This week marks a big transition as I leave the complexities of enterprise UX at Zebra Technologies to pursue a PhD in Smart Implicit Interaction at KTH in Stockholm as part of a newly formed research group. My academic statement of intent below perhaps best expresses the culmination of my past experiences leading to my forthcoming journey. And the photo is of course just one of the many fond memories I will take with me.
Statement of Intent
“You think that because you understand ‘one’ that you must therefore understand ‘two’ because one and one make two. But you forget that you must also understand ‘and’.” ~ Sufi teaching story (Meadows, 2008)
On my first day of architecture school, we were asked to diagram where we come from and where we are now using a only a series of lines and dots on index cards. At the time, I was baffled by the task of reducing a complex, dynamic, and intimate answer into such simplistic, static, and impersonal elements. While this assignment ultimately ignited my interest in the pieces and processes of emergent systems and how the unique relationships between individual components inform and define the greater whole; more importantly, it cultivated analytical and divergent thinking. I learned how to isolate core components from a system, define explicit interactions in a space, situate functions within a context, and map parametric flows across time. Though eventually, my career pivoted from architecture to design as my intent transitioned from delight to meaning, and thus my thinking transformed from analytical to synthetic.
The primary differentiator between my experiences in architecture and design has been the latter’s focus on creative problem solving, or the convergence of disparate elements, activities, and intents to foster meaning. People have become the focus and embodied interaction the goal as I have strived to understand how space becomes place and appearance becomes presence. As an Interaction Designer, I design how people interact with, through, or without technology – an infinite and inclusive definition that ultimately focuses on people and prepositions, as it is the relationships that concern me. But as objects, environments, and worlds become ubiquitously intelligent, networked, and augmented, these relationships become increasingly dynamic, contextual, and intangible. I believe that negotiating these evolving relationships – to ultimately design meaningful new interaction modalities – is an exciting, challenging, and significant opportunity. Thus, I am interested in architecting the synthetic.
Pervasive and with unbounded potential, the “Internet of Things” is the key catalyst and instantiation of this paradigm shift towards implicit interactions. Moreover, as IoT infiltrates the mundane moments of our daily lives, it has the ability to transform our quality of life and achieve efficacious new futures from life-saving wearables to intelligent infrastructures. Though due to its systemic and embedded nature, both participative frameworks and contextual interventions are needed (as interaction is reciprocal), and thus both designs and the environments by which designers and users occupy, must be regarded. This duality necessitates divergent and convergent thinking, with a careful consideration of constraints, contexts, and intents. Therefore, through critical practice, ethnographic research, and situated prototypes, I aspire to explore what could be and what should be the intelligent dialogues of mediated, smart environments.
Over the past decade I have been afforded opportunities professionally, academically, and independently to cultivate the necessary skillset for the pursuit of a PhD in Interaction Design. Following the completion of my BS in Architecture, for over four years I was primarily self-employed as an Interaction Designer and Front-end Developer, working directly with clients from contract to concept to deployment. During this time, I was fortunate to work with a vast array of clients, expanding my formal digital design skills encompassing personas, user flows, information architecture, visual design, and UI development. Though more importantly, the empirical knowledge gained – pertaining to interpersonal and leadership skills, rigorous self-directed scheduling, and end-to-end digital product management and development – has been most invaluable.
My return to academia for my MFA in Interaction Design at Umeå University in 2012 was sparked by a desire to merge my physical and digital backgrounds within a formal user-centered education. My time in Umeå was marked by diverse and immersive collaborations with both peers and industry partners alike, who provided boundless intellectual stimulation while broadening my perspectives. I learned how to think critically and share imaginatively, perhaps best demonstrated in my speculative design thesis. Driven by a passion to critique and challenge society’s relationship with energy, I constructed a near future fictional society in which citizens are required to produce all the energy they desire to consume. Through liminal spaces and diegetic prototypes, I provoked polemical and productive dialogues, which were an engaging end to a wonderful graduate experience.
Following Umeå I moved to London and became a Senior Interaction Designer on the Innovation and Design Team at Zebra Technologies, an enterprise Internet of Things company. Within the constraints of business co-creation and the freedom of internal initiatives, my work investigates a product shift from isolated hardware and software to integrated systems and agents. In particular, I seek to design appropriate solutions at relevant fidelities that can enhance the cognitive and physical abilities of situationally disabled users in data-centric environments. For example, I am the Design Lead in a long-term co-creation project with a global transportation and logistics company seeking to improve organizational and workflow processes through custom 3D imaging technology and edge analytics. Besides traditional UX deliverables, my role includes ethnographic research, empathy mapping, stakeholder communication, service design, and a constant negotiation between implementable and transformational near future visions.
In addition to my role at Zebra, I actively engage in personal side projects which I playfully call “self-centered design.” Within these hypercritical explorations, I prototype manifestations of invisible interactions from the mundane moments of my daily life to gain insights into embodied interaction and socio-technical systems. Two ongoing projects are “Phygital Party Mode” and “Burrito.” The former is a phygital representation of online visitors’ interactions with my portfolio via Google Polymer, Firebase, Arduino, and Philips Hue technologies. Burrito is a manifestation of my marriage in the form of a bot that makes judgements on our relationship based on a mutually defined algorithm. Though perhaps a bit bonkers, both prototypes have resulted in instrumental insights that technically and creatively impact my professional development.
My motivation to be a doctoral student is a combination of passion for the subject, drive to innovate in an immersive environment, desire to collaborate on a highly capable and motivated research team, and aspiration to contribute to academia via teaching. Throughout my educational background thus far, I have been fortunate to learn, collaborate, and contribute within competitive academic environments that seek and attain meaningful innovation. At both the University of Virginia and Umeå Institute of Design, I experienced firsthand the productive synthesis of cross-disciplinary participation and student-faculty engagement. These relationships were not only instrumental in my own development, but more importantly, contributed to the progress of meaningful experiences, emerging technology, and imaginative new futures. With diligent analysis and thoughtful synthesis, I would love to continue this trajectory at KTH with an inspiring team at a leading institution, and can guarantee that in addition to my credentials, I bring a healthy dose of gumption.
Meadows, Donella H. (2009). Thinking in Systems: a Primer. London, UK: Earthscan.