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Man on the moon (1969), women on the web (1991 and still going strong)

Man on the moon (1969), women on the web (1991 and still going strong)

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Tags: Computing education, Computing profession, Human computer interaction (HCI), Women

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This is the story of a young girl who was an all-rounder—good at a little bit of everything at school; she enjoyed learning about everything and also loved helping people. This story shows that whatever you do in your life, you can bring it together to find your place. Whether it's working in a company, teaching, or researching, you can find an area where what you have learned your life's journey has value.

For this girl, it was human-computer interaction design for digital technologies. This girl is me, and this is my story.

back to top  How I Ended Up as a Woman on the Web

In 1969 they put a man on the moon, in 1991 we put women on the web—and I am happy to say that I was, and continue to be, one of them.

I started a graduate diploma in computing in 1989, having completed a degree in architectural studies. I had worked as a heritage officer, assessing the historical significance of buildings for six years. So, it was very timely that two years later in 1991, when I became a faculty member at the University of Tasmania Australia in the School of Computing, it was the same year that the World Wide Web came into being.

This was the beginning of my on-going "dance" with the internet—the opening up of possibilities, of information exchange and communication, and as we now experience it, the foundation on which we can build our working and social lives.

The web is such an important part of our everyday lives. It seems funny that in 1989, when universities in Australia first connected to a global internet, many could not see any application beyond the exchange of academic research.

For me, it was the release of the first commercially available web browser, Mosaic, in 1993 that made a difference, and really helped me to start seeing possibilities beyond research. As a trained architectural designer working in computer science I was naturally drawn to thinking about screen design. In 1995, I submitted a master's thesis titled "Multimedia - Art or Science?" because I was already fascinated by the juxtaposition of the aesthetic qualities of interface design and the scientific need for the mathematics and coding that made it possible, as well as the physiology and psychology that informed the human aspects of designing computer interfaces.

My personal turning point was in 1995, when I introduced human-computer interaction (HCI) as a subject at the University of Tasmania. In this class I made computer science students use paper and pencils, drawing with their hands and not the computer, exploring the use of color, and expanding their creative thinking into the front-end of the computer applications they were programming. And, despite initial reservations they enjoyed it.

back to top  What Made me Choose HCI as a Career?

Well, let's step back a few years. How did I end up in that place? What started me on the path toward my current position as Professor of Interaction Design at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia?

As a girl, I loved school. I loved learning, and I loved solving problems. And I was interested in everything. I was doing maths, physics, chemistry, languages, music, English and art, and doing well in all of them. So, what does a multidisciplinary girl choose as a career?

So, let's just agree that geek girls look nothing like computer nerds. When I was deciding on a career, computer nerds were boys with calculators on their belts and rectangular glasses. These were not my kind of people. This was not my look; I really enjoyed colorful clothes, music, socializing, and changing the color of my hair.

I chose architecture because at the time it had the right vibe for me, and promised to be a discipline that brought together art and science. And it was. We had subjects ranging from life drawing classes with naked people to structural engineering classes, calculating the stresses on cantilever beams. We also had a class in building science that included programming in Basic and Fortran using punch cards. These punch cards were sent off to a computer that filled a room, and a week later if you found out you had left out a semicolon you then added it to the stack and resubmitted the whole deck, and waited another week to see if you had it right this time. A far cry from the scale, diversity, and speed of the emerging technologies and natural interactions we are experiencing today. But, we all have to start somewhere.

back to top  The Greatest Hurdle I Faced Getting into my Current Career

The move into computing was easy for me. Computers were not part of architectural practice when I was studying it, and yet during the '80s, computers started to find their way into my workplace—and curious bunny that I am, I had to learn more about them.

I started with night classes, found I had a talent for coding, then went back to university to learn it properly. At the time it was a brave move to give up a "permanent" position with the government to go back to living in share-houses, living off pasta and ketchup, and studying full time. I was almost 30 at the time, so it was not a trivial choice. But it was the right choice. And I have never regretted it.

So, the greatest hurdle for me was that I did not enjoy being the only girl in a class full of boys. When I started architecture in the late '70s, I was one of only three girls in a class of 60. This has happily now changed in architecture. But in teaching computer science and software engineers, too often, I was facing classes with one female and 70 males.

In the early '90s my fellow female academics in computing and I ran many activities and promotions to try and get more girls into computing, because there were so few. It always struck me as ironic because computing was pioneered by some amazing women, including: Ada Lovelace, who invented programming in 1843; the six women—Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Frances Bilas Spence, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Snyder Holberton, and Betty Jennings Bartik—who programmed for the ENIAC during World War II in 1945; Grace Hopper, who invented programming languages in early 1950; and more recently Stacy Horn, who created the first digital social network in 1990.

back to top  What are the Exciting Opportunities that I Can See?

With the advances in emerging and ubiquitous digital technologies, we now see computers embedded into our everyday lives. They are both practical and social tools, integrated into many aspects of life and society. Being tech savvy is cool. Who you gonna call when you have a tech problem?—a geek girl!

And you can come from a variety of different backgrounds and experiences, because digital technologies are about interacting and collaborating to solve an applied real-world problem, so designing them is about working in multidisciplinary teams. In the last class I taught in user experience and interaction design for digital technologies, 60 percent of the class were female students—and the top four students were women. We no longer need to align our interests with the kinds of gender roles that have been constructed by society. In fact, in Australia, the U.K., Europe, and the U.S., where I have academic colleagues in HCI, we are moving toward a space where all genders are free to follow their interests and passions, knowing we will not be alone, and we can find a place where we can work with like-minded people.

And so, in the 2020s we can see an amazing group of women on the web. This issue of XDRS shows that. And we represent so many different skill sets and backgrounds that it is easy to see that all roads can lead to the web, and designing digital interactions, if that is where you would like to be.

back to top  What Kind of Work Do I Do in HCI?

I am involved in many different kinds of research and development projects, in different teams, with great people who also come from different backgrounds. I have taught, and continue to teach, on many different aspects of computing, design, and HCI.

Here is just a small selection of the projects that I am involved in.

The "Safety at Work: Immersive Experiential Learning" project is about exploring the use of virtual reality (VR) in training disability support workers to be able to enter the home of a person with special needs and communication difficulties, and work with them in a safe and effective way. Using a VR environment gives trainee workers a chance to practice entering a client's house and responding to different scenarios around how clients might react, helping them to learn how to make the best responses using positive behavior support. VR gives the trainees a safe environment to try out different approaches, in a situation where a frustrated or angered client can be a tricky and dangerous situation. In this project I am working with people who have come from many different backgrounds, including health science, creative dance, virtual reality programming, psychology, education, and communication design. Everyone brings their particular expertise to the team so we can solve complex, multifaceted problems like this one. My role is to make sure the VR environment has good usability, interaction design, and user experience so that the students can concentrate on dealing with the client, and not operating the technology.

Another project I am involved in, also in the health area, is "Using Technology to Enable Participation of People Living with Dual Sensory Impairment." In this project I am working with occupational therapists to determine how deaf-blind people use mainstream technologies to support their special needs at home and to connect with others. In this project, the fieldwork, which involves interviews and technology tours of their homes, is especially challenging when your participant cannot see or hear. Interpreters and tactile communication methods become very important, including using holding hands and touching fingers to ask and answer questions.

Digital technologies are about interacting and collaborating to solve an applied real-world problem, so designing them is about working in multidisciplinary team.

The "Automated Discovery and Human-Centered Insight for Time-Critical Decision-Making" is a completely different kind of project, but one where my user-centered design, interaction design, and evaluation skills are valued and necessary. This team includes an astronomer, a computer scientist who specializes in artificial intelligence (AI), an aviation physicist, a human factors psychologist, and a data scientist. For this project, we are looking at how AI can become integrated into team decision-making processes in the future. Not just as a piece of technology to give quick responses and predictions, but as a member of the actual decision-making team. This project looks at trust and reliability, and it is important that AI-human interactions are appropriately and effectively designed. And that is where my HCI expertise contributes.

One of my favorite projects, and one where I have the most fun, is "Personal Digital Assistants in the Home." This project is looking at the kinds of roles that personal digital assistants such as Google Home, Amazon Alexa, and Apple Siri can play in supporting and extending people's domestic routines and activities, through their AI capabilities. I am working with people in Australia and in Denmark for this project. As part of the Designing Interactive Systems conference in 2020, I attended a workshop with people from all over the world where we interviewed digital personal assistants to ask them about their feelings, their belief systems, and the kinds of things they enjoy. It was very enlightening. And of course, we conduct the usual fieldwork where we go to people's homes and talk to them about how these personal digital assistants are fitting in their households. It is really interesting—and often surprising—to learn about the different uses they are put to.

back to top  What You Need to Know to Have a Great Career in HCI

HCI is a great home for me. As someone who enjoys variety and working in teams, meeting all different kinds of people really suits me—but sometimes just working by myself and being creative is needed. I also really love problem solving, and design is about coming up with solutions that will meet people's needs, while at the same time being elegant, useful, and usable. Interaction design for digital technologies is a really exciting and relevant field to work in. If you want to do something that can make a difference—to people's lives and also to the future of the planet—then you should consider putting your skill set toward influencing our digital futures. If together, we can design technologies that behave ethically and support and encourage sustainable practices, then the global future is looking brighter.

back to top  Author

Jeni Paay is a professor in interaction design at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia. Professor Paay is one of four program directors in the university-wide Smart Cities Research Institute at Swinburne. She directs the "Future Spaces for Living" program. She is also Deputy Director of Centre for Design Innovation. Professor Paay has a transdisciplinary background spanning architecture, computer science, and human-computer interaction, mainly publishing in interaction design. Her research areas include: design methods, interaction design for mobiles, augmented reality and virtual reality, digital health, smart spaces, design for future workspaces, and user experience design.

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