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E-Health Unit technology-sharing seminars: Sharing knowledge and fostering interdisciplinary links

By Rosie Webster, on 23 April 2014

Rosie Webster a Research Associate within the Research Department of Primary Care and Population Health shares her thoughts on sharing knowledge of technology development in the E-Health Unit technology-sharing seminars.

Members of the E-Health unit at PCPH come from a variety of backgrounds: clinical, psychology, public health, sociology, and others. While we have extensive knowledge of health and human behaviour, we do not have specific in-house experts in technology. As a group, we have extensive experience in working to develop online interventions, and have a lot to offer with regard to experience. However, it can be difficult to efficiently share this knowledge between projects, especially when everyone is very busy.

Last year, a colleague in the E-Health unit (Kingshuk Pal) and I decided that there should be a more official way of sharing our knowledge and experience of working with technology. It makes sense for us to share what we have learnt during our experiences, to help future projects run more smoothly, and to prevent people from repeating any mistakes. We therefore established a quarterly half-day seminar series, the ‘E-Health unit technology-sharing seminars’.

Each seminar is organised by a different team of staff/PhD students, and has a different focus. The first seminar (in July last year) focussed on the theory that we use for intervention development, how to select your software developer, and technologies used to develop existing interventions within the E-Health unit. The second seminar focussed on online alcohol interventions.

The latest seminar was held recently (10th April 2014). The first half of the seminar saw members of the E-Health unit talking about how they translated behaviour change techniques (standardised elements of an intervention) into online interactive features. It arose that there are often challenges in doing this – we may have ‘ideal’ intervention ideas, but various things can limit how this might be presented in practice (e.g. limits of the technology, time, and money!).

The highlight of this section were the presentations from the HeLP-Diabetes group, who had invited one of their software developers to come and speak with them. This gave a unique insight into the challenges of developing online interventions. Charlotte Dack reported how she developed clear Powerpoint wireframes of a goal-setting tool, to demonstrate how she expected the activity to work. Their software developers then talked about the development process of this tool, highlighting the challenges of fitting Charlotte’s ideas into the set templates provided by the development platform. This issue seemed to come up repeatedly – software developers often don’t create ‘bespoke’ websites, they use set templates. Features that fit into these templates are very straightforward to develop, but anything outside of that provides a bit of a challenge. This may explain why, when we feel something is very simple to create, developers often tell us it’s much more complex than we expect! The team also spoke of the importance of face-to-face meetings, and prioritising which elements are important/essential/’nice to have’, and why.

The second half of the seminar saw insights from computer science about the best ways to communicate ideas. Anne Hsu from Queen Mary’s University talked about systems analysis: defining the requirements of the system, specifying all the potential scenarios of use (use cases), and how the system should respond. Geraint Jones from UCL interaction centre (UCLIC) then highlighted the importance of drawing when it comes to translating your ideas. Nic Marquardt (also UCLIC) then extended this, by delivering an exciting workshop encouraging us to get sketching and storyboarding our ideas. These sketches should start as hand-drawn and rough –by getting down ideas down quickly, with minimal effort, you explore more potential ideas, rather than being strongly invested in one idea that may not be the best.

During the discussion, it was pointed out that as E-Health researchers, we should be aware of these basic skills and processes in computer science. Presenters from the latter half of the seminar kindly offered to share information about useful resources; however, it’s important that we engage in learning about these things. These seminars provide a useful starting point, but it’s important to continue the conversation, and for E-Health researchers to take an interest in learning about the basics of computer science.

Another way to facilitate learning and knowledge sharing is to maintain connections and communications with other departments. These seminars seem to be an excellent way of doing this. The seminar was originally planned to be internal, with attendees from the E-Health unit. This quickly spread to the department of clinical, educational, and health psychology, who also use online platforms for behaviour change. We now also have a lot of input (and attendees) from UCLIC, who do a lot of work in human-computer interaction. For the most recent seminar, the contribution from UCLIC really helped to increase the technological knowledge of the group. UCLIC have kindly offered to be involved in the organisation of the next seminar, and we hope that the knowledge sharing fostered by these seminars can be of mutual benefit to both groups. I’d also be keen to hear of anyone else within UCL, working in E-Health from a computer science perspective. The more we can learn from each other, the better!