People are being failed by technology every day. Dr Anusha Withana spoke to Engineering Heroes about his work in ensuring the individual’s needs are at the centre of every technology that is created. But with millions of people around the world, how is this even possible?
Because when all individual person is at the centre of design…
“that’s like changing … a disability to … superhuman ability”
Anusha is one of the 2020 Most Innovative Engineers.
Extra discussions during the episode
Future: Anusha believes that the user is going to become more central to technology development
we would have to really be in touch with user’s needs and the ethical practices
Advice: Be humble…
don’t assume you are a user yourself and you know what’s best for the user
I think that is probably one of the things that has transformed whole society
Leonardo Da Vinci
I really like that he’s a great artist. And an engineer.
Anusha Withana is an ARC DECRA fellow and a lecture at the School of Computer Science, the University of Sydney.
He received his Masters (2010) and PhD (2014) from Keio University, Japan. He works in the research field of human-computer interaction (HCI), mainly focusing on creating Blended Interactive Systems, where technology blend and harmonize with users and the environment leveraging on natural affordances of the context. Before Keio University, he graduated from the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka with a BSc (Hons.) degree in Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering in 2007. His research work has been published in top tier HCI conferences and journals such as ACM SIGCHI, ACM UIST, ACM DIS, ACM Augmented Human, International Journal of Computers in Entertainment, IEEE Wireless Personal Communications, etc.
He has won numerous awards and honours including Most Promising Technology Award: zSense at InnovfestunBound 2016 organized by NUS, Best Paper Silver Award for ImpAct at in ACE2010 at Taipei.
His research projects have featured in leading public media outlets such as CNN, Discovery TV, Straits Times, Gizmodo and Engadget.
And in 2020 he was recognised on the 30 Most Innovative Engineers list.
This is a “close” copy of the words that were spoken during the Podcast, Season 4 Episode 10
It is not 100% accurate.
The guest was Anusha Withana
Anusha: [00:00:00] I actually thought it is cool to not put things back together. I love circuits sticking out from the audio system, this is how it looked back home back then.
[00:00:11]Mel or Dom: [00:00:11] I like that, sort of like, a deconstructed hot chocolate or deconstruct the coffees. These are the parts that make up the whole
[00:00:18] Anusha: [00:00:18] Yeah.
[00:00:20] Mel or Dom: [00:00:20] recorder, things like that. Okay. And I’m just curious, why didn’t you go into something like science then?
[00:00:29] Anusha: [00:00:29] I think, okay. That’s a good question because I think I didn’t really see the distinction growing up. I didn’t see what is the difference between science and engineering. To me, it was the same thing. You know, you understand how things work and you build new things. This is what I felt.
[00:00:44]Mel or Dom: [00:00:44] Okay. Oh, that’s very interesting. So what was the first project you worked on once you finished your engineering degree?
[00:00:52]Anusha: [00:00:52] before I finished my undergrad degree, the one of the requirements of the degree is to have an internship. This is in third year into the degree. That’s where I think probably my first paid engineering job. I was in a telecommunication company and they wanted to build two reports.
[00:01:11] And this is part of my job how to make these reports on a traffic on different networks. And I probably dead boring because you have to do everything in Excel. So me and one of my friends who we actually did the internship together and we built a system that automatically generate this report.
[00:01:30] And so we just kind of like brought you to your pen to other stuff while this is automatically generated. So that was the.
[00:01:38] Mel or Dom: [00:01:38] I’m surprised you didn’t put yourself out of a job then.
[00:01:42] Anusha: [00:01:42] I interestingly, they hired me after I graduated. This was my first professional job as well, because they hired me because I contributed to that project.
[00:01:52]Mel or Dom: [00:01:52] Oh, that’s interesting. And so is that, did you take up that job?
[00:01:56] Anusha: [00:01:56] Yes, I did. I worked as a network planning engineer for almost a year before going into higher education.
[00:02:04]Mel or Dom: [00:02:04] so I’m assuming you weren’t doing boring spreadsheets when you officially went onto their payroll. So what sort of things were you doing after you finished the internship?
[00:02:15]Anusha: [00:02:15] so I was part of the team that was designing the next generation backend systems for mobile networks. So back then, this was like 2007/8 and 3G. 4G was not there 4G was still in testing 3G was the big thing. And we were changing the whole backend from what is called a switch, a circuit switch system to packet switch systems.
[00:02:41] Engineers would understand that this is more like a very hardware based switching system to soft switching system, which is now they use everywhere. I think.
[00:02:51]Mel or Dom: [00:02:51] as an engineer, straight out of university, what was your role in that project?
[00:02:55]Anusha: [00:02:55] Right. So my role was to find new technologies. What is the best technology out there to replace this old system with the new system? While it is very interesting It’s as an engineer I, didn’t design something. I didn’t develop a new technology, rather than I was looking at different technologies.
[00:03:12] This is probably why, uh, it kind of compels me to also go into higher education as well, but it was very exciting to look at all the technical achievements other engineers make and to select one from all things out there.
[00:03:26] Mel or Dom: [00:03:26] Yeah, it sounds like you started your journey to where you are now by doing all that research, putting that research hat on. And so why don’t you talk a bit about where you are now?
[00:03:38]Anusha: [00:03:38] Yeah. I’m currently a lecturer and an ARC DECRA fellow. It’s a research fellowship , and I work in the University of Sydney at the school of computer science. so basically a researcher and educator.
[00:03:51] I work in this highly interdisciplinary research area called human computer interaction or HCI in short. So, we are looking at how people use technology, how people interact with technology and how to make technology better. This is a very big problem nowadays. I mean, uh, let me ask you this , maybe we change roles! How many times during last week where you frustrated with using some piece of technology?
[00:04:20]Mel or Dom: [00:04:20] A lot.
[00:04:21]Anusha: [00:04:21] A lot. Yeah, me too. Yeah. It’s a shared experience. Just know, actually, before we record this, I was trying to connect the Bluetooth microphones to my computer and it was really frustrating. So this is a big challenge in , the kind of research I do. I look at how to better understand users and how to make technologies that fits user needs.
[00:04:46] That works best for users rather than the way engineers think that how technology should work. This is the kind of like the umbrella research area, but particularly I work in enabling technology and healthcare. So this is where it get really critical and very challenging.
[00:05:06] So imagine someone with a physical disability, right.
[00:05:09] What we do right now is that there is a system or piece of technology that is designed for everybody and we bring it to them and ask, Hey, here’s a piece of technology that might help you to learn how to use it, or behave the way that the technology is required. I think this is wrong. I think it should be the other way around and we should go to the people with that need and understand what unique abilities they have rather than looking at their disabilities. That’s the kind of research I’m trying to do at least try to achieve.
[00:05:44]Mel or Dom: [00:05:44] So is the work you’re doing, acting as a bridge between the users and the manufacturers. Is that sort of where you’re placed at the moment, or is it more along the lines of, you’re actually looking at creating the solutions that then can be manufactured in the future?
[00:06:00] Anusha: [00:06:00] Actually it’s mix of both. Plus also could be a little bit different as well. So I’m actually trying to get users themselves involved in the design process, also the manufacturing process actually, rather than getting users ideas and bringing it to a manufacturer.
[00:06:20]I want to bring manufacturing and design, everything to the user. It sounds a little bit farfetched. So what we are trying to do is build technologies that help people themselves build things.
[00:06:35] Is this too complicated? Like, yeah.
[00:06:40] Mel or Dom: [00:06:40] I’m going to kind of throw out an example here possibly, but let me know if I’m completely off the Mark. So our kids love a TV show called Operation Ouch. And it’s all about kids who get sick and go to hospital and doctors see them.
[00:06:54] It’s nothing usually too bad, but one kid, he didn’t have a hand or an arm or something like that. And because he’s growing so rapidly, they couldn’t really afford constantly upgrading his prosthetic limb. And so his father got a 3D machine and taught himself to make this hand component for him.
[00:07:16] And so he was able to constantly update and manufacturer he’s son’s prosthetic. Is that what you’re talking about? Like kind of making them aware that they can do this with 3D printer for instance, and make their own component, or are you talking something a bit more hardcore?
[00:07:34]Anusha: [00:07:34] No, that’s, that’s exactly what it is that I want to steal this story because it is so good. That’s exactly what it is. I think it’s a perfect example. So how somebody who is with the need that is also changing over time, right? So rather than buying things again and again, imagine that you have these 3D printing and all this, do it yourself technology, which is very hot at the moment.
[00:07:58] You can assemble things. We can fit things together at home. And not only that, it will function the way you want. If this is something you are going to wear in your daily activities, it better fit who you are. Right. I mean, you should be able to kind of it personalize it
[00:08:15] Mel or Dom: [00:08:15] Oh, yeah. The colors that they did for his son were like, he was like, this is a colorful one and this is like the purple one. And,
[00:08:24] Anusha: [00:08:24] Yeah, this is transitioning from a disability to kind of like a superhuman ability, right? I mean, I cannot change the color of my hand or I cannot change the Way that my hand works, depending on different things I do. Right. there is really amazing research in this area. Like if you can change your hand to fit, like if you’re climbing.
[00:08:48] You can change it to a claw, something that grabs better, right? That’s, that’s like changing from a disability to kind of like superhuman ability and you can do it. you have a say in how the technology is made or you are in the process of designing it, you have that say, and as engineers, we are terrible at understanding these things.
[00:09:08]engineers sometimes assume that we know what the user needs. And I think this is a mistake.
[00:09:20] We are terrible at figuring out what is the best ideal solution or the need of the user. It’s nothing wrong, we are really creative people and we can create amazing technologies, but when it comes to users, sometimes we have to actually go to them and see what they want.
[00:09:37] so I think one of the major challeng es engineering face today is how to design a system, for people with special needs. People who needs things like enabling technologies, people with disabilities, people with health issues there. Some people won’t have to wear special equipment in their day to day lives and they have very special needs and technology is designed for everybody.
[00:10:04] At the moment, and this is failing because there is a real mismatch between what users expect technology to do. And uh, what the technology itself doing. And this is one of the major reasons why technology is abundant, meaning like. People kind of give up even sometimes lifesaving technology, right?
[00:10:26] They need the sensor to monitor their heart to make sure that nothing serious happens but they don’t like to wear it because it doesn’t fit their requirements. So I am looking at how to personalized technology to fit unique needs of individuals, rather than building things at a manufacturing plant and asking users to use it out of the box.
[00:10:51] Mel or Dom: [00:10:51] Is it something like that. You’re finding with the manufacturers where it’s a case of one size fits all and they, they’re not willing to move. It’s like, here you go. You’ve got this. And it’s that whole actually Henry Ford sort of scenario, you can have it in any color you want, as long as it’s black, does that seem to be the model at the moment with a lot of equipment or that the manufacturer is just not coming around.
[00:11:13]Anusha: [00:11:13] I think it’s not an attitude problem, but it is more like a financial and economical problem. Right? it doesn’t scale that well, so that’s why we need this transformative technology that kind of build this mini factories at home. This is actually becoming reality very fast. now 3D printers and printed electronics. And this, this is like really close to home. It’s very affordable. And it’s becoming ubiquitous. So that will change this whole notion of manufacturing, how it is done today will not be the way it is done in the future. some of it will still be manufactured, but at least there will be components that are fitted at home.
[00:11:58]Mel or Dom: [00:11:58] So what’s the problem here. What’s the challenge for engineers.
[00:12:02] Anusha: [00:12:02] I think the main challenge is that engineers often think that we know what the user needs, and we actually go into assume sometimes this is a terrible mistake that I am also a user. So I know how the system should work. This is bad because if we are designing this system, we know more about the system and we are looking from the systems perspective, but users are not. This creates a Gulf between how users expect something to work and actually how the system works.
[00:12:38] one of the central themes of my research is called user centered design.
[00:12:42] Where users are integrated in the part of the design and development of a system from the very beginning to the very end. So at the end of the day, the design of the system is entangled with the user and this is how you get the best possible user experience at the end. And to make really usable systems that are rooted in the users requirements rather than the way I understand an engineer or design to understand the user.
[00:13:13]Mel or Dom: [00:13:13] So what are the sort of solutions that you’ve been looking at to be able to help people, help engineers actually integrate that design?
[00:13:22]Anusha: [00:13:22] So there are so many different ways that this kind of problems are address one of the key areas I’m looking at is called co-design, which is kind of short for corporative design. So I look at how to create technologies that help users and the engineers and the designers all play a part in the design process and the development of a system or the technology that We are developing. very interesting because I mean, once the users are involved, you have this very close understanding and interrelationship and another advantage is users feel kind of ownership of the eventual product that comes out. Right? And this produce the system that they needed in the first place. So this is one of the approaches that I follow and also working with users very closely from the very beginning.
[00:14:17] Right? So there are methods like ethnographic approaches where you would, uh, let’s say you’re developing something to be used in a farming environment before you design, you would go and work in the farm and get that experience and understand the user. Very deeply. Right. Very intimately.
[00:14:34] And wouldn’t you imagine that that would create a really fantastic product rather than you design it in your office or in your cubicle. Right? This is so it is very nuanced. This is what the engineering thinking is very exact, very precise mathematical, whereas the user is very nuance. Often when we talk about user centered design, people think that you would go to the user and ask, okay, what do you want?
[00:15:02] This is also not going to work most of the time because users doesn’t know what they want. They know what their needs. And what are their pain points? So it is our role or the designers role to actually understand what need to be made, based on that needs and pain points.
[00:15:24]Mel or Dom: [00:15:24] if it’s a case so that sometimes the user doesn’t understand what they really need either. And it’s one of those things where I. I’m in project management and there’s a cartoon all these images of a tree with a swings and they’re all very wrong looking.
[00:15:43] And one of them’s like, this is what the user asks for, and this is what the engineer understood. And this is what the project manager thought it would look like. And they’re all different images. And then they vary and it’s like, this is what the user really wanted. And it was a tire on a rope, under a tree swinging from a tree.
[00:15:58]But they couldn’t obviously throughout the process, no one understood that that’s what the user wanted. So how do you ensure that you get that tyre? That rope swing?
[00:16:08]Anusha: [00:16:08] Right. that’s great because this is one of the images I use in my slides when I teach,
[00:16:14] Mel or Dom: [00:16:14] I think it gets used quite a bit. Yeah.
[00:16:17] Anusha: [00:16:17] because it is, it is a really good example. So this is why in the sense that when you do user center design it’s an iterative process. So you do schedules, you do ideations, you come up with different alternative solutions and you bring back to the user and ask… does it make sense? is this something going to be yeah, useful. So you’ll get very early feedback. So it’s a cyclic process that you develop it together. That’s why it is so good compared to most of the others system. I mean, It’s very good to work with users and iteratively refine your project and design. And through iterative evaluations also, you can get even imperical evaluations of your designs and refine it along the way. So this saves a lot of money. So imagine you do design and develop this a tyre swing thing, and a final product is nothing that user wanted, right?
[00:17:14] So you invested all your time, the project managers, the designers, and the engineers, and also the material and the cost of development, labor. And then this is not what the user wanted, but if you do it along the way, this iterative approach to a product actually fits what the user needs and you save a lot of time and you save a lot of money, so that’s why it is very popular.
[00:17:38] Mel or Dom: [00:17:38] It’s amazing. Cause everything has an evolutionary process in regards to it hits market. And then the version keeps continually evolving too. Yeah. You keep refining things, but if you can refine it faster with the person who is actually going to use it, it’s I can imagine that economically it’s going to be a far, far better results straightaway.
[00:17:59]it really short circuits, the traditional systems in regards to just putting something together and putting it on market and then finding out whether or not people actually want that in the first place.
[00:18:09] Anusha: [00:18:09] Yeah. So in, in this kind of design processes, the very first prototypes you make is with either paper. So you draw things on paper and test it, , or you make things with clay, for example, So this is very cheap, but you can get very good user feedback. Users will look at it and say, Oh, I want to do this, but I don’t see a button drawn here to do that.
[00:18:33] Right. you fix it at the very beginning, this saves, as you said, though, a lot of money and energy and frustration at the end.
[00:18:42] Mel or Dom: [00:18:42] I love what you’re saying earlier as well, in regards to, if the engineers are immersed in the problem, then that also helps to drive the solution much better. It’s so important for say engineers in the building services to be able to get onto a site so they can actually see what it’s like for the trades when they’re installing things. Because I don’t think it’s truly until you’ve experienced the problem that you can actually solve the problem. So that feedback loop is so much quicker when you’re part of the loop, as opposed to sort of being on the outside, looking in.
[00:19:14] Anusha: [00:19:14] Yeah. Yeah, it is. you are more informed and you are more in touch with the real issues.
[00:19:22] Mel or Dom: [00:19:22] So, where do you see the the future of engineering going?
[00:19:28]Anusha: [00:19:28] I truly believe engineering is one of these professions that are not going to be replaced by any kind of machines. So we are safe. Yeah, we’re very creative and we will be in pretty high demand in future, but said that I think our profession is going to transform in future especially with the end users involvement, because society as a whole is dependent on technology a lot and it is going to grow more and more, right. It’s not a choice anymore. so when people depend on technology this much people are going to be aware of issues and problems that comes with technology like privacy, you know, ethical practices. So users are going to need a lot of Transparency in how the technology is made and they are going to need their say in the process and the way that, how we design things.
[00:20:25]I think this is one of the main areas, how engineering will be different in future where our users will play a big role and we would have to really be in touch with user’s needs and the ethical practices and all these things. and it is for good . I consider myself a technology optimist.
[00:20:44] I know some people think that doomsday is coming, but I think in generally technology has been a champion of the improving quality of life. Technology and science and medicine and everything, of course, but technology has played a big role. So I think this is going to be one of the major ways, engineering practices will change in future .
[00:21:04] Mel or Dom: [00:21:04] And so what would you say to people just starting out in engineering?
[00:21:08]Anusha: [00:21:08] I’m not sure I’m in a position to advise anybody, but if I say something, I would say, be humble know that you don’t know everything. Engineers are really smart people. And we learned a lot about particular expertise and we think that we know everything but it is very eyeopening to realize that we don’t know everything.
[00:21:31] And especially to listen to your users, don’t assume you are a user yourself and you know what’s best for the user. So that’s probably my advice.
[00:21:40] Mel or Dom: [00:21:40] I like that, even like that be humble because even if you are a user, you’re not all users, so you won’t know everyone’s journey as such, and you always need to go in and consult those users and take those people
[00:21:58] opinions on board and things. So it comes back to what you were saying that you always involve the user.
[00:22:03] So if you go in assuming, you know, what the user is going to say or what user wants, just because you’re human as well, and you’re designing for another human, I liked that key that you need to recognize that you don’t know every single person in the world and you can’t design for every person in the world.
[00:22:21] Cause they’re all different. So
[00:22:23] Anusha: [00:22:23] Yeah. Yeah. I think, I think you put it better than I could,
[00:22:26] Mel or Dom: [00:22:26] No,
[00:22:27] Anusha: [00:22:27] yeah,
[00:22:30]Mel or Dom: [00:22:30] Now what’s a piece of engineering that’s impressed you?
[00:22:33]Anusha: [00:22:33] I think so many things, but if I had to pick something, I would pick the internet, because that has enabled so many things, especially the freedom of information, right? Imagine amid this COVID-19 virus. If we didn’t have internet, what it would be like . A lot of people really think of internet is for wasting time.
[00:22:56] But it is the major, most powerful information source. And I myself, when I want to learn something, I mean, you can. You can learn so many things that somebody who went to the best universities in the world couldn’t learn 50 years ago because of the internet. Right? I mean the rate, the science progress, like all the publications out there, most of them are openly available.
[00:23:20] So I think that is probably one of the things that has transformed whole society.
[00:23:27]Mel or Dom: [00:23:27] I was just thinking the other day, it’s like, wow, if we lost the internet, I wouldn’t be able to play any music and we wouldn’t be able to watch any movies because everything we watch is streamed and all our music now is like, we listen through Spotify or iTunes or whatever.
[00:23:42] So it’s like, Oh my God, I’d lose all that stuff and yeah, it just, it was actually a little bit terrifying, but it’s also saying it’s the ultimate reference library too. Cause even I, I actually was only thinking about it a couple of days ago when I was switched computers. So I’ve moved on to a new computer and there was some glitches going on in regards to a program that I put on and you just sort of can go to Google or on search engines instead of typing the rough parameters. And next thing you know, there’s usually a how to rectify the problem, which never like if the internet before the internet was around there was no way in hell you would ever be able to work that out. You would have has to go and IT specialist… , or try and find a book that actually covered off that topic, whereas it doesn’t matter.
[00:24:34] And you can be so specific and there’s still reams and reams of information in regards to how you do things. That’s the thing I love about it is it is it’s just like having Encyclopedia Britannica, you know, on steroids that you’re
[00:24:48] Anusha: [00:24:48] Yeah,
[00:24:49] Mel or Dom: [00:24:49] for whatever you need.
[00:24:52] Anusha: [00:24:52] I’d say, yeah, my brother actually figure out, problems in his car. Through internet. Like when you go take it to the mechanic, they cannot figure it out. But you type in the issue and this is the sound that it makes the noise. It makes right. You can use it, replace it in, it works.
[00:25:11] Mel or Dom: [00:25:11] just to finish up. Do you have an engineer that you admire?
[00:25:14]Anusha: [00:25:14] I think I admire a lot of engineers, especially my teachers and people that I know, but , I think if I have to say some , a name that other people can relate to, would be Da Vinci, because I think a lot of people don’t think him as an engineer, but I think engineers, all engineers in a way, believe that they are artists.
[00:25:37] I mean, we make new things. We are creative and I certainly, kind of like want to be artists. So I really like that he’s a great artist. And an engineer. He had really fantastic ideas in terms of engineering and mechanical things but at the same time, he was an artist and shows the creative spirit an engineer has.
[00:26:00] Mel or Dom: [00:26:00] That’s a wonderful way. We we’ve actually had DaVinci a few times, especially recently. And I just love the way that you’ve captured him just then. Know how you’ve related it back. So well, thank you so much for joining us today. Thanks for joining us.
[00:26:14] Anusha: [00:26:14] Thank you for having me. It was really fun. And I think I learned a lot listening to you, so that’s very good.
Thank you for listening to another episode of Engineering Heroes as we present the new dawn of engineering challenges for Engineers Australia. Your hosts have been Melanie and Dominic De Gioia.
You can view this episode’s show notes or learn more about our podcasts by visiting our website, www.engineeringheroes.com.au
If you’ve enjoyed today’s show, all we ask you to do is go and tell someone seriously, it’s that easy either in personal writer review, get the word out there.
We look forward to you joining us next week when we bring you another interview with one of our engineering champions.