Christina Harrington on speaking as a way to connect with the real world

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Christina Harrington about her journey as a public speaker, how speaking ties into her research, and some of the differences between conference and academic speaking.

In our Women Talk Design Speaker Stories series, we’re interviewing Women Talk Design speakers about their journeys and experiences. We talk to speakers who are just getting started, speakers who have had their fair share of speaking mishaps, speakers writing books, and speakers curating events. At the end, we offer an opportunity for folks from the WTD community to ask their own questions and connect with each other. Visit our events page for more information about the series and RSVP for our next event.

Christina Harrington (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of Human-Computer Interaction in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. She holds a courtesy appointment in the School of Design. Christina has several years of experience as a designer and qualitative researcher who works at the intersection of interaction design and health and racial equity. She has worked as a design researcher and UX designer at various companies such as Apple, Lenovo, and Motorola and her research has been published at various venues focused on HCI and design.

Her research combines her background in industrial design, interactive systems and human factors psychology to focus on areas of universal, accessible, and inclusive design. Specifically, she looks at how to use design in the development of products to support older adults, individuals with differing abilities, and historically excluded groups such as Black and LatinX communities in maintaining their health, wellness, and autonomy in defining technological futures. Christina is passionate about using design to center communities that have historically been at the margins of mainstream design. She looks to methods such as design justice and community collectivism to broaden and amplify participation in design by addressing the barriers that corporate approaches to design have placed on our ability to see design as a universal language of communication and knowledge. Dr. Harrington is also the Director of the Equity and Health Innovations Design Research Lab.

On why she speaks and the topics she speaks on

Christina started off by telling us how her reason for speaking ties closely to the research she does and the connection she sees between design, equity, and representation.

“Part of the reason is visibility. It ties into the research and the work that I do – the ability to be visible for marginalized groups, for folks who don’t always have a voice; the ability to have discourse at a level where we can have conversations that are sometimes tough. We can amplify voices that are not always heard and that are typically neglected. One of the reasons why I speak is creating and helping to create platforms that allow for that discourse and allow for us to hear voices and thoughts and perspectives that we don’t always hear.”

“I’m always going to float back to the way we think about equity and design and how expensive that is. I’m always gonna float back to the need for more opportunities for Black and Brown folks to see themselves in design and to see themselves in the future of design and in the future of the world around us. I saw a meme yesterday [that said], ‘You know there are certain subgroups of people that get so upset about Black and Brown people seeing themselves in hypothetical futures, right?’ Because we see with Sci-fi TV, we see with literature, we see in the media – we’re still having to fight to see ourselves in worlds that don’t even exist yet. Imagine how we feel having to scrap for visibility in the world that does exist.”

“Design has the ability and the responsibility to do that. It’s just…does design take up that call? Because we still have subsets of organizations, companies, groups that want to position design as being apolitical. But it does because everything is by design. Jackson, Mississippi not having water right now is by design because there are affluent neighborhoods in these states that would never have these problems. The flooding that continues to happen in certain wards in Louisiana, in certain areas of Houston – that is by design. We’ve put Black and Brown folks in those neighborhoods, because that’s where they can afford. And then don’t care what happens to them as we go through this very real climate change.”

Christina also highlighted why getting out into the world to speak is important because it gives her a chance to see the real-world applications of her work and get feedback.

“My research falls into two areas of looking at technologies to support healthy aging among primarily Black older adults and then on speculative design – how do we think about the future of the world? How do we think about the future of Tech? How do we think about the future of design?”

“I love giving talks to churches or senior groups about the benefits and the values of technology to support their everyday life. Because it’s gonna humble you – every single time I give the talk they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re just here to help you with your little assignment’ because they think I’m still a student. The level of Black Elders humbling you is always my favorite.”

“It’s a real world application of what we’re talking about. You can see how folks will take some of that knowledge and be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know my phone could do that. I didn’t know I could tell Alexa to remind me about my doctor’s appointment.’ And now you have someone that’s using a useful tool or a resource but also asking you questions. 

“That causes you to think, ‘We might want to look at this area because so many people are talking about the frustration that they have.’ Some of the work that I’m doing right now [with the voice systems] actually came from giving talks or doing lunch, and learns where people are like, ‘I would love to use this, but if I ask Google Home about something related to me, it doesn’t recognize it.’”

On the relationship between speaking and her work

When talking about how speaking impacts her research, Christina pointed out that speaking is not only a way to share her work with the world but also a channel for conversations and connections that spur more ideas.

“In academia, you do research and then you get invited to speak because people want to hear about the projects that you do. But I actually look at it flipped – I look at opportunities to speak as an opportunity to have a conversation where people prompt different questions. And when we can discuss different things, I look at that as an opportunity to come up with new topics that might fuel my research.”

“In part it’s who you’re having these conversations with. Someone introduced me to this term 2 years ago, at the height of the uprisings in 2020 – I am a community-engaged scholar. And so a lot of the time, my go-to is not to have speaking engagements with other universities or for conferences and things like that. I actually jump at the opportunities to do speaking engagements and talk to folks outside of those institutions. Because I think that that’s where the real work happens and you’ll hear where your ideas are BS for lack of a better word.”

She emphasized that the real world is where she feels she learns the most because she can make her research tangible.

“When we constantly [talk] internally, we’re regurgitating the same information to each other – even within the design world, even with people coming from so many different backgrounds and academic levels. We have folks who do design who just picked it up because they have a really dope skill set, we have folks that went to 4 or 8+ years of school for design. But even within those groups, when we talk about design, we know these things because we work in design. We’ve seen the blogs on medium, we’ve read the academic articles, and we’re talking about design research. But when we step outside of those [circles] and we have conversations, that’s when people will push back [that says,] ‘That’s actually not how it works in the real world.’”

“We can think hypothetically and theoretically about design in a studio all day long, right? We can sketch, we can put stuff on a computer, we can test things, we can model things, we can play around with things. But it’s not until you talk to folks about how this thing actually impacts their day to day life outside of the compounds of your laboratory or your studio or your whatever. For me, that’s where I get the most learning.”

“It’s still weird to me when people say Doctor but even as somebody who’s gone through that much schooling, I still learn so much from folks that sit outside of the walls of organizations and institutions and formal industry and companies. They will give you the most real, honest and brutal feedback.”

“I actually had a conversation with someone the other day about how, in academia, we use community a lot to talk about doing research with people that are on the ground, that are most impacted by things. And they said, ‘You know, when you all talk about community, you never use community to talk about white, rich, affluent people. You always use community as almost a derogatory term.’ We only learn that when we’re in conversation with folks who are outside of what we do. Just having those conversations is what has shaped my speaking ability and the things that I talk about the most.”

On how she structures talks to be impactful

Christina talked about her tactics for keeping a talk digestible and impactful, highlighting the importance of pacing for engagement.

“On a basic, surface level there’s making sure that you leave time for people to digest and comprehend things. You can do that through slide design and visually how you talk about what you’re talking about. But also pace. If you’ve ever given a talk anywhere, you’re typically told you have 30 min, 45 min, an hour, or whatever. The academic mind says cram in as much as I can because it’s really hard to talk about the scope of a project or the breadth of an entire body of work in those periods of time. But what I’ve learned in my classroom that I bring into the speaking engagements is to do like 10 to 15 minutes and then stop and see who has questions or just to try to get engagement.”

“I think it’s also my personality. I don’t particularly like the types of talks where you prepare slides, get up there and go. My social anxiety means I don’t want to talk for 45 min straight. And it’s also a little draining. [So I look for] ways that I can get folks to engage. And it coincides with the nature of my approach to design as a participatory or a collaborative thing.”

“I don’t want to talk to people. I want us to learn from each other. And, if there are things that you’re not understanding, I don’t want you to wait until 45 minutes is over. Let’s talk about it after 10 or 15 minutes. Let’s talk about it after 30 minutes. That’s one of the biggest things that I’ve learned in the classroom.”

On speaking academically versus at conferences

With her experience speaking across a variety of settings – from academic to community events – Christina shared her perspective on how they differ and complement each other.

“In a conference setting, in an academic setting, in a symposium or a summit, people are there to exchange knowledge. Sometimes you can present something and somebody can pose a different viewpoint or perspective or tell you about a component of it that you weren’t aware of. 

The goal is that we’re both learning in that way. Giving a talk to a nonprofit or a community organization, they’re really just there to soak it up and see how they can actually use it.”

“I love that you have a group that is exchanging knowledge and then a group that’s just trying to gain knowledge. I love being able to work in both elements. It’s been a really dope springboard. I still get really floored and honored when I get a new invitation to speak somewhere. Every time “I do one of these, it allows me to reach a different audience and that provides different opportunities. I’ll have people follow up with an email or they just want to ask questions. Opportunities have come over the last 2 or 3 years where I can do a virtual talk in England, I can do a virtual talk in Taiwan. And you’re not on stage so that takes away a lot of the nervousness for me.”

“I would love to do a TEDTalk one day. But getting over that social anxiety [would be huge]. To do that, I’d have to get over that fear of standing in front of people. Almost like what do you do with your hands? But I would love to do that one day.”

For more on how she deals with anxiety on stage, how she finds ways to relate to people, and the importance she places on listening, check out the full video below.

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