Dr Larissa Pschetz

University of Edinburgh, Lecturer in Design Informatics and Programme Director of Product Design (BA Hons)

Tell us about your background and journey to your current role
My background is in interaction design. I started studying industrial design and moved to interface and interaction design later on. After finishing my studies, I worked for museums, design agencies and companies, and ended up working for IBM Research, where I got more interested in the role of design in research. I loved the freedom researchers had to define their own challenges and how to tackle them. I then decided to do a PhD and was accepted for one of the first PhDs in Design sponsored by Microsoft Research, which was between Microsoft Research Cambridge, the University of Dundee and the University of Edinburgh. I had the opportunity to work in several places around the world including Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing and really had a lot of fun. I became a lecturer in Design Informatics soon after defending my thesis in 2015, and have been at the University of Edinburgh since then, where I teach and lead a few research projects.

Tell us about a typical day at work – what subject does your department specialise in?
Apart from several meetings, there isn’t much of a typical day at work! We have waves of work that come and go with students and research grants. In Design Informatics we look at how people interact and understand data, how this affects economic and societal values, and what are the opportunities and risks of data-driven services and products. I’m particularly interested in making ideas and questions tangible, through prototypes that address some aspect of data-driven innovation. In the summer, we focus more on research, including writing papers and funding applications, we supervise master theses, PhDs and plan courses for the following year. I have a few researchers working with me and try to make sure I catch up with them on a regular basis so that we stay on track to reach major milestones and deadlines.

What is your vision for data innovation and the Data-Driven Innovation programme at the University?
My vision is for the programme to be critical as much as innovative. There is quite a lot of excitement around data-driven technologies, but there is also the flip side of potentially disregarding the effect of these technologies on people, and society more broadly, particularly in the long term. My vision is for the programme to involve people in the process of innovation and look for ways to allow them to discuss and make informed decisions on how these systems will be integrated in their lives.

How would you describe design informatics to an alien? How does it fit with data science and the City Region Deal?
To an alien I would say that there is this incredibly powerful species, the homo sapiens or simply “humans”, we are spread all over the world, and are quite different, but overall we think we are really clever and have been spending most of our time creating machines that do almost everything for us. There are quite a lot of things we don’t understand though. Many of us don’t understand the machines that were built by other humans. Nowadays, even those who build these machines don’t quite understand how they operate as they are built to be autonomous. That can be a problem, as we want to be able use and control and live in harmony with these machines. In Design Informatics we try to make sure machines are usable and helpful to everyone. For that, we try to understand what makes people use these machines, particularly how it relates to human values, which are a complex mix of principles that change from place to place and govern decision-making. We also try to understand the impact of these machines on different levels of human and non-human existence in the short and long term.
Answering your second question I think I could say that Design Informatics looks at the interface between data science and people, how people understand and interact with data which I understand as being at the core of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.

What are you particularly passionate about in your work? What are you proud of?
I’m fascinated by people’s idiosyncrasies, how they make sense of things and find reasons to use or not use a particular technology. These reasons often relate to socio-economic factors but also to emotional aspects and a wish to connect to others, which are very different from assumptions developers often have of people as rational beings. I am very proud of the work that my team has been developing over the last years, the beautiful prototypes we created and our attitude of openness towards those who test them.

Do you work with any interesting data sets, technologies, tools or analysis techniques you’d like to talk about?
In my team, we observe tendencies in technology and try to extrapolate data to draw attention to potential impacts in the future. It is often easier to discuss an emergent technology when people can experience it, so we make sure we build prototypes that people can test in their daily lives, even if the data is just a model of what the real data could be like. Recently, my team and I have worked with projections of energy availability and how it would fluctuate with increased numbers of so-called ‘prosumers’. We have also looked at agricultural data in the Caribbean and how to better match supply and demand. Other lecturers in Design Informatics have been running projects on autonomous transport networks, digital money and integration of data in creative practice.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for women and girls in data fields? What would you like to see change?
I think there is a long way for us to reach equality of gender in more technical areas, especially in leadership roles. I think the way boys and girls are brought up is often biased towards technical and social fields. I read that the difference in treatment starts in the womb, and then boys role-play engineer roles and girls pretend to be mums. Although much is changing, I still think that women tend to be brought up to look first at the interests of the group rather than their own, and to be less assertive. Instead of talking about men and women I prefer to talk about rewarding nurturing traits. I would like to see leaders acknowledged for their consideration to others rather than for imposing themselves or winning over competition, to see males and females equally committed to childcare. I think that would help to promote equality of gender in both male and female dominated areas.

What would you recommend to women and girls who’d like to be you and do what you’re doing?
I would say stay true to yourselves, don’t follow narratives of what you should or should not do, and go on acting in ways that feel natural and right to you. I think there are many narratives around success that are not contributing to support alternatives modes of being.

Do you have a hero/heroine?
Not sure I have a heroine, but some female writers deeply influenced me. Virginia Woolf, Elena Ferrante and Maya Angelou are names that stand out.

What does the future hold for your field – and for you?
I think researchers in my field are increasingly concentrating on artificial intelligence and autonomous services and machines, mostly from a practical perspective, but many understand the risks that may come with loss of control. I think this will have a huge impact in the future, and we ought to look at autonomous systems from a human perspective. I’m particularly interested in the impact that this may have on those who live at the periphery of Western narratives of progress, so I hope to get enough funds to do more work in this area in the future.

Image of Dr Larissa Pschetz
Picture by Lesley Martin, interview by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

I am very proud of the work that my team has developed, the beautiful prototypes and our attitude of openness towards those who test them

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