The HumaniSE Lab improves the world of software engineering

How can we empower domestic workers in Bangladesh? How can we increase female job applications in Oregon’s computer industry? How can we help a tech-illiterate grandmother in Melbourne buy wool during a pandemic? And how can we meet the emotional needs of someone who has just received a terminal diagnosis?

These are just some of the questions software developers and researchers at Monash University have been throwing around recently. HumaniSE Laboratory found themselves struggling with in the first two years of their first world project. The project has the potential to dramatically improve opportunities and experiences for a wider range of users, especially disadvantaged users, as well as increase the profitability of software development worldwide.

“Software was – and still is mostly – developed by young, highly educated and relatively well-off men,” says Professor John Grundy, director of the HumaniSE lab. “And yet, it has become increasingly clear how different we, the end users of this software, are all.”

“It is therefore not surprising that a large number of people have problems using it.”

The five-year project aims to put “the human at the heart of software engineering” by creating “intelligent, human-centric software systems of the future” that take into account the unique qualities of people – such as age, culture, gender, cognitive abilities, emotions and personality – into account.

Professor Grundy has been developing software for over 40 years and witnessed the problems faced by users of early software products in the 1980s.

“They had spent all that money on software development, only to have to spend a lot more to fix problems that hadn’t been identified from the start. This has become extremely expensive, in addition to leaving many users behind or excluding them altogether.

The project, funded by the Australian Research Council’s Laureate Fellowship, includes international collaborations with organizations such as Oxfam Australia and Oxfam Bangladesh, Alfred Hospital, University of Oregon (USA) and the University Arken (Germany). The diversity of users that these organizations need to reach provides a unique opportunity to test and develop models, tools, and processes for future software engineers.

“If people can self-manage their health risks, it will ease the pressure on the healthcare system”

Dr. Jenny McIntosh, a researcher at Monash University, leads the field of digital health research and sees huge potential for reducing healthcare costs by better meeting the needs of a wide range of individual users.

“Digital health is a multi-billion dollar industry that is growing exponentially,” says McIntosh. “But it’s also incredibly inefficient. If we can promote health through simple digital solutions, we could save a lot of money. »

McIntosh gives the example of a software tool that helps identify diabetes risk – both in terms of diabetes prevention and risk management of people diagnosed with the disease.

“If a digital tool can help a pregnant woman, for example, better assess her risk of developing gestational diabetes, then she can take steps to minimize that risk. And it’s not just the woman who benefits,” she says. “If people can self-manage their health risks, it will ease the pressure on the healthcare system and empower them to manage their own health.

“A digital tool could also help assess a person’s risk of type 2 diabetes and, ideally, prevent it, which represents a huge amount of taxpayers’ money – which would otherwise be spent on drugs, surgery and later, perhaps even in the treatment of cardiovascular diseases – can be saved.

Grundy also highlights the vulnerability of many users in the healthcare setting.

“This group is about as diverse as it gets,” says Grundy. “They are often stressed when accessing technology and they can have strong emotional reactions that badly designed software can exacerbate.”

Another area where HumaniSE sees huge benefits is in the financial sector.

“There is real concern about the impact of the digital divide on those who have less access to digital financial tools,” says Grundy. “There are vulnerable people who might have older phones that the new apps don’t work on. Many developers will make assumptions about users that don’t apply to this part of the community.”

The HumaniSE Lab aims to solve this problem by investing a lot more in the research phase of software development.

Dr Tanjila Kanij is a research associate on the project and says the investment in research during software development is a trade-off, because while it’s expensive, it pays off.

“If you miss a certain type of user, you lose the benefit of reaching that audience. In my opinion, it’s a shift in perspective that outweighs the additional investment.

Kanij’s research attempts to reach domestic workers in Bangladesh through a collaboration with Oxfam Bangladesh, one of the international collaborations that is part of the project. These users face challenges with literacy and access to fair work environments. Kanij sees the potential of software to empower these workers as significant.

“40 years ago there was a higher percentage of women working in software development than today”

“There are a large number of domestic workers in Bangladesh, but their work is not well recognized,” says Kanij. “As a result, they have no fixed working hours or holidays and they are vulnerable to abuse by employees who control their employment and often their living situation. Our goal is to empower these domestic workers through digital technology. »

Two aspects that Grundy considers crucial are firstly the effectiveness of the tools created by the software, and secondly the diversity of the software engineers who create these tools. The research team includes a high proportion of women, which is surprisingly rare.

“You might be surprised to learn that 40 years ago there was a higher percentage of women working in software development than today,” he says.

Kanij agrees.

“Unfortunately, there aren’t many women working in the industry,” she says. “Even in university software development courses, women are a minority.”

Australia’s Digital Pulse Report 2021 published by the Australian Computer Society reports that only 25% of tech workers are women.

According to Dr. McIntosh, a culture of diversity is both a way of working and a goal in itself.

“We’re a very diverse team,” she says. “There are a lot of unconscious biases we struggle with, so we can use our own personal experiences to inform the project.”

Bias measurement is something that has never been attempted before but for which the project aims to create a tool.

“We’re trying to develop scientific methods to measure and improve diversity through software,” says McIntosh.

An example of such tools is known as GenreMag (gender magnifier), which has already been used at the University of Oregon. The tool has helped create software engineering job postings that address unequal gender representation in the workforce, caused by job postings skewed in favor of men.

“One of our recent studies showed that men have a different approach than women to researching and reading IT job postings,” says Grundy. “If job postings are skewed in this direction, then the workforce will continue to be male-dominated, which then continues the cycle.”

The lack of diversity also goes beyond gender.

“We have issues with ageism in the software engineering workforce,” says Grundy. “We have issues with different cultural backgrounds not being appreciated – neurotypical people and people with physical challenges not being well integrated or supported. This leads to a lack of diversity.

HumaniSE Lab aims to address all of these challenges by diversifying the software engineering workforce and understanding software users more deeply. The project will continue for another three years.

Gordon K. Morehouse