New iSchool faculty member Alexis Hiniker studies online habits, good and bad

Alexis Hiniker studies how people use technology. Among the technology she uses is an old-school Qualcomm 3G phone.

Almost 80 percent of Americans have smartphones. On average, they check them more than 140 times a day. Many are not happy about it, expressing feelings of dissatisfaction with the waste of time, the meaninglessness of the experience, and their seeming inability to break their onscreen habits, reports new iSchool faculty member Alexis Hiniker.

“People are often dissatisfied with the way they choose to use technology, yet struggle to change their behavior,” says the human-computer interaction researcher, who is studying emotions surrounding people’s engagement with technology and the factors that pull them into it, capture their attention and hold them there. “I’m looking at how people’s behaviors around engagement differ from what they would like and why.”

Based on user input, she has helped build intervention tools for both adults and children that allow them to approach technology use with what she describes as “intentionality” and “mindfulness.” One experimental innovation, an Android app called MyTime, let smartphone users set goals on how long they wanted to spend on specific apps and notified them when they veered off-course. “Time’s up!” screens read.

The result: Participants cut the time with apps they felt were a poor use of time by 21 percent, while continuing to engage as usual with the apps they felt good about.

“Intentionality is a really important part of my work. I want users of these systems to feel total autonomy and a sense of self-determination in the way they use technology. It should be user-driven, not technology driven,” says Hiniker, whose work has been featured in such national publications as The New York Times and Time Magazine. “I’d like to see users engage, disengage, and re-engage of their own volition and feel good about doing so.”

That’s not easy in today’s “attention economy,” where tech companies design devices and apps to be irresistibly alluring, leaving us vulnerable to those flashing clickbait headlines, pop-up ads, and other monetized look-over-here distractions. “The longer they hold us, the more money they make,” says Hiniker. “I have no shortage of study participants who express frustration and resentment toward companies designing these experiences.”

Can companies do better? What’s their incentive to do so? Those are topics she’ll visit in her spring iSchool course tentatively titled “Designing for Evil.” “We’ll be wrestling with some hard questions about the responsibility of designers. How do you know if you’re designing for the greater good? What, if anything, should you do about it if you aren’t?” she says. “It would serve the industry well if tomorrow’s developers and designers think about those questions when creating new systems for real people.”

Hiniker, who earned her Ph.D. in Human Centered Design and Engineering at the UW, was convinced to join the iSchool by a mission statement in the job call. “The statement said they wanted someone doing work in design and technology in the service of social good,” she says. “I hadn’t seen that anywhere else: the values-first approach to technology and technology design.”

The new assistant professor, who worked as a Microsoft software engineer before doctoral studies, holds a master’s degree from Stanford University in education and a bachelor’s in computer science from Harvard University. Bringing the computational and human side of technology together at the iSchool is exciting, she says. “Human-computer interaction is such a fun space to be in because the problems are so complex.”

She comes to the new job as a full-stack developer – someone knowledgeable in all stages of software development, back-end to front-end. “Sometimes exploring these questions means building a system-level tool to track a user’s device activity, and sometimes it means creating an easy, compelling interface. It’s useful to be able to do both.”

That deep expertise proves invaluable. “Alexis has very strong technical, design, quantitative, qualitative, writing, and communication research skills that are the perfect combination for researching innovative technologies that can make an impact in our lives,” says Julie Kientz, associate professor in the department of Human Centered Design and Engineering, with adjunct appointments in the iSchool and Computer Science and Engineering.

Much of Hiniker’s work focuses on children. She won a prestigious Parent’s Choice Gold Award for a startup she co-founded called Go Go Games Studios. The startup created iPad games to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorders learn to recognize various features of objects around them.

She’s currently studying how to better incorporate children’s abilities and ideas into the technology they use, based on comprehension at various stages of development. Too often technology design for children is adult-centric, she points out. “Children don’t always interpret what I build in the same way that adults do. As a designer, I need to be able to take a step back from my own assumptions. Hands-on work with kids can really help.”

That hands-on work can be surprising, as she discovered last year in a participatory design workshop with 4- to 6-year-olds. “I thought I’d define the topic and we’d stay on that topic,” she says, laughing. “Then I asked what tool should we build, and they said, ‘Let’s make a hurricane.’”

Children of all ages have become avid users of technology, Hiniker points out. A study looking at low-income communities in America reported 75 percent of children had their own dedicated device by age 4. “Managing our media consumption and choosing how and when to engage with technology has become an important life skill,” says Hiniker. “We want to support kids in developing these healthy habits early. But the way we have dealt with this as designers so far is to create parental controls with lock-out mechanisms – you can’t access this content or you can only use this thing for this amount of time. That approach doesn’t do anything to help children develop the ability to self-regulate their use of technology, which is what they will need as they grow.”

One “intentionality” tool for kids she’s helping engineer is called Plan and Play. It helps preschoolers set up and stick to self-defined goals for entertainment consumption on their different devices. “It’s an app about planning ahead, which can be hard for a 4-year-old to think through,” she says. “We’re worried about getting that piece right and building an interface they understand.”

Hiniker also focuses her research lens on families. In a study that garnered national attention, she and colleagues explored how parents and offspring increasingly struggle over the rules of technology use. The joint survey with the University of Michigan found children ages 10-17 agreed that while it was important to set and follow expectations, they were frustrated when the rules weren’t applied equally to parents. If they couldn’t bring their phone to the table, why could their parents? They also wished their parents wouldn’t text while driving. And they wanted their parents to please stop posting about them on Facebook without their permission. “That was top of their minds,” says Hiniker.

As for her own home, Hiniker says she and her family – two small boys and a husband who’s a Google engineer – have little time for technology. In fact, she doesn’t even own a smartphone, she admits, pulling out a tiny, old-school Qualcomm 3G that fits inside her palm. It’s good for texting and talking and little else.

Hiniker looks at it and smiles. “This doesn’t mean I’m not distracted by technology,” she admits. “No matter how many studies I run on this topic, I still seem to spend plenty of time checking Facebook.”