Everyone deserves the access and opportunity to have a good and fulfilling life. This belief is foundational to my work. Technologies can only contribute toward this goal when they are designed from an understanding of what makes a life good for the people concerned.
I grew up caring for others, leading me to my first career as a registered nurse. I loved the job but started looking for other options when I couldn't quite leave behind the emotional labor of the work at home. At that time, I wanted a more socially detached role; I enrolled in computer science at the University of Glasgow. My first human-computer interaction (HCI) lecture very quickly pulled me back to concerns about people and showed me how technology could be designed to help or harm them. I stayed on to do my Ph.D., where I examined persuasive computing and its application in the health-related behavioral-change domain. During this time, I helped develop Shakra, a mobile phone app that tracked daily activity levels to explore attitudes to behavioral monitoring and information sharing between peer groups. Additional studies highlighted a mismatch between the biomedical model of health that was embodied in many emerging applications and the lived experience of interviewees and their surrounding social determinants of health.
After a few years at a federal research lab in Canada, I hopped into industry to establish a user experience design team with a digital health startup. Over time, I became frustrated with the techno-centricity of the industry and decided it was time for another career change.
I stumbled upon the social innovation space while volunteering at a local nonprofit. I was blown away by the dedication, creativity, and integrity of the people working to make life better for their community. A new path appeared, and two years later I founded All In, a design agency that applies my human-centered design knowledge from CS to help public sector changemakers build a better future for and with the people they serve. We bridge the gap between decision makers and people most impacted by complex social problems. We are currently working on projects in early childhood education; access to sports, recreation, and leisure for low-income residents; rural community development; and chronic homelessness.
If I reflect on the most valuable aspect of my CS education, I'd have to say it was HCI. I was also lucky to do my Ph.D. in a multidisciplinary research group that included software engineers, ethnographers, and philosophers. Because of these influences, I'm able to understand and communicate the potential impact of appropriately designed technology, while also being equipped to challenge the often-unsubstantiated claims of techno-solutionism in the public and social sectors.
What this looks like in practice can vary greatly from project to project. To name a few, we have:
- Supported local governments in adopting user-centered design to engage the public in usability testing of online services.
- Identified opportunities to improve public services through a range of digital and nondigital options.
- Worked with healthcare providers to ensure critical clinical information is not lost in the noise of irrelevant data in a cluttered EMR UI.
- Shifted the focus of a "smart city" project from how to increase a community's adoption of IoT, to giving them the tools to critically evaluate if and how digital or social innovation may help them address the challenges that are of most importance to them.
- In other cases, it has been making the rather unsexy recommendation that partners focus on improving the quality of data capture, storage, and governance policies, or increase their awareness of ethical issues surrounding increasing levels of surveillance and algorithmic bias.
Digital technology is a tool that can be used to do good in the world and support progress toward a more equitable and just society. However, as we see in many areas of public and private life, it can also do serious harm. My time within the HCI community has taught me how to critically reflect on the design decisions we make as technologists, and the need to take a collaborative and participatory approach.
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