Interaction designer puts people at the heart of tech

19 Feb 2016

Dr Nora O’Murchú

Technology allows us to create in new ways, but encouraging that creativity is not one-size-fits all, says Dr Nora O’Murchú.

Where would we be without technology? Or, to look at it another way, where would technology be without us? Digital designer and curator Dr Nora O’Murchú’s research, design and practice takes a sharp look at how humans engage with technology and the factors that help or hinder us to create with it.

Tech enabling creativity and design

Making is not a new sport, but with hardware, software and information at our fingertips, there’s a growing confidence in creating and the maker movement, says O’Murchú, a researcher at the Interaction Design Centre in the University of Limerick.

“There is more information and more people are sharing – this has got to do with open-source movements and being able to go online and search for things,” she says. “That is a fundamental shift, in that wouldn’t have been in place, say, 20 years ago.”

People are now able to look up a video on YouTube to help them create a piece of artistic work, or they might find an online platform itself is a great canvas.

“User-generated content platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Facebook, they have contributed to the way that people actively create spaces, they appropriate them, they make them their own, and it is not just about doing things for the sake of doing things, I think people get enjoyment and self-fulfillment from a lot of these practices too.”

Tech shaping lives

Through her own practice, O’Murchú directly explores how technology shapes our lives. For a recent Resonate exhibition in Serbia, she developed The New Black, a short sci-fi story reflecting and speculating on the future of work. “I was looking at how, on the one hand, digital platforms are being more and more commoditised by various different commercial companies, and then, on the other hand, there is an open-source movement,” explains O’Murchú. “These conflicting forces create new types of conditions that make up where we live, so I am interested in how these conflicting structures basically shape the social and physical structures we are living in.”

People power engineering

O’Murchú started out her studies in electronic and computer engineering and worked as an engineer for a short time before she felt a need to expand.

“I realised there was something missing for me, so I went back and did fashion design for a year. Then in the University of Limerick they were offering a course in interactive media – how users are the centre of any design process and how you might use technology to design in ways that support or empower the user.”

Putting the user centre stage was the missing piece of the jigsaw for O’Murchú, who went on to do a PhD at UL and now directs the Digital Media Design undergraduate programme there. “That was the fundamental thing that was missing for me in my engineering, the engagement with people.”

Growing the spark

In her research, O’Murchú has examined ways to facilitate people to create with technology, and she argues it is not a one-size-fits-all approach, it’s about finding the person’s interests and needs and engaging from there.

“It’s all about understanding the people themselves, seeing their fundamental interest and the kinds of skillsets that they have,” she says.

To illustrate the point, O’Murchú recalls running a workshop for girls on creating wearable technology and that one girl was particularly good on the technology side. “Her talent with the technology blew me away but she needed to learn to sew in order to do wearables, so the trick was giving her the right access to materials, demonstrating tricks and tips and pointing her to resources after the workshop where she could learn more stuff herself,” she says.

“Fundamentally, the answer is about understanding people and then technology is one of several means you can provide a really interesting solution for them.”

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Intel, Open Eir (formerly Eircom Wholesale), Fidelity Investments, Accenture and CoderDojo.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication