Centre for Digital Media is pleased to welcome Laura Ballay as the newest full-time faculty to the Master of Digital Media program.
Laura has worked at the intersection of human-centered design and technology for the past 20 years and is an expert in leading creative teams and defining product strategies. Laura also runs a product strategy and insights consultancy that helps organizations discover opportunities for innovation. Previously she served as the director of the Masters program at the Human Computer Interaction Institute, part of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University.
Laura is a fantastic complement to the existing MDM program faculty, and brings strength in user research that the industry has been calling for and our students will benefit from. Her grounded approach, and attention to the material as well as the digital side of design (insisting that the students start out with paper prototypes, and really try to 'get inside the head' of their users) really helps our graduates stand out when they get into the real world of design.”
We sat down to chat with Laura about her new role and what she’s most excited about in digital media today.
Tell us about yourself.
My background is in design, I got my Master of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. I’ve always been the kind of person that doesn’t like to fit neatly into a box, so what attracted me to that program and—what at the time was—the "emerging world of UX", was that it was like a venn diagram where multiple disciplines were coming together. So it had science and technology, it had art and design, it had business and it had cognitive science and psychology. UX was where all these different disciplines overlapped.
For someone who could never make up their mind between science and math versus art and the humanities, UX really resonated with me. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but I knew that if I had to be pegged as something I wanted to be pegged as someone who was very multidisciplinary.
So I went and studied UX and a lot of the projects that we worked on back when I was a student are things that we see now, like smartphones, hybrid spaces and AR. It was a little bit frustrating when I first graduated because there weren’t any jobs in my field. The kind of work that I ended up doing was more on the web and UI side and I ended up doing more design management because I didn’t enjoy designing flat interfaces.
And that’s probably what actually brought me into teaching. In the world of teaching, you’re always looking at emerging technologies and what’s at the forefront. I’ve teaching on and off here at the MDM program since 2012. Because I work in industry, I love helping students figure out how to take the theory of everything and match it to the real world. That’s what I see my area of expertise in.
Is there anything that drew you specifically to the MDM program?
First, it’s a professional program. And second, perhaps more important, it’s very cross-disciplinary. So I’m surrounded by students and faculty who all likewise get it—we all feel the pull of not staying within one area and working in team-based collaboration.
What do you do outside of CDM?
I help other organizations with their digital strategies. A lot of that is really about figuring out what is the right problem to solve and how might they go about solving it. Most of those questions are answered through user research so I do a lot of user research to bring that data and potential ideas and opportunities to the forefront.
I also do workshops and more educational things for organizations, too.
What are you most excited about in digital media today?
I think there’s two parts:
First, what I think attracts lots of people, is just the technology, the coolness factor of what’s out there.
However, probably what I find even more exciting is the people part. Digital media is becoming a lot more about human centred design. Educational institutions, governments, not for profits, for profit enterprises...they are all starting to understand the value of bringing the human centred design mindset into their practice and it’s quite a change from how things were even 10 years ago, and especially 20 years ago.
We used to have people who were like [deep voice] "we’re going to make this and people are going to use it" [laughs] and how it’s like "let’s understand the people and the context and then go and design based on that." So I think it’s exciting that human centred design is being recognized and valued.
What would you like to tell the new cohort of MDM students?
A student once told me that they felt that programs like this are a degree in "Go Figure It Out." And it’s true—you’re going to feel uncomfortable and there is a lot of ambiguity in the MDM program, but it’s by design. And it’s probably one of the most valuable skills that you walk away with here: not only do you learn how to figure things out without a lot of guidance but you also feel comfortable being uncomfortable.