Putting research into action: innovation lab interns report back

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Rose McColl and Alisha Thakkar have been working in our innovation lab over the summer, as part of their Master in Information Technology Degree at Auckland University. Their internship is coming to an end soon, so we wanted to catch up to find out how the summer has gone and what they have been working on.

So, you’ve been here as interns in our innovation lab for almost 10 weeks now, how was it? 

A: Really good, we’re pleased about how things have gone. We’ve built a working prototype, and delivered most things we planned to do – including documentation and a report on the project. It’s been really good to work on an actual project, it’s so different to research and study.  

What are some of the things that are different? 

A: Well, we have to deliver something that works rather than just exploring and evaluating – so we needed to make more decisions. And we had to just start making something.  

R: I think we learned that the perfect solution is difficult to achieve – so we had to figure out what the minimum viable product could be. And that sometimes the simple solution is the best one. 

Tell me a bit more about that working prototype 

R: It’s a Word plugin that provides smart searches from documents stored in file storage systems such as SharePoint. It performs full-text analysis and search using text mining and natural language processing techniques, and provides search results in the form of keywords, sentences that match the search query and similar documents. It also provides the user with a summary of documents. 

And what’s the use case? 

A: It’s to help users write or compile a document – like a proposal  without having to start from scratch every time. The idea is that users don’t need to know already what’s in their document library or where to find it, they just start typing and the plugin will find relevant matches. Then they can copy and paste directly from the tool, to start building their document. 

That sounds like something I would use!

R: Great! Actually, user feedback has been really useful in the later stages of the project – talking to people and understanding what they would find useful helped us to focus. It meant that what we finished with is somewhat different to the original brief, but hopefully that means it is more likely to be used. Next time, we would gather user feedback earlier in the process.

A: It’s difficult, actually, harder that I realised before, to make something that works, that is unique, and that people will want to use.

Anything else that you learned or found surprising over the course of the project?

A: It was cool to see the whole process of building a piece of software in action, and how the different areas worked together – front end, back end, integration and user testing.

R: I don’t think I realised before how important web development is, and now want to go and learn a front end language.

A: me too!

R: I think we surprised ourselves about how much we could achieve in ten weeks – quite a lot! Part of that is because we worked really well together to just get on and get stuff done. We’ve got complementary skills. Alisha has great technical skills and deep knowledge relating to the data science side of things.

A: And Rose has a good understanding of the end-to-end process – coding, integration and user testing. We’re a great team!

I think we learned a lot – maybe even more than we learned at Uni last year! It’s been really useful.

R: But also cool to see that the stuff we have learned at Uni – from specific things like user testing to the more general research skills and critical thinking – are very relevant.

Great to hear – and nice that you get the mix of practical and theory

R: Yep, feels like you learn lots when you dive in to the work, but the uni papers have been a great foundation.

How has it been working at Theta?

A: Really good, it’s a nice place to work.

R: Whenever we asked someone anything, they were really patient and happy to help. I think that says a lot about the company and atmosphere – people here are friendly and helpful, and it’s OK to ask questions.

From someone who’s always asking questions, that’s great to hear! What’s next for you both?

A: We’re writing up the project, reflecting on the technical work we did but also on our professional development over the course of the internship. It’s good to reflect on that, actually.

R: And then we present our project to our professors and an industry panel.

Good luck!

A: Thanks, and thank you to everyone at Theta who has helped us through the project. Jim has been a great mentor and Andrew has been really supportive all the way through. Wagner has helped us with Azure and taught us heaps, even though he has been very busy.

R: Daniel got some parts of our app working too. We also want to thank everyone who took time out to take part in the user testing. Working at Theta has been an amazing experience, and we are really grateful for the opportunity we were given.