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Tactical troubleshooting: investigating support for end-user developers in physical computing

Booth, T. (2022). Tactical troubleshooting: investigating support for end-user developers in physical computing. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


With maker culture and its emphasis on DIY and personal creation now firmly embedded in society, more end-user developers—for example, artists, hobbyists, researchers and designers—have been drawn towards developing interactive physical computing devices—microcontroller-based systems that interact with the physical environment via sensors and actuators—using popular development platforms such as Arduino. However, developing these devices usually involves 1) constructing an electronic circuit and 2) programming its behaviour—activities which can present challenges to end-user developers, particularly inexperienced ones. Inability to overcome these challenges may result in them failing to complete their projects or even abandoning their physical computing ambitions altogether.

Decades of research have focused on understanding the problems that end-user programmers and novice programmers face when programming software, and developing support for overcoming these. Physical computing development might benefit from similar approaches but prior to this thesis there had been little empirical work to determine what difficulties end-user developers experience in this domain, their natural behaviours when dealing with them, or how they might be supported in overcoming them.

To fill this gap, this thesis aims to answer the following, overarching research question:

How can end-user developers be supported in overcoming problems they experience when developing physical computing artefacts?

Answering this question involved four stages of work:

1. An exploratory, empirical study, investigating the problems that end-user developers experience when developing a physical computing device.
2. Deeper analysis of data from the same study, to identify end-user developers’ natural behaviours when troubleshooting circuit bugs—the type of bug identified as most likely to impede success.
3. Informed by this empirical work and inspired by creativity support cards, the development of a novel, physical card-based tool, to support end-user developers when troubleshooting.
4. Evaluation of the support tool in a study with novice end-user developers, to observe its impact on troubleshooting, and elicit feedback about their first-hand experience of using it.

This research is the first empirical investigation into the problems, behaviours and support needs of adult, end-user developers using platforms such as Arduino to develop physical computing devices. The main contributions of this thesis, are:

1. Empirically grounded knowledge of the problems experienced by end-user developers when constructing and programming a physical computing device, including the types, location and number of problems, and whether they are overcome.
2. Empirically grounded knowledge of end-user developers’ natural behaviours when troubleshooting circuit bugs that they have introduced during development, including the tactics they employ, resulting in suggestions for types of support from which end-user developers might benefit when troubleshooting in this domain.
3. A novel, physical card-based tool to support end-user developers in troubleshooting physical computing problems. The tool provides ideas for different troubleshooting tactics and is designed to encourage more thoughtful troubleshooting.
4. Insights into how a physical card-based support tool might be used and perceived by novice end-user developers when troubleshooting circuit bugs in a physical computing task.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: Q Science > QA Mathematics > QA75 Electronic computers. Computer science
Q Science > QA Mathematics > QA76 Computer software
Departments: Doctoral Theses
School of Science & Technology > School of Science & Technology Doctoral Theses
School of Science & Technology > Computer Science > Human Computer Interaction Design
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