Faculty Interview: Christina Harrington, College of Computing and Digital Media

Christina Harrington is a designer and qualitative researcher and currently serves as an assistant professor in the School of Design in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University. Her research focuses on addressing health-related challenges experienced by marginalized populations through design. In particular, she is interested in leveraging co-creation and community-based participatory research methods to understand the needs and experiences that can inform inclusive interactive health technologies for low-income and minority older adults.

On Tuesday, April 21, Dr. Harrington is leading a webinar for alumni: Inclusivity through Design: Imagining Technology with the Forgotten Middle. Register here.

Recently, Alumni Relations sat down with Dr. Harrington to learn more about her research, teaching and work. Read that interview below:

Describe for me your specific area of study in the world of design. What types of solutions are you seeking to create?

My specific area in the world of design is accessible and inclusive design, at the intersection of participatory design, community-based design and socially-inclusive design. I’m really focused on designing and developing technologies that speak to racial, economic and health equity, and designing for populations that are typically neglected in the design process. Inclusive design says that we need to think about the person as a whole and not just see their functions and limitations. It says that we need to think about the way they learn, their backgrounds, their culture, their geographic neighborhood. That’s the sector of design that I work in.

What are some recent examples of the types of inclusive design solutions you’re interested in?

There was a lot of research in the not too distant past looking at the use of video games for physical activity for groups that might be homebound – primarily a population of older adults. Things like the Wii Fit or the Xbox Kinect allow you to control games with your physical movement through gestures – games like Tai Chi or yoga or boxing, or even bowling. But a lot of these games were designed without considering older adults and definitely not considering marginalized older adults, many of whom had issues navigating gestures. In many cases, these people felt initially like these games would be a great way for them to be active in the home; they wouldn’t have to go to gyms that are intimidating or where something traumatic might happen, but they found that they had difficulty interacting with the gaming system.

Because the designers who are developing today’s games are targeting a more typical demographic of players (mostly men between the ages of 18 and 35), there is a very low level of accessibility built in for the learnability of these systems, especially for the older population. So we developed a quick-start guide that would help older adults to better interact with these systems. And this was an analog tool, because technology doesn’t always have to be technical. We developed a physical guide that could be used while you’re playing the game to help you interact and to understand what things mean.

Harrington leads a participatory design workshop with seniors at a Chicago neighborhood community center.

How did you come to this area? Why were you inspired to create design solutions for those types of people?

In grad school, I did my Master’s in Industrial Design, and I found that there are a lot of people who are attracted to design in order to make things cool and shiny. I’ve always felt like designers have a bigger responsibility than that. The world is design and design is the world, so a lot of the problems that we are trying to address every day in society are problems “by design.” How cities are built, how neighborhoods are structured to be segregated, how doors and buildings are built to have more convenient access to one body versus another or for differently-abled people. I believe it’s a designer’s responsibility to address a lot of the challenges that design created, and I wanted to design for people that were typically an afterthought in the design process—people whose accessibility was an afterthought.

Oftentimes, a product is designed and put on the market and it does very well – it sells and it puts up numbers. Then, a small subset of people communicate to the designers that they can’t interact with it because they have a visual impairment or a hearing impairment or they didn’t even attempt to buy it because they don’t see it as being built for them from a cultural standpoint. At that point, way after the fact, product designers go back and say, “Okay, how can we improve this product for this group?” It’s my mission to consider these people during the bulk of the design work. From the beginning of the process.

It seems as though the majority of product designers, due to the nature of the business, are innovating to sell and create profit, while your interest lies in innovating to serve, to create points of entry that can benefit people’s lives and offer access to spaces and activities previously unavailable to them.

Ultimately, I believe it is unjust that we have millions of people who are living their day-to-day lives unable to have the experiences that they want and unable to access information because a designer or business person’s priority is elsewhere. Right now I’m looking at the equity of health information in the digital world. Questions like: “How easy is it for certain people to access online health information?” And we’re seeing why that’s so crucial at this very moment, because as much as many of us have been keeping up to date with what’s going on with COVID-19 through our phones and our computers and Zoom meetings, we have a whole subset of people that don’t have access to wi-fi because broadband is a luxury in their area, or they are unable to use computers because of low technology proficiency and digital literacy. These are the things that I feel need to be the focus of my design work.

St. Vincent de Paul’s major legacy is about being of service and rising to the occasion to solve problems and work for those who are the least privileged among us. The question that guided his life and what he sought to do was: “What must be done?” As someone with your expertise, do you relate to that idea? What guides your work?

One of the reasons that I wanted to come to DePaul, on top of the fact that DePaul has built one of the few design PhDs in the country, is the focus on service and the focus on community. I knew this would be a good place to base my work because I would be coming into a department that understood why I wanted to focus on the communities that I wanted to focus on, why I wanted to do the work that I’m doing. My work is extremely community-based, so when I’m not teaching, I’m in the field two to three days out of the week on the south side of Chicago.

How do these two halves of your work—research and design—interact with one another?

I think the research builds the foundation for the design.

One of the reasons that I shifted from engineering to design was because I felt like engineers never talked to people. We never took the time to understand engineering and design problems from a more person-centered perspective beyond what the system says. Even though I studied electrical engineering, I was also super interested in human factors—human cognition, human perception, etc.—so it was kind of a natural progression to do design, where I understand why people are emotionally attached to certain products and have challenges with other products.

We never hear about the problems of products. Whenever you look at the industrial design publications, they often put out those lists of the best products for the last hundred years or so. But what about the hundred worst? The things that people are like, “I bought this and it’s absolutely horrible and now it just sits in the corner or I threw it away.” There isn’t as much interest in why people still have challenges with things, particularly people who are differently-abled or older or lower income. It’s a little bit more disruptive to the process if the product doesn’t work or can’t be used, so I think the research is necessary to even get to where the design has a lasting impact.

Harrington (center) leads the Equity and Health Innovations lab at CDM, built to support the quality of life among populations that are typically neglected in design.

You are the director of DePaul’s Equity and Health Innovations Design Research Lab. What is the lab for? What is it constructed to do?

The lab looks at the ways that community-based design for health can support people who are typically considered marginalized. Right now, the research that we’re doing focuses on low income, Black, older adults on the South Side of Chicago. I have some students that go and do data collection with me. They do analysis, I’m teaching them prototyping, and some of them are teaching me about prototyping. We’re building things that we can then test with this group of elders. That has been one of the amazing components of my position so far in this department. When I said that I want to have a lab and I want to have students that are working with me on these things, the department has been very helpful and supportive in allowing me to make that come to fruition.

I’ve got a great group of students from a lot of different disciplines, which is amazing because I’m a pretty interdisciplinary person, coming from a background of electrical engineering, but also having studied human factors and design. I’ve managed to find really great students who are willing to work with me on these projects from areas like psychology, neuroscience, sociology, graphic design, user experience design and more. DePaul has students who are extremely competent and interested in service, which is something I think is unique.

What do you consider your mission as a research, a designer and an educator? What do you want to accomplish?

It’s a difficult question because I acknowledge that the type of work that I do is never going to be done, necessarily, which is a good thing. I think right now my goal is to provide access to students who might not otherwise get exposure to this type of work or this particular sector of design. In addition to the variety of majors and disciplines in my lab, I also have a very diverse lab as far as student backgrounds. I was pretty intentional in that, because growing up as a young Black girl and not really knowing what design was, one of the goals I had in becoming faculty wherever I went was to expose more Black and Brown students to design, because that’s not happening everywhere.

On the other side of that coin is doing good work and leaving good impressions on the communities that we work with. I would love to be one of those designers with a really cool and shiny portfolio, but I think what’s even better than that is being able to say that people are being positively impacted by the work that we’re doing. I think that is what gets me out of bed every day.

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

To hear more from DePaul faculty, check out our interview with Maija Renko from the Driehaus College of Business, and stay tuned to bludemonline.com for more faculty interviews, at-home activities and information about virtual alumni programming in the coming days!

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