Aug 22, 2022

building a PhD in ethical tech

Excerpt from my interview with Olin alum Emily Wang, who just finished her PhD in HCI at Northwestern and is now heading to Oberlin for her first job. Here she’s talking about building a dissertation with strong principles from disability studies and a human-centered prototyping process, including close observation to the adaptive human behaviors that are always already-present:

Sara: Yes—I love this. I think too many young technologists and designers might skip over the attentive, ethnographic-style interview that makes visible these deeply adaptive behaviors that are already present. It makes your design work so much more robust. And then you turned that research into a pragmatic technological tool, right?

Emily: Yes! My interviewees’ adaptations informed what I did and didn’t build. I developed Jargon Manager, a software toolkit with a browser extension to opportunistically save terms while reading and a word processor extension that provides a custom autocomplete interface based on the previously saved content. The focus of the project wasn’t to make a better algorithmic proofreader, but rather to increase the tailorability of text entry interfaces. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all writing tool, so the data in each writer’s Jargon Manager is going to be unique. The technological contribution is the stronger integration of a writer’s local context and their tools, which goes beyond what’s currently available with the “Add to dictionary” button in spell checkers.

The final part of my dissertation was deploying the Jargon Manager toolkit with Alex, the colleague who sparked my initial curiosity in this topic. We did a design-for-one assessment where Alex used the tool over seven months for writing his dissertation chapters. We had monthly check-ins to discuss: “How’s the writing process going? How is this toolkit helping? How is it not helping? How can we make it better?”

Read the whole thing here. I have never been prouder of a former student.