Dr Bettina Nissen

Lecturer in Interaction Design, University of Edinburgh

Tell us about your background and journey to your current role
I’m originally from Germany and I studied Interior Architecture and Furniture Design at the University of Art and Design in Halle, Germany. After graduating and moving to Newcastle, I moved into product design as freelance designer building a small business of selling my own design products nationally and internationally to shops, galleries and museums. My career has never been very strategic and what now feels like a distinct new chapter in my life simply started off with an idea and a chance conversation. I was looking for collaborators to work on a project idea and instead ended up applying for and being offered an AHRC-funded PhD position in interaction design and Human Computer Interaction at Newcastle University. After 3 years of learning to speak academia again and developing a research focus, I was lucky enough to end up with a post-doc position here in Edinburgh working with Prof Chris Speed in Design Informatics who I had previously met at conferences. My current permanent position as Lecturer in Interaction Design here at Edinburgh College of Art resulted from the two previous post-doc projects I’ve successfully lead in Design Informatics but also my publication record from my PhD, teaching experience and my creative data making practice.

Tell us about a typical day at work – what projects are you working on at the moment?
My typical day can vary quite a lot and is luckily never the same. As a creative practitioner, I like the change and challenges of working on different research projects, teaching on different courses, writing papers and creatively exploring new ideas and concepts. As lecturer and during term times, I plan, organise and teach on the Design Informatics (MA/MSc) programme and the Product Design (BA) programme which involves developing new and exciting course material that is critically looking at future trends, technologies and challenges we will face as designers and in society.
I’m also currently working on a series of research projects, also quite varied. I am still overseeing my previous post-doc project, PACTMAN – an EPSRC-funded project investigating trust, privacy and consent models in future pervasive environments. Another project focuses on developing a modular kit for dynamic and tangible data visualisations while the other, Crypto Knitting, is looking at feminist economics in relation to block chain and cryptocurrencies, which is super cool!
So very varied days and a lot of juggling but generally my practice and research interests focus on using tangible materials to engage audiences with complex technologies or data in playful, provocative and experiential ways.

What is your vision for data innovation and the DDI programme, if you have one?
While I’m not directly involved in the DDI programme but as educator in Design Informatics, I believe data innovation should form a strong basis to empower citizens and general publics, shifting the data power (im)balances away from large co-operations towards smaller creative industries and data literate citizens. With the current socio-political developments around the world, technology and data play a huge role in how we are influenced and how we move forward. There is a real responsibility that we, as designers, technologists and data scientists, need to take into account to create fairer, non-biased and empowering systems.

What are you particularly passionate about in your work?
I’m excited by new materials and the increasingly merging of digital technologies with physical and tangible realities. While algorithms for machine learning or artificial intelligence are becoming increasingly mainstream topics in the media, they remain highly complex and opaque for most people to understand. I’m interested in the possibilities that materials and making practices have to open up such black boxes and move away from screens to raise awareness around data and its impact on society, the individual and social by making data tangible.

Do you work with any interesting data sets, technologies or analysis techniques you’re working with?
I get to work with different materials and digital fabrication technologies such as 3D printers, laser cutters, physical computing such as Arduinos and a range of sensors. Although data is often understood as inherently digital, my increasing understanding of data is focused on the embedded nature of data in our daily lives and practices. Data is not as abstract as it is often portrayed and still represents human action, behaviours and real people. I am working with materials to represent data as data physicalisations or tangible data experiences aiming to bring data into more accessible spaces for data novices and general publics.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for women and girls in your field? What would you like to see change?
Especially in a still fairly male dominated tech environment it can be challenging as a woman to be taken seriously or to be seen as an expert. In particular areas or events relating to cryptocurrency or blockchain are often very male and can seem intimidating. While there are increasingly more meetups and groups for women and girls who are interested in technology and programming, I believe not just education but societal and cultural perceptions of male/female professions and gendered stereotypes need to be further demolished. This is a wider societal issue that seems to trickle through to a wide range of STEM-based (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) subjects and confidence. However, I think online education is really good these days and if you want to learn something, you can find many resources online.
I have been very lucky with the supervisors and colleagues I have worked with in my academic career. However, there is unfortunately still an often sexist, patriarchal structure in place at university, both conscious or unconscious, which needs to be further challenged to allow for everyone’s voices to be heard and believed equally, especially in positions of power, you know such as supervisor vs student, there remain to be issues.

Is there anything you would recommend to women and girls who’d like to do what you’re doing?

Well, before I make any recommendations, I’d like to of course acknowledge my own privileged background as white, cis woman from a middle-class family background with no serious or chronic physical nor mental health issues… I have had the opportunity to go to university in Germany without racking up debts (back in the day) and was able to do and complete my PhD thesis, although it was definitely a challenge.
I can’t recommend a PhD to everyone, although it is very interesting and helpful for a full-time academic career and it has definitely helped me to get where I am now but it also involves great personal effort and commitment to writing. Generally, I would suggest learning how to be a good designer (beyond a degree) always takes reflection, criticality and continuous personal development. I am a perfectionist (for better or worse), paying attention to detail and knowing when to let go are just as important as finding your own creative voice.
Generally, be open to new directions. I never had a set or strategic career path and all of my experiences have formed where I am today. Find the right people who see your potential and will support you (not everyone will). Be true to your ideas and creativity (even if that means accepting other jobs to pay the bills but keep doing your thing). Be curious and creative. Be outspoken and make your opinions heard (if you can).

Do you have a fun fact about yourself to share?
I still play Pokemon Go and I inline skated a marathon in 2002. I did an apprenticeship as accountant and an internship at a carpentry! I hope that is all fun.

Wow! So much fun!

Image of Dr Bettina Nissen
Bettina Nissen, interviewed by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

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