Amy is a PhD Student from the Mixed Reality Laboratory in the School of Computer Science at The University of Nottingham, a Developer Advocate Intern at Samsung Internet, and Github Campus Expert. Amy spoke to me about creating more accessible audio applications, her presentation at ADC, and some ways employers can improve diversity and inclusion within the workplace. (Interview by Joshua Hodge)
Can you tell me how long you’ve been developing, and how you got started in development?
I’m actually pretty new to development, but have been doing music tech and audio engineering since my undergraduate degree, then moved into Computer Science for my PhD. In the last three years I’ve been doing research on human-computer interaction, and am now starting to do front-end web development. I’m also doing a lot of work around accessibility, mainly relating to the UI and audio specific applications.
Looking at your background online, I can see accessibility and user interaction have been an area of focus for you, can you tell me what intrigues you about these areas??
I’ve always been fascinated with exploring what tech can do to help more people interact with it, such as working with gesture sensors beyond their novelty. I’ve been looking at how we can incorporate them into practices so that a user with a mobility issue can utilize more aspects of digital instruments.
There are a lot of possibilities in technology in this area, but I feel they are rarely explored. I think that a lot of the time, once the novelty of a new gesture mapping or machine learning element within a digital instrument has worn off, these ideas aren’t taken to their full potential for accessibility. I’m researching into ways we can do that better.
I worked on an instrument based around accessibility a few years ago, and I was encouraged by experts within the field to build the instrument around one specific user, rather than a generalized approach. I’m wondering your thoughts on this?
There isn’t a “one size fits all” when it comes to accessibility. It’s about tailoring an instrument to suit a person’s abilities, rather than focusing on a catch-all disability. One of the things we found in trying to reach that common ground are giving options that a user can select to customize an instrument to their needs. For example, for the visually impaired, we may offer options such as scaling and high-contrast UIs.
Do you think that some type of universal system would help for this? This would be a challenge to integrate, but I’d imagine that with each plug-in developer there would be varying levels of knowledge about accessibility. Where can a developer go to build a knowledge base on making their plug-in more accessible?
I think there definitely needs to be some type of standard within the next couple of years. Something like this is in place for web development, but even in this area developers have created user experience elements which are based on assumptions, rather than on best practices for accessibility. Having some resources and guidelines would be a great start.
Let’s talk about your presentation for ADC, which is called “The UX of Audio Experiences.” Can you tell us a little about what that talk will entail?
I’m going to talk about user experience from a general point of view, and also from the accessibility standpoint. I’m going to talk a little about psycho-acoustic approaches to audio plug-ins- if you talk to any musician, DJ, or producer about audio, you will find minimizing latency is very important to them. I’m also going to talk a little about gestures, and how the way we design these gestures can greatly affect the way we interact with the application.
One thing that a lot of developers don’t realize is that when things look a certain way, the user expects it to behave a certain way. For instance, in voice applications, people expect the app to behave as if you’re talking to another person, but a problem is that many of these applications are hard-coded and non-responsive to the manner in which the user wants to interact. This can lead to an experience in which the user thinks the app pretty much sucks. We can learn about where the catch-points are for users, and ways we can start to make this experience better.
One theme I’ve heard you bring up a few times is adaptability. It seems that one challenge may be creating ways to make apps more responsive to how the user wants to use the app, rather than a statically created app which is designed to be used in a certain way.
Yes, and I think this is especially true for audio!
I imagine there must be a careful balance that needs to be handled between allowing the user to customize their user experience, yet still keeping some boundaries in place. Otherwise the user may be caught up in that set up process forever and never gets around to making any music?
I would say it’s important to have limited choice. Like you said, otherwise you end up every option available, then the user may never actually get around to making any music!
You’re a Campus Expert at Github. Can you tell me a little more about that?
In terms of the things I do for Github, I travel a lot, doing workshops in which I teach people how to use version control. I also teach technical workshops and do quite a bit of public speaking. I also handle forum moderation and writing technical blog posts and things like that!
I think what you’re doing right now is inspirational to a lot of people, and I’m wondering if you could give some advice to those that are looking to take a similar career path?
I think sometimes people struggle with the idea of where to start, and one of the best places to start is by joining a community, whether that’s your local student society, or maybe joining a meet-up group. It’s about connecting with a community and starting to build things that you enjoy, and maybe writing about them in a way that could help somebody else.
If you find that you’re head-butting your desk because something isn’t working in your code, and you find a fix, that’s something great that you can talk about because that is time saving information that people will go to. That’s a good way to get into this type of work.
Becoming part of a community is really key. A lot of the information that I learned was through the GitHub Campus Experts program. I was taught about how to do things like talk proposals, community management and slide design. That was really helpful. I also attended a lot of student hackathons. Hackathons are a great way to step into trying to develop something yourself.
Some people get intimidated at public events such as hackathons because they feel the need to hit the ground running and contribute, but I think it can be beneficial to even come and listen, even if you’re just getting started. What are your thoughts on that?
100 percent! Just getting through the door and taking part in the community is the best way to start, and there are plenty of people that come to hackathons that have never written a line of code before. They’re learning as they go along, and let’s face it- a hack isn’t meant to be a clean piece of code…it’s going to be a bit of a mess. It’s about working collaboratively and learning on the fly is part of that process.
I actually turned up to my first hackathon not knowing how to write a single line of code, and I’m really glad I just got through the door! I happened to meet someone who taught me about Arduino C and I started making a thing. By the end of the day I had something that worked, and that I had built from scratch myself. That made me feel so much better about my ability. In the past, I’ve spent a lot of time at home looking through documentation, and nothing works and I don’t know why, and that feeling of having people beside you that say, “Actually, don’t worry about it, everybody goes through that” really helps contribute to that learning process. It is hard to step through the door, but it is a great learning experience once you get in there.
What are your goals once you finish your PhD? Where do you see yourself going?
That’s a tricky one, because I’ve spent so much time on the PhD, thinking the goal is to finish it! I’m currently working with Samsung Internet as a Developer Advocate intern. I see that as a space I could continue being interested in for quite some time. Building better interactions is something that I would like to continue doing as well.
I also would like to continue to be an ambassador for women in tech and Women in STEM. Community focused work is really where I’m in my element- teaching, writing, talking…these are all things I’m doing with the hope that I’m helping the community!
You make me think of a great point about women in tech, and we’re doing what we can to increase the diversity and be as inclusive as possible at ROLI and ADC. What do you feel is a way that companies in general can increase diversity within their workforce and attendance, and are there any initiatives that you would like to see in companies that is currently missing?
I think one thing that is missing in general is the lack of role models, which is one of the big things missing in the technology industry. I can only speak for myself as a woman that’s been in audio engineering and in tech. In audio engineering I really struggled- I would show up and people wouldn’t think I was the engineer. People would comment on it, or ask me when the engineer was coming. It was hard because I realized people didn’t see me as an engineer and I never thought my gender would cause such a barrier but it did.
Championing the people that are within your company that do those things and putting them at the forefront is a big way to help. Trying to avoid tokenism is another one- if you’re one of only a few women at a conference or on a panel, it can be easy for it to look like you’re just there because you’re a woman. It’s important to see how underrepresented groups are integrated with conferences and events.
One of the recent things I’ve seen companies doing recently is that if there is an application process for a job, most of the personal details about the person are removed, and that anonymizes the process, so there are no biases from those doing the reviewing of the applications. There can be an unconscious bias in society, where we don’t think of women in certain roles, and that is one thing that can reflect in application processes.
I think that’s an intriguing idea! Removing some of that personal information could potentially help prevent subconscious or unconscious biases that the reviewing person may not even be aware of…
There is evidence that anonymising personal details increases hires when it comes to people with disabilities, along with more female hires in male dominated roles. I experienced this shift in thinking myself when applying to roles in audio engineering. In my applications, instead of putting my name as “Amy Dickens” I would put it as “A. Dickens,” and people would maybe assume I was “Andrew Dickens” (a male applicant). I would find that generally speaking, if I’d put my name as “A. Dickens,” I’d get calls back, but if I put “Amy Dickens,” I unfortunately wouldn’t. It shouldn’t be that way - we need to encourage everyone (of any gender identity) to challenge the status quo.
Well Amy, that’s been a real insight for me and I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you! Thank you for your time.
Thank you and see you at ADC!
Find out more about Amy here