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Q&A: Grace Hopper Winner Xin Zhang

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This year, TASER sponsored five recipients of the Grace Hopper scholarship, named after the programming pioneer who helped develop the earliest computers. The honor recognizes women in technology and covers their costs for the annual Grace Hopper Celebration, held in Houston from Oct. 14-16. Here's part three of a five-part series of Q&As with the award winners.

TASER Grace Hopper scholarship winner Xin Zhang believes in the power of smart design. She is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Information at the University of Michigan, where she has focused on human-computer interaction. Xin considers technology a powerful force for good, able to make information accessible and individuals safer, which led her to help design a device that lets isolated senior citizens share stories. She graduated in 2014 from Wuhan University in China.

TASER: You talked in your cover letter about making IT easier to use. What are some specific ways we can do that?

Xin: So my major is human-computer interaction. What we learn [in that major] is user-testing methods. Our design is very user-centered design. We learn a bunch of different UX methods to test if the website or app is easy to use or confusing to customers.

We also learn some design approaches, too. So before we start to do the design, we will think about what's the problem, who is our audience, and we will have some interviews with target users. Then we start to do the design. We want our design [to] make sense for non-design audiences. We want to have a reason for why [we] design things like this, instead of that way. We also do a lot of iterations to improve our design.

T: Do you have a go-to example of something that is particularly well-designed that people would be familiar with?

X: I'm a big fan of Instagram. There's one small feature that I really like. When you want to leave a comment to other users' posts, you have to swipe left and it shows a comment button there. But when you don't swipe their comment, you cannot reply to them.

It's an interesting way to onboard the customer to this feature. Although it's a very small feature, it involved a lot of thinking at its creation. At my Amazon internship, I'm also doing onboarding things, so I look at a lot of different apps and ways of onboarding customers.

T: How does your work relate to safety and making the world safer?

X: I want to talk about one project I did, called “ShareMark,” for a student design competition. Basically, we [were] trying to design a service or some type of device to LGBT senior citizens. Our idea was to make LGBT senior citizens connect with each other. They can write down their secret diaries, because they cannot tell their stories to their friends or their families. We read a lot of reports about that, and we actually had some interviews with some LGBT senior citizens in the Michigan area. They're really lonely, especially when they live in assisted living. They pretend they're just normal, they're straight, they pretend to be straight, but that is really painful for them. We [wanted] to create a service that helps find more people similar to them.

T: Are you guys finding that better graphic design and UX design is making seniors more likely to use this technology?

X: That's actually the idea. This is not an app, it's more like a device, but our current technology might not be able to build that device, but we think that maybe two years later or five years later, this [could] be true. For example, we [thought] of those traditional technology devices, like phone or laptops, but we [didn't] think [they were] the best approach. We just [created] a different device, with a portable scanner. We think that generation probably had pen pals. We don't want to change their way of writing things. But when they write on paper, we can just scan it and digitalize it and send it to other people. I don't know how to describe it. It's not an app, but a flow. We're making it more natural for senior citizens.

T: Do you have an immediate reaction to the way public safety technologies are designed, and whether you think there are things they could be doing better or things they're doing well?

X: I feel like having a camera is a good way to remind the person that I have this evidence. I was also thinking if they really have some emergency situation, can the camera detect that and send some help message to other police or other people? In some emergency situation, they probably don't have time to call some people, so if the camera can sense that, or if there's a very small button to call for help. This is a very initial idea.

TASER has always supported technological innovation and smart design. For this reason, Xin was named one of our Grace Hopper winners.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo courtesy of Xin Zhang.