2022 Thayer Investiture

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Integrating people-centered and planet-centered design

Sep 01, 2021   |   XRDS

"When we think about computing for wellbeing, we often think about personal health tracking apps and devices. Rather than focusing solely on health interventions to promote wellbeing, Professor Elizabeth Murnane takes a more expansive approach: thinking about an ecosystem of factors that play into wellbeing, including health, education, and sustainability, as well as moving beyond a single-user perspective to more collective and collaborative forms of engagement with emerging technology. We sat down with Dr. Murnane to talk about her research and the Empower Lab, which she leads at Dartmouth College," reports XRDS.

..."Thanks for having me! I've always been drawn to computing. As a student, I wanted to develop new tools to put into the world in order to positively impact people's lives, which pulled me into the user-oriented aspects of computer science and software engineering. As a mathematics plus CS major, I began on the theoretical side of computer science, but at each step of coursework and research projects, I kept moving closer to topics that were focused on the ways these technical systems could more meaningfully interface with people. For me, it came together in graduate school when I dove into human-computer interaction (HCI). I love the incredibly interdisciplinary nature of HCI and the inherently multifaceted aspects the field (for example, some HCI scholars might focus on studying or critiquing the social scientific aspects of human experiences with technology, while technical HCI folks are building those same systems); but at the end of the day, the field shares a common interest to understanding and design around the ways humans and machines could come together in positive ways.

"I think, especially recently however, we're seeing more and more popular recognition of not only the promise but also the perils of technology—pushing against a techno-solutionist mentality, particularly in the context of 'wicked problems.' Instead, there's been a growing recognition of what HCI and human-centered design emphasizes as part of responding to these complex challenges: The imperative to deeply understand and foreground empathy for the lived experiences of the people that will directly interact with these systems as well as a diverse set of more widely impacted stakeholders.

"Similarly, we've noticed that while we've had a tendency to get excited about the role technology could play in an isolated application area at a time (e.g., a focus on tech to enhance health, or tech to enhance education, or health to enhance environmental outcomes), we're coming to understand and emphasize the interconnections across such domains. For instance, rather than studying and treating physical health and mental health as separate problems, a biopsychosocial orientation helps us look more integrally at the body, the mind, the environment—to explain and address these interwoven factors that together impact human wellbeing and welfare. This intersectional perspective is much of what my group has been exploring in our research across a variety of computing applications and human outcomes—trying to understand the universal versus unique needs and methods that may be appropriate to effectively explore a given human-centered research question."

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