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Steve Chaplin
University Communications

Last modified: Wednesday, July 1, 2009

IU informatics students head to Egypt for international Microsoft competition

July 1, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Two Indiana University School of Informatics graduate students are bound for Cairo, Egypt, to solve some "wicked problems" at Microsoft's Imagine Cup, a global challenge focused on finding solutions to real-world issues, which this year drew over 300,000 student competitors.

informatics students photo

Photo by Aaron Bernstein

School of Informatics graduate students Feixing Tuang, seated, and Yujia Zhao won the national division of Microsoft's Imagine Cup with the design of a computer program that assists consumers with trading and selling unwanted property. They will be in Cairo, Egypt, competing in the international Imagine Cup on July 4.

Print-Quality Photo

"During their master's program training Feixing Tuang and Yujia Zhao both practiced creating solutions to complex, ill-structured and messy problems -- what we call 'wicked problems'," said Informatics professor Marty Siegel. "The interesting aspect of the finals of Imagine Cup is that finalists are given a new design problem to solve in 30 hours, which means conceive, research, analyze, prototype and present their solution to an international panel of prestigious judges. I believe that Yujia and Feixing are capable of doing this."

Inspired by the 2009 Imagine Cup theme that technology students take on challenges identified in the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals report -- from halting the spread of HIV/AIDS to providing universal primary education -- Tuang and Zhao won the United States qualifying competition and earned a trip to Cairo by designing eXchangeFun, a platform aimed at facilitating the trade and exchange of pre-owned property between residents of a community.

While exhibiting some traits of popular consumer-based, online product purchase and exchange tools such as eBay, Craigslist and Freecycle, Tuang and Zhao said eXchangeFun is unique in that it contains design elements that will hopefully stimulate reuse at the community level by creating a recreational, treasure-hunting experience that stimulates interaction between users.

"One thing we heard from our user testing was that people would like to take a picture of all of their piled-up items in their garage, and then just let their neighbors and friends check the picture and figure out what they want," said Tuang, who graduated in May with a master's of science in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Design. "Sometimes people can't decide what they want to sell, but they want others to check and see if there might be something they want."

Tuang and Zhao developed eXchangeFun with tools that make it easy to upload and browse photos, and upload and tag multiple items, to post announcements like upcoming yard sales, to visit items designed for specific uses by taking virtual visits by going "room to room," and to allow users to create inventories of their items.

"There are a number of factors, stakeholders and constraints within any wicked design problem, and all of them interrelate with each other," said Zhao, who expects to graduate from the HCI master's program next year. "We need to be able to see the big picture, predict and analyze the impact the design can bring to the individual and society. Then it is also up to us to make the product easy and pleasant to use and to provide users a great experience, which requires very detailed and subtle thinking, empathy and constant design iteration."

eXchangeFun ideally should stimulate interaction within a community as people trade both property and communications as local reuse scenarios reduce the damaging effects of transportation and shipping related to globally produced goods.

"Instead of just preaching sustainability, our approach to slow down consumption is to find a win-win solution to meet both peoples' needs and a sustainable goal," Tuang said. "We were encouraged by certain sustainable consumption behaviors like trading and repurposing used items since these reuse behaviors benefit peoples' lives by helping to find things they want for a cheaper price."

Tuang and Zhao will be given a completely new design problem related to an issue of world concern on Saturday, July 4, in Cairo, and they'll have 30 hours to come back with a proposal they hope will impress a panel of judges. Siegel said that win or lose in Egypt, the two are still winners in his eyes.

"To be a finalist in a worldwide competition sponsored by Microsoft means that you have already won," Siegel said. "What I appreciate about them is their social justice approach to design, particularly with respect to issues of sustainability. In past years designers did not concern themselves with the "afterlife" of products; a consumer would use them and dispose of them. For example, it's estimated that 150 million cell phones are disposed annually. What if it were possible to sustain the life of an object beyond its first owner? That's what these two creative students tackled as their design problem."

Last year David Roedl and Will Odom, both IU School of Informatics HCI students at the time, represented the United States in Paris and won the Interface Design portion of the Imagine Cup.

To speak with Siegel, Tuang or Zhao, please contact Steve Chaplin, University Communications, at 812-331-1475 or