E80: Julie Kientz, Assoc Professor in Human Centered Design & Engineering at U of Washington – Interview

December 8, 2016



This interview is all about improving the health of people through thoughtful technology design. This interview is with Julie Kientz. Julie is an Associate Professor in the department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington. There she directs the Computing for Healthy Living and Learning Lab.

She’s doing some incredible and important research, using tech to enhance health. What is especially interesting is how she thinks about integrating technology into people’s lives.

Her research focuses on understanding and reducing the burden technology often puts on people when trying to improve their health. She has worked on projects around helping individuals with sleep problems, parents of young children tracking developmental progress, individuals with visual impairments, people who want to quit smoking, and special education teachers working with children with autism. That’s pretty amazing.

Not to mention Julie has won a number of awards including MIT’s Technology Review 35 innovators under 35 in 2013. She has also received a Google Research Award.

Here are some other things we talk about:

-Did becoming a parent change how you think about integrating technology into parent’s lives?
-How do you come up with ideas and vet them?
-What projects you especially interested in now?


David Kruse: Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of Flyover Labs. This is Dave Kruse and today we get to talk to Julie Kientz. And Julie is an Associate Professor in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington. And there she directs the computing for healthy living and learning lab. So she is doing some pretty incredible and important research using tech to analyze and enhance health. So what I’m especially interested in is how she thinks about integrating technology into people’s lines. Her research focuses on understanding and reducing the burden technology often puts on people, while trying to improve their health. She works on projects around helping people with sleep problems, parents and young children tracking developmental progress, individuals with visual impairments, people who want to quit smoking and special education teachers working with children with autisms; so it’s pretty amazing, and not to mention Julie has won a number of awards, including MITs, technology review, 35 innovators under 35 in 2013 and she has also received a Google Research Award. So that’s enough, I’ll stop talking and Julie, thanks for coming on the show today.

Julie Kientz: No problem, thanks for having me.

David Kruse: Definitely. And so Julie, can you first tell us a little bit about your background, so we can get to know you before we kind of dive into what you are working on now?

Julie Kientz: Sure. So I started out in computer science, straight out of high school. I majored in Computer Science and kind of stuck through all the way through. I was pretty interested in it from – I really liked computers and the aspect of computers and how they were changing lives. You know I graduated high school in the late 90s, which is at the height of the tech com boom, so it seemed like a pretty great field to be in and I was just really excited about the prospects in technology. And then you know throughout that I kind of always had this desire to sort of use of my interest in technology and computers to then have an impact on peoples’ lives and so that really got me into the field of human computer interaction, which I discovered late in my under graduate program and I did a research project related to that and that got me excited about research in general and I applied to grad school to focus on doing research on human computer interaction.

David Kruse: Interesting, okay. And what prompted you and how did you get interested in that or was it a professor or is it something you read or is it an experience that you had?

Julie Kientz: Yeah, I had – my University of Toledo was where I went to my undergraduate and they had a Co-op program there that required all the students to do internship and one of my internship was actually a research internship at the University of California Barclay where I was introduced to the idea of Human Computer Interaction Research. I worked as a professor there and they – I was there at the time and was doing research on ambient displays, which are really cool ways of dealing with information overload and so the idea that you were blasted with all this information and ambient displays were a way of presenting the information to people in a way that was much more relaxing and calming. So I sort of had this moment of realization that technology can be used in the ways that can impact people and I see this direct impact that people have. And up until that point I was working for a lot of research or technology projects that were sort of more of a forfeit, more like backend sorts of things, such as different hardware, so that direct connection to people wasn’t as obvious until I got into the field of Human Computer Interaction. So I applied to grad school. I got accepted in Georgia Tech that basically focused on computer science that had a strong focus on human computer interaction and kind of never looked back and I’ve been really, really interested in say intersection between people and computers. All of my research has been around, how do we use technology in such a way to impact peoples’ lives and the best way I’ve been able to do that is working at the areas of health and education where I did my research. I started graduate school and through my – this is my ninth year as a faculty member.

David Kruse: And how did you – and that was – actually my next question was with human computer interaction. I imagine that can cross many different industries. Why do you choose health and education or what made you interested in that?

Julie Kientz: Yeah, it’s been a little bit of a personal thing for me. You know I always felt that, that was sort of the biggest impact. Even as a kid I was always sort of you know health and education are sort of the ways that we can make lives better and so it’s kind of a long term thing. I didn’t have sort of like any sort of personal sections or anything like that, but I felt that it was important to focus on. But when I was in graduate school my research advisor actually had two children with autism and he was really interested in a way that technology could support you know, children like his two sons with autism and I was really inspired by the way he sort of took the idea of technology and applied it in a way that were personally meaningful and so I kind of tried to do the same for me. I’ve done research in child development and kind of talking about in my sense I have two children of my own and so that’s how I got into that project. I’ve done things really into [inaudible] and something I thought was really important to me. And so thinking about the things that I have going on in my life and how I can use technology to sort of solve that problem and then think broadly in terms of how this can be solved for many different people in this world.

David Kruse: Interesting, yeah. Reading over your research and I have a child too, so quite fascinating, your opinions on some things, but we’ll wait till we get to those, because you know there is always how much do you expose your child or how do you – what’s the best way to expose them, and you have some really interesting studies too, but…

Julie Kientz: Yeah, that’s a cheat sheet for any parent, that’s for sure.

David Kruse: Yes. Yeah, I bet and you probably feel a little more pressure to make sure you get it right.

Julie Kientz: A little bit, at the same time I also know the research well enough to know that you are like, these micro little stresses actually don’t make that big of a difference. So I feel a little bit better…

David Kruse: Oh! Interesting, all right, sounds good yes. And maybe our stress actually makes it worse overall if we worry about how much technology to…

Julie Kientz: Very true.

David Kruse: All right, so yeah you mentioned that some of the stuff you’ve done and one of the projects you worked on and I think you are still working on is baby steps. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Julie Kientz: Yeah. I’d be happy to. So this is probably the longest project work on. This is actually something they started when I was a graduate student and it started out – you know I mentioned I had been interested in autism from the perspective of my research advisor having two children from their end. And I saw a presentation from the Center for Disease Control educating parents about the kind of early warning signs, early warning signs of autism and development on the way and they were kind of trying to educate parents about what those signs were and how to look out for them. And I was – in hearing that presentation, I was struck by the fact that they were thinking about all these different milestones that kids were supposed to meet between zero and five and you know really was sort of this static information. And I wasn’t even a parent at the time and it still seemed overwhelming to me to think about how you might be able to track how your child is developing using kind of static information. So I thought this was a really interesting area for interactive technology going to play a role in it and helping people keep engaged over a five year period and sort of delivering only the information that is relevant to them at the time as opposed to bombarding them with sort of all the information all at once. And so I started out. I used a human center design process in everything that I do and so I started out doing a bunch of interviews of families and pediatricians and child care providers and others stake holders’ place of childhood development to try and get an understanding of how technology could play a role here and you know it’s an important things. So one was that we you were trying to do this for every single parent and you will know one technology is going to work for everybody. You have to sort of – you have a multi sort of platform approach to reach as many parents as possible. This was sort of a public healthcare campaign. The second thing was thinking about how we can reduce the emotional burden associated with it and so looking for warning signs that your child might not be normally developing is a scary, scary things for patens. They want to know that information. They want to know if their kid was behind in any way, but you are sort of constantly thinking about what might be wrong with their child and really, really emotionally very burdened. So the way that we might sort of do that to reduce that burden is really important. And then the third was this, you know the mining people with that idea. You know I mentioned kind of information overload. Parents are very busy people. You always saw a lot of half completed baby books that your parent had all these great intentions of sort of you know documenting all these sort of things, but then your life got in the way and took over. You know it’s really sort of addressing those few things that we wanted to do with our design. So we’ve developed this fleet of tools that is kind of collectively called Baby Steps, but it’s actually three different tools that we right now; people web portal, we have a text messaging version and we have a social media version through Twitter where parents can actually answer ‘development on my own’ questions through any of those platforms and it all kind of linked into one central database. And then the key insight was sort of looking around the information like, I should be looking for problems with my child and if they have signs of development on the way and actually into thinking more about celebrating the accomplishments of my child. So we sort of flipped the brain a bit. So now we are having parents sort of celebrate, you know their child took their first step, and celebrate the fact that there you are responding to their needs and starting to say mamma, dada and these are things that are parents are already doing anyway; looking to print identical on motivation, so. And we sort of had people sort of check accomplishments as opposed to look for warning signs. And then the other things we did is we combined the development of treating components with more of the emotional and sentimental records like photos and videos and some of these things like your trip to your grandmother’s house or first trip to the zoo and sort of adding in things that aren’t necessarily related to child development, but are still fun things that the parents want to track. And so we kind of combine all these things together into this one single application that is we fell is pretty engaging, so parents can start and take photos of these things, they could create a timeline of their child, they can do it over text messaging, they can actually text photos to our system and generate one time line and can actually receive – one of my other new features are actually adding so that they can actually text back a memory to our system and it will send them a random happy memory of their child, and sort of get this sort of sentimental record keeping. We are also keeping track of their development.

David Kruse: So did you use this with your kids?

Julie Kientz: Oh yeah, yeah. My kids are definitely guinea pigs in my research, but as a parent, it’s actually really one of those really funny things, because you know I believe in human center design and you know the fact that we can design things for people who aren’t ourselves and so I started this project before I had children and then I had children in the process and then I started our tools after I had kids and I was actually pleasantly surprised to realize that you know we did a good job and it was actually useful for parents. So it was nice that I could do this without having to become a parent myself. Yeah so my kids are kind of you know make good demos when I demo the technologies. It’s nice that they can see their milestones and actually my son is 16 months and he is actually a little bit behind in terms of his communication milestone and I was actually able to use this system to indentify the fact that he had minor hearing loss in one of his ears. We’re actually getting him to have ear tube surgery in a week or so. It’s actually addressed that, pretty good one. So it’s been kind of fun from sentimental things, but also useful in terms of knowing where he was as well.

David Kruse: Interesting. That is helpful. And like you said its nice – I mean it sounds like you have done – you do so much good initial research that like you said you don’t have to be a parent necessarily to design something, you don’t have to be parent, which is nice.

Julie Kientz: It does help those, because I can you know quick testing and get rid of bad ideas quickly.

David Kruse: That’s right.

Julie Kientz: But yeah.

David Kruse: All right. So and can you maybe tell us some other – some of your current research projects that you are working. I think you said on one of your websites that you are working on some big exciting projects. So maybe, you have a lot of going on, so I don’t know if you want to choose one or two or yeah.

Julie Kientz: Well, so the big thing was actually the Baby Step system that I just talked about. I spent at least my grad year basically trying to make this the real things for everyone now to use. So I have been working on technology transfer and so the researchers call it, when we take things that are just sort of outside of the – you take things that are in the lab and try to get them so that they are available in the real world. So I have been working with the state of Washington to get Baby Steps in place as systems have the, one the state can use to track their kid’s development or milestone and get connected to early intervention resources. So I’ve kind of been at that big project, but then I’ve also been focusing a little bit more just because I do have kids and it’s been a personal passion of mine. So I have been really focusing a lot more of my work on the area of health for families and health for children and that seems to be a really good focus for me. So we have been looking at things. And speaking of broad picture of health, still thinking about things like you know how much screen time kids use as an aspect of how – also just we were looking at sleep as a family. So you know lot of times when people are sort of tracking sleep or doing any sort of things around sleep, it helps us at the individual level, but as many of us parents know, you know when the kid doesn’t sleep, mom doesn’t sleep. When mom is not sleeping well, no one is sleeping well and there is this kind of interplay between everyone in the family. And so we’ve been sort of thinking about this notion of things like personal health tracking tools or personal fitness trackers and thinking about, you know how does it work when you think about it as a family level as opposed to an individual level.

David Kruse: Interesting. And can you give us some specific example that you are working on now in that area?

Julie Kientz: Yeah so as I mentioned the sleep project, so we are looking at that. We are also looking at family stress. So helping the family sort of understand what is causing stress in their life and how they might be able to address it or to just be aware of it in each other. But again, sort of keeping this family centered approach where you know we have people within the same environment. You know our definitions of a family is basically people who are with the same couples and so like they will, it may involve kids, but it could just be couples living together or you know a single parent you know anything on their minds right. You are thinking about how you know when I am stressed out how does that impact everyone in my family and start thinking about interventions that might be able to take this at a family level as opposed to just at the individual level.

David Kruse: And how do you measure that stress in the house?

Julie Kientz: Well, there is a lot of different ways. So we are working with some people in physiology that we are looking at different metrics for that, and they’ve been using things like you know fitness trackers that include things like heart rate and we’ve also being looking at just self reported, life fill of stress and having people sort of respond to questioners throughout the day that give you the level of stress in a bunch of different dimension and that’s most of the two ways that we’re looking at it.

David Kruse: And how do you kind of develop a program like around stress. Let’s say like how do you come up with an idea and then how do you decided like we should actually look into this. And then how do you decide to like set up the protocol and can you kind of take us through the thought process.

Julie Kientz: It really depends on the project. So sometimes my students or I will get an idea and we’ll say ‘okay, who do you know that’s sort of an expert in this area that we can talk to’ since you know most of my students, we are experts in sort of technology and design, we are not as an expert in the domain. So I’m not a developmental physiologist in any way but I have been working in the area, sort of designing technology for this space. But do I consult with people who do have expertise in the area? Likewise the sleep. I’ve consulted with a lot of sleep doctors or people who do sleep from the nursing context. We usually identify domain experts to kind of sort of add that domain expertise to whatever we’re working on and then it becomes just this collaborative process. So we kind of listen to people who are experts on this and they’d describe to me or to us in our labs sort of what the problems are and we brainstorm. The humans had a divine process involved, sort of an ideation stage where you’re generating lots of ideas and so we’ll do lots of sketching, brainstorm sessions. We’ll come up with as many ideas as we can and then sort of narrow those down to the sort of what practical will do, what sort of novel, you know researching that are looking for things that haven’t been done before. So what hasn’t been tried and then we’ll let it come down to a, sometimes planning for funding and getting funding to do the things that we want to do as sort of a next step while processing. But sometimes it’s an example to stress thinking about – because I got introduced to a colleague here at the University of Washington who was doing more fun things to discuss and in your project you’re looking at right now, she has this amazing data set on tracked families. So we thought this was a really great opportunity to think about this, since this day that we’re already there.

David Kruse: Got you and then your ultimate goal of your own, the stress program at least would be to well, reduce stress, but come up with strategies and like and when to kind of inject those strategies based on…

Julie Kientz: Exactly, yeah. How can we design these interventions in such a way that it will be effective but then also fit into their lives? We don’t want to sort of make them feel even more stressful. Stress is just one those things that you – you know by thinking about stress sometimes you can induce it more. So thinking really carefully about how to design this intervention or reset their lives doing a way that’s respectful of them. Just like what I mentioned with taking the baby steps project you know. We want something that sort of fits into us that they are already doing, using technology that they are already comfortable with and doing that activity that they already want to be doing, which is sort of tracking the fun stuff around their kids. You train them for the things on social media; we want to do something similar to stress. So if we can you know build like a game or something, you know we’re still sort of coming up with ideas of how we might do this, but we are thinking about how we can design something that fits into peoples’ lives as opposed to being this thing that they have to – that extra thing that they have to do on top of it.

David Kruse: Yeah, and that’s why I kind of love how you design your programs. You try to make it so integrated and fluid. You don’t try and create some mass of program that you’re going to have to take an hour a day to do it. It’s just kind of part of their day and you set it up, so it’s almost probably fun, it sounds like, which is a…

Julie Kientz: Yeah, and we want to try and strike this like balance between you know this – you know you’re interested in it enough, but it doesn’t sort of become this thing that you ignore, but it’s not sort of a lot of work. And so I’ve been working on that kind of a cross cutting research thing. Have been investigating this idea of user burden and so we’ve developed this model of user burden and that includes six different dimensions. So your mental and emotional burden, time and social burden, privacy burden, financial burden, physical burden and then – but basically we want to make sure that we’re designing these systems that kind of reduce these burdens in different ways. But realizing you that can reduce burdens, but maybe not all in one area, one and so I was thinking about what people value about a system. They might be – if they highly value something they might be willing to put up with different levels of burden, than if they don’t value you very much at all. So this sort of thing that seems like this extra work and it has to be super low burden in general, but if they are getting a lot of value out of it, they may be willing to put more time into it or you put more financial resources into and that will be. So thinking about the fair play between how much work they have to put in it and how much value they are getting out of it.

David Kruse: Interesting. And so with your projects, it’s like with the stress one, do you want to develop kind of let’s say – let’s call it more advanced technology. You mentioned like the variables and the sensors, are you more interested in kind of taking off the shelf components and then creating the kind of the whole program around that, which is amazing.

Julie Kientz: A little bit, yeah, yeah. So I am very fortunate to be in a department called Human Center Design and Engineering, where it’s actually Human Resource. So that gives me a lot of freedom to be not having a lot of pressure to sort of like build new technologies or sort of like being really technology centered and so I really am open to the type of technology approach that we do. I mean I have expertise in different areas and so I might be more likely to sort of build things in different areas because they have the expertise, but I’ve really sort of like left behind the best for this particular problem; whether that’s an off the shelf technology that already exists or it’s something new that we have to develop. We really kind of let the problem stay with where that technology should be…

David Kruse: Got you, okay yeah. That’s wise, I like that. Well, we’re getting kind of near the end and there’s a couple or just one question that I wanted to ask about. You had a paper on – so we’re switching topics a little bit, but we’re almost out of time here, so I want to get this in. But switching, you had a paper on parents use of their phone and texting on playgrounds and yeah, can you share a little bit more about that?

Julie Kientz: Sure, that was actually the idea of one of my students Alexis Snicker. She was actually – she’s a parent herself you know spending a lot of time on playgrounds and sort of she was using her phone in the playground and texting others and yet she sort of was aware of all of this negative media around those things and she also saw lots of really engaged parents and so she had kind of gotten her wondering you know what actually are people doing? I wonder if they are using any ear phones at the playground. So she and a bunch of other students got together. That was actually started as a class project and then they ended up expanding it and then turning it into a research paper. And so the idea is they were actually going to playgrounds all around the Seattle area and keen observing and making notes about you when parents were using their phone and then sort of what was happening sort of right afterwards and like before hands and then they would actually go and interview them at the park afterwards and talk to them about it. The idea was to sort of get a sense of you know what are people doing? Is this really a problem and whether the media sort of hyped this up that we were crazy and a whole generation of neglected children because we’re all using our phones and yeah, this wasn’t really what we were seeing. You know the main thing that we saw was our parents really are – we’re spending a small proportion of their time there and you know there’s plenty of people who also believe that it’s totally fine you know. Like no one would judge me if I brought a news paper and I was reading the news paper and my kids were off playing and as long as they are being safe and I was there in case anything happened, you know that’s totally fine. This is their time to play and be kids; they don’t need a parent there. We have these sort of – we call these confident users and then we have this other group of parents who are these confident non-users who you know they leave their phone at home or they leave their phone in the car, because they felt like when I go to their playground, I want to be engaged and make sure that I am not distracted when playing. And then we had a group of people who I think this is an opportunity for, who are sort of using their phone, but not feeling great about it. So there’s those using a little and feeling a little guilty about it. They go yeah, I’m using it, but you know I probably should be watching my kid. Those happen to be opportunical people with their goals and so we were trying to be really neutral and not make any judgments around your house where you’re using your phone. Sort of helping them to sort of do what they wanted to do and help them design these tools. We’ve thought of ideas – you know the other thing that we realized is that a lot of parents are doing things on their phone that are relevant to their children, you know they are taking a photo of them on their swings or texting. The other parent who is coming down with a picnic and sort of ‘where to meet them?’ and they are like ‘Oh! We’re at the playground down by the lake’ and so they are actually doing things around their children and so we want to still enable those activities without sort of you know being distracted and free down other ways that they don’t want to be doing.

David Kruse: Interesting.

Julie Kientz: Yeah, it’s a different project. You were thinking about ideas of how we can you know help the people who don’t feel great about how they are using their phones, using all of it in there and sort of excited about it.

David Kruse: My guess is that there’s a – most parents at sometimes probably feeling a little guilty about taking their phones with them.

Julie Kientz: Yeah, I was our biggest group of people.

David Kruse: At some point at least. All right well, this has been great and I really appreciate your time Julie and thanks for telling us your story and experiences. So I have learned a lot and hope everyone else has too. So I definitely appreciate it.

Julie Kientz: Great, thanks so much.

David Kruse: All right, thanks everyone for listening to another episode of Flyover Labs and thanks again Julie, I appreciate it. Bye.