environment.

The contextual user interface acknowledges the differences in people and that everyone is not the same. Designing a contextual user interface made me think about the different levels of information (data/nuances) of people and our environment. Since context is becoming more important in design, designers are asked not only to think about the users, but also the medium (where the design lives and whether the information/data should be treated the same or completely different) and the environment (past and current environment/culture). If more designers acknowledge the nuances in people, then the design could become more human-centric.

Anantaya “Grace” Wonaphotimuke (MGD ‘17) has a background in computer science and animation. She is interested in Human Computer Interactions, technology and learning. She will be pursuing a Ph.D. in Design at North Carolina State University in the fall.


Beyer, Hugh. Contextual Design : Defining Customer-Centered Systems. Edited by Karen Holtzblatt. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, San Francisco, Calif., 1998.

Davis, Meredith. Graphic Design Theory. Thames & Hudson, London, 2012.

Dreyfus, Stuart E. “The Five-Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition.” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, vol. 24, no. 3, 2004, pp. 177-181.

Kaptelinin, Victor. Acting with Technology : Activity Theory and Interaction Design. Edited by Bonnie A. Nardi. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2006.

Lave, Jean. Situated Learning : Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge England] ; New York, 1991.

Wenger, Etienne, 1952-. Communities of Practice : Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y., 1998.

Wilson, Tom D. “A Re-Examination of Information Seeking Behaviour in the Context of Activity Theory.” Information research, vol. 11, no. 4, 2006,

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