Robert  Bennett

Writing Center Research

A research project on the University of Washington's writing centers.

  • Created Spring 2019
  • By Robert Bennett
  • For HCDE 313 Introduction to User Research


In Spring 2019, as a part of a class focused on research, I conducted ten weeks of user research on one of the University of Washington's writing centers in an effort to identify current pain points and develop potential solutions to them.

I chose to research university writing centers because I knew I personally had not utilized them to their full potential, and upon doing secondary research on them, learned that many other students did not either. In conducting my research, I hoped to identify why students did not use the current writing centers.

Observational Field Studies

To gain a basic understanding of the context and environment of the centers, I first set out to conduct a series of three 30-minute purely observation field studies as exploratory research. I initially had some trouble finding a writing center which would let me observe interactions between tutors and students. I was eventually able to find one which would let me observe, but due to its small physical space, I had to inform the tutors of my purpose in being there, introducing the possibility of observation bias.

Despite the short amount of time I spend observing, I gained valuable insights from the sessions. I was able to identify several minor issues and provided solutions that the writing center could implement to help solve them. What I gained most of all, however, was the impression that students who visited the center were happy with the service they received, but not very many students visited in the first place. This led me to next conduct interviews with non-users.

Field Research Plan
Field Study Report


I next conducted three 30-minute interviews with students who had visited a writing center once at some point prior to the current year. I chose to interview non-current users to discover the reasons why those who knew of the centers did not use them regularly. To prepare for the interviews, I wrote a set of eight open ended questions designed to extract pain points from participants. Since I didn't uncover any major issues from my observations, the questions I wrote were primarily exploratory in nature and focused more on the activity of getting writing help rather than the writing centers specifically.

The results from my interviews ended up being much more conclusive than my field study results. Since I was able to ask probing questions to non-current users, I was able to get a much deeper insight into the thought processes that led students not to use the center. Overall, I learned that students tend to rely more on peers, instructors, and TAs because they are more convenient, helpful, and easier to talk to.

Interview Plan
Interview Report


Based on what I had learned from my interviews, I next conducted a nine-question online survey with a total of 17 participants who were UW students who had taken a class which involved writing in the current or previous quarter. I had a much clearer path forward with the survey, so I was able to write a focused set of questions to confirm what I had learned from the interviews. With this in mind, I was careful in writing these questions as to not bias participants into telling me what I had heard previously.

I was satisfied to see that the results of my survey confirmed what I had learned in my interviews. Based on what I had learned throughout the past ten weeks, I completed a final set of design recommendations that could be implemented to solve the issues that I had identified.

Field Research Plan
Field Study Report