A Passion for the ‘Human’ in Human-Computer Interaction

Homa Javahery

“When I was in secondary school, I would have never thought of going into computer science,” says Homa Javahery. “I messed around on computers, but I was always interested in health sciences and there are a couple of doctors in my family, so I thought I’d go into medicine.”

Attending McGill University in the mid-1990s, Homa studied human nutrition and supported herself by working in a diabetes research lab, where she found a frustrating gap between clinical data and the nutritional modeling that could help users understand these data. “At one point we had to send away to researchers in Italy to help us with a model, and it was very time-consuming,” she notes. In her third year, as she prepared her med school applications, a nutrition professor made a casual comment that turned her life around. “She saw me fiddling around on the computer trying to synch up the data with our subjects and she said, ‘You know, you would be really good at that.’ And I thought, ‘maybe I’ll just put the application to medical school off for a bit and see what else is out there.’”

The decision to wait changed the course of her career. Searching the Internet for programs where she could combine her health sciences background with computer technology, she found the UBC ARC program. Renamed the UBC Bachelor of Science/Integrated Computer Science (BCS/ICS) program in 2004, the program allows students to combine a computer science degree with an existing bachelor’s degree from another field. The 20-month program, the only one of its kind in western Canada, appealed to Homa, who was accepted in 1998 and has never looked back.

Then as now, the BCS/ICS program encourages students to gain workplace experience through the co-op program, and for Homa, that made a huge difference in how she viewed the program. At that point she didn’t have any IT workplace experience and didn’t know how she might link the IT world with her ongoing interests in health sciences. Her eight-month co-op placement as a systems developer at Telus helped clarify where she might be headed in the future. At Telus she analyzed data to ensure Y2K compliance and developed a three-tiered web system for change management. “This was a terrific placement for learning the IT world,” she recalls, “and it was there that I noticed I enjoyed things having to do with the user.” Finding issues relating to a computer user’s needs was so compelling that upon graduation from UBC she enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Concordia University in Montreal to study the then-emerging field of Human/Computer Interaction and specifically to study HCI in a health care delivery capacity.

What began to intrigue Homa the most was user modeling in the context of user-centered design.  “User modeling bridges the gap between the user and design. It’s representing the user in a way that we can capture the most essential user experiences, and what works for the user, in coming up with a design model.” The number of situations in which a health care researcher would benefit from her work is large. While working toward her masters and then her Ph.D., Homa engaged in three research projects designed to make the work of biomedical researchers easier and more streamlined. In the first, she led a three-member development team to build a web-based visualization prototype for proteomics researchers. In the second, she led a three-member HCI team to work with developers to build an immersive system for visualizing DNA. And in the third, she led an international research collaborative in developing a multiple user interface migration to mobile devices, a project that resulted in a pattern library for mobile devices and co-editorship of a book detailing the work.

Each of these projects helped Homa focus with greater specificity toward her then-emerging goal: to make a better work environment, technology-wise, for the people responsible for delivering quality medical care and services. Between 2007-2008, she worked as a systems analyst (biomedical informatics) and usability specialist with McKesson Corporation’s Medical Imaging Group in Richmond, B.C., where she worked to identify how radiological tools could be improved to meet the needs of radiologists, cardiologists, and other specialists. In that position she was responsible for systems analyst activities for a suite of medical imaging applications, as well as new research initiatives into user-related design. Homa worked with a team in the R&D department on all aspects of the user’s interface with the computer, from the visualization and associated software of a particular modality, such as MRI, to all aspects of the surrounding system, including linked workstations and remote connections.

From 2008 to the present, Homa has been employed at the IBM Center for Solution Innovation in Burnaby, B.C., where she works as a User Experience (UX) Architect. Homa is responsible for the entire user-centred design lifecycle, from user needs to design to usability testing, in a variety of user contexts ranging from health care and education to non-profits, governmental assignments, and telecommunications. Similar to Information Architects, UX Architects look at the convergence of users, information, and business needs. Unlike Information Architects, they focus intently on user needs and requirements by employing user-centred techniques, traditionally a blind spot in the development of business applications. In this role they engage in multiple tasks such as developing user vision/strategies, branding, gathering user requirements, analyzing user needs, creating personas (user profiles), creating wireframes and mockups, creating an information architecture and a taxonomy, participating in usability sessions, troubleshooting and strategizing pre-existing sites and apps and laying the groundwork for new sites and apps, and working closely with the creative, development, and QA (testing) teams.

In addition to these HCI projects and their associated methods, Homa has been working in emerging areas such as accessibility, Natural Language Processing, and ontologies (or the Semantic Web) in both UX/technical and consulting roles. Accessibility is an issue for an adult with a cognitive or functional limitation such as blindness, or which occurs due to an environmental constraint, such as may happen in a manufacturing venue when access to a conventional computer setup is compromised. Homa has also designed for children, whose user needs may differ substantially from an adult’s. As part of her work with Ontologies and Natural Language Processing, a branch of computational intelligence, Homa interacted with the IBM developers of Watson, the computer that successfully playedJeopardy!.Her work in NLP and ontologies has resulted in her nomination for an IBM technical award and the submission of two patents in 2010. Ontologies are the formal methods for modeling and grouping entities of knowledge that are further subdivided according to similarities and differences. These methods include the standardization of names and relationships, which are particularly useful in helping people and machines communicate with one another. For Homa, working in ontologies has allowed her to explore projects with applications in the medical field, noting that “medical ontologies are really useful.”

Homa notes that the future of computer science in general lies with its integration into multiple fields and she feels strongly that the field will require an ever-diverse group of students to fill professional needs in years to come. “Computer science is a very, very rich environment. Of course, you can be a computer geek sitting behind a desk coding for 12 hours a day if you really want, but computer science needs diverse people right now. It needs people to work on a team to push technology forward into fields where you might not think it can go: medicine, health care, biology.”

Such field requirements won’t be limited to students who possess only superior technical skills, though those certainly will be important. Homa notes that “the social aspects of computing need not just people to be creative, but also to apply research methods, to communicate well. And to do you this you need to be well-rounded and you need to work on your communication skills.”

Within her own area of computer science, Homa strongly believes that she has incredible opportunities for diverse career paths and this belief motivates her to assist others coming into the field. As part of her commitment to emerging talent, she has mentored students in the BCS program, helping them orient to the more technical aspects of their education after coming from a non-technical field. She also has ties with the academic community through her own research collaborations. In 2007, she delivered a paper in Austria at the first-ever conference devoted to HCI and health care delivery, which allowed her to engage in her passion for travel, which she does as much as she can outside of work, and in 2010 she presented work in Berlin. She also worked for a time during graduate school as an entrepreneur and sees that as a viable option for some CS grads. “It’s really interesting to be able to have that choice. If you have enough drive and motivation and you’re able to find yourself a nice niche and if you have a really good team, [you can make it work because] the Canadian government gives a lot of support to entrepreneurs.” All in all, the field has room for every kind of student. “You can pick a sub-discipline within computing that fits your personality and go with that. What other field could you go into where you could move from industry to academia or become an entrepreneur? Really, there’s so much you can do with it. You won’t get bored! If you’re a person who needs to think outside the box, if you need challenges, it’s a wonderful field for you. There are so many places you can go and so much you can do.”

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