Dr. Shital Desai: Building blocks of knowledge in human-centred design

Dr. Shital Desai may have spent much of her academic life studying machines and robots, but she never forgets about the people who use them. In her role as an Assistant Professor, Interaction Design at the School of Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD) and York Research Chair in Accessible Interaction Design at York University, her work depends on her ability to understand the needs of others. Her goal is to keep the human component of technology front and centre.

York University design professor Dr. Shital Desai is an alumna of AGE-WELL’s EPIC training program

Her journey to Toronto has been a long one. Originally from India, Dr. Desai spent 25 years studying, living and working in Australia. She earned her PhD at the Queensland University of Technology in Interaction Design, focused on human-centred design for children. She learned much about how they interacted with technology by watching her daughter (then age 6) play, which inspired her to pursue a PhD in interaction design for children. It helped Dr. Desai gain knowledge she could apply later when she started a new chapter creating technology for older adults when she moved to Canada.

Life changed dramatically when she met Dr. Arlene Astell (now Director of the Dementia Aging Technology Engagement (DATE) lab at The KITE Research Institute at University Health Network and AGE-WELL researcher) through Dr. Deborah Fels (now at Toronto Metropolitan University). Together, they led AGE-WELL’s Tungsten (Tools for User Needs Gathering To Support Technology Engagement) research project. They encouraged Dr. Desai to come to Ontario to pursue a postdoc with AGE-WELL with Dr. Astell.

That was five years ago. Dr. Desai and her family have settled into life in Canada and her work continues to inspire and challenge her. In the Social and Technological Systems (SaTS) lab at AMPD, York University, she designs and develops accessible technologies, primarily for older adults and those with disabilities, supported by several grants including National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Discovery and Canada Foundation for Innovation grants. “My research is focused on how to keep people at home and in communities,” she says.

As part of her research, Dr. Desai is deeply engaged with  the Jane and Finch, St. Jamestown and Rexdale communities. She collaborates with the Jane/Finch Centre and Albion Neighbourhood Services. Most importantly, she listens to their stories and experiences of how technology has failed them. “When people lack basic infrastructure to use technologies, how effective can these technology-driven solutions be in making a difference in their everyday lives?” she asks.

Co-creation is the answer, one that brings together a variety of stakeholders and people from various disciplines, from researchers and engineers to artists and experts in global health, to develop solutions. That’s just one aspect of AGE-WELL she appreciates. As someone who has completed its EPIC training, Dr. Desai has seen the benefits of multidisciplinary networking and funding opportunities, especially for students and post-grads.

Being able to figure out a puzzle with a multitude of moving parts continues to intrigue Dr. Desai, who did an undergrad in electronics engineering and a master’s degree in robotics. But when trying to solve complicated problems, she sometimes turns away from modern technology. Instead, she reaches for LEGO blocks—a handy tool to facilitate divergent thinking. She keeps some in her lab, office and home and uses them with students in her classrooms. “I use them to brainstorm ideas,” she says, “and it allows me to focus, to reflect and plan strategies.”

It’s a gentle reminder that creating technology, whether complex or simple, is most successful when the people using it and the systems they live in are at the forefront. Something Dr. Desai understands so well.