As a freshman at Rice University, Elisa Arango’s interest in health equity and global cultures prompted her to sign up for a new course in Global Health Technologies (GLHT). The introductory course explores integrated approaches to global health problems.
“Learning about GLHT and working with the Rice360 Institute for Global Health helped me better see how we can merge health and technology. I found myself attracted to the projects that demonstrated how non-engineers can be a valuable part of the design process, and I was hooked,” said Arango, who graduated from Rice in 2020 with a bachelor's in psychology.
“At the end of that course, our case study examined DoseRite, a product developed to provide quick and accurate medication dosages that can be easily used by populations with low literacy levels. It was such an elegant and simple solution! Then we had a chance to participate in a hackathon where we could brainstorm other dosing mechanisms for people with low literacy. I remember thinking, ‘This is really cool. I want to do this every day.’”
Arango was impressed that the most successful solutions were created by interdisciplinary teams. Wanting to work on additional joint projects, she signed up for a second GLHT course. Each team moved through the entire product cycle, from brainstorming ideas to producing a prototype and presenting their solution to an audience. At that point, Arango said the natural progression was to declare the GLHT minor, which fit well with the human factors aspect of her Psychology major.
She said, “Psychologists who study human factors are exploring how users interact with products and within systems to determine how to craft those experiences to be more intuitive, accessible, and successful. As I learned more about developing solutions, I also wanted to know more about the technical side and the design process. That type of knowledge and experience appeared to be useful for any kind of product, so I signed up for Intro to Engineering Design,” said Arango. By the time she graduated from Rice, Arango had completed both the GLHT minor and a minor in Engineering Design.
“Problems in complex areas like engineering and global health care are particularly interesting to me. Designers love constraints, that helps us focus,” she said. “But how do we take a new product to a general audience? How can we communicate the solution’s basic idea and importance?”
Arango completed a business communication course at Rice, then began developing her technical communication skills through workshops with Tracy Volz, director for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program. Presentation workshops by Volz and her team are incorporated into a variety of Rice courses, including Intro to Engineering Design.
“I learned a lot about professional communication for technology and engineering audiences from Dr. Volz,” said Arango. “There is really an art to speaking effectively and efficiently. As a Psychology major, I had never expected to talk to an engineering audience, but Dr. Volz helped each of us learn to better reach our audience.
“Later, our Senior Design project required us to communicate extremely complex technical information across multiple channels, using numbers, memos, papers, and different types of deliverables. Dr. Volz was right there again, helping us learn to transfer information and excite our audience about the potential for our solution.”
Volz introduced the senior design students to the concept of identifying and understanding their audience for a specific deliverable. Frequently, students had to maintain a high-level perspective rather than dive into the details of their project. In addition to being able to pitch the big picture, students also had to demonstrate their solution and explain the process used to reach that solution.
“Our team spent a lot of time practicing our presentations and pitches, and then we applied to several pitch competitions. We got quite good at telling our stories while keeping the product’s core value and motivation clear through to the end. It is less important to retain deep scientific or technical explanations than to bring more people into your solution, even if that means simplifying some of the content,” said Arango.
The Senior Design project covers two semesters of work, and Arango's team reached out to Volz each time they had a presentation or pitch to make. In addition to communication suggestions, Volz also provided a necessary outsider’s perspective. Arango said it was easy to get wrapped up in their own story, particularly when the team spent so much time communicating with each other. Volz questioned explanations that the students might have considered obvious, and the students took her feedback seriously.
Arango said, “Dr. Volz’s input was critical to our success in presenting our work. Telling our narrative also improved when we worked with mentors from the Liu Lab for Innovation and Engineering at Rice. We reached out to them after the senior design class ended when we were applying to external competitions.”
After graduation, Arango wanted to expand on her design background. She joined End to End User Research where she helped clients improve the user experience (UX) for their own customers. She learned to build relationships with clients, design and run UX research studies, and turn observations into insights.
This time, her communication skills focused on listening to users. To do so, Arango said it is important to first understand a client’s core motivation for research. “Why do they care about this problem or product? What are they trying to learn from users?”
“Collecting product usability information from clients or potential customers spans different types of interactions, such as interviews and actual product tests. How can we conduct these exercises without introducing bias?
“We cannot be married to our questions because we need the flexibility to follow up on what the user says. We have to be willing to ask why, not just jot down their response and move on to the next question.”
Arango said UX researchers can identify patterns emerging across individual user conversations and across multiple interviews, then adapt their questions. If a user starts to describe something mentioned by several previous users, this is the time to consider how to get more insight into that experience.
“We also pay close attention to nonverbal communication,” said Arango. “If I am in a usability study and they look frustrated navigating the prototype, that is a cue. If I ask them to do something and they pause or sigh, that’s another cue. Picking up on those cues, I would ask why they hesitated or why they chose a particular action.
“But we have to hold our questions until they’ve taken action. It is tricky not to speak while we observe. We wait until the end and then ask them to explain their thought process, particularly if they move outside of the area we expected them to explore,” she said.
As much as she enjoyed helping End to End clients improve their products and better satisfy their users, Arango’s thoughts continually returned to interdisciplinary design. She began to research master’s degree programs that could lead to UX design work at the intersection of technology and health.
“I was looking for a graduate program in integrated innovation, and the MIIPS at Carnegie Mellon University is a perfect fit,” she said.
“We study how to scope, develop, and realize ideas from an integrated team perspective. The program directors have assembled a cohort of business students, designers, and engineers; together, we are all taking classes on concepts such as design thinking, Internet of things, product design, and business strategy. It is so much fun to leverage our different skill sets to create innovative solutions.”
This article was originally published for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.