An Interview with Professor Judy Ramey

Monday, October 17, 2011

Human Centered Design & Engineering Professor Judy RameyHuman Centered Design & Engineering Professor Judy Ramey has taught at the University of Washington since 1983 and plans to retire after this academic year. As a pioneer of usability, Ramey's impact on both the university and the world has been enormous. Current HCDE Chair Jan Spyridakis notes that "the department owes much of its current stature to Professor Ramey for her broad vision in designing both the MS and PHD degree programs for the department. Judy's professional competence and indefatigable research efforts have served as a model for our department and the international development of usability research methods. Judy's dedication as a scholar, teacher, researcher, and innovator has well served the field."

Professor Judy Ramey is receiving the 2011 Ronald S. Blicq Award for Distinction in Technical Communication Education and the Best Paper Award this month at the 2011 International Professional Communication (IPCC) Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, by the IEEE Professional Communication Society. The Blicq Award recognizes innovative educators who have influenced the ways that technical communication is taught. Ramey is receiving the Best Paper Award for two papers: "The Systematic Literature Review as a Research Genre," by Judy Ramey and Priya Guruprakash-Rao; and "Use of Mobile Phones by Non- or Semi-literate Users: A Systematic Literature Review," by Priya Guruprakash-Rao and Judy Ramey. When asked to comment on the awards that Professor Ramey is receiving, PhD student Robert Racadio said, "I've worked with Judy in research and through work with the Laboratory for Usability Testing and Evaluation (LUTE), and am privileged to have her as one of my mentors. Judy has been genuinely encouraging and supportive in my own goals, and a guiding figure for my academic and professional development. Judy's commitment to her students is without parallel."

In light of her achievements, we wanted to learn a little bit more about Judy growing up in Texas, how she became interested in usability, and her passion for food! We recently sat down with her to ask a few questions:

Q: Where did you grow up in Texas? What do you miss most about Texas?

I grew up in the small town of Kingsville, which is about an hour south of Corpus Christi in South Texas. I definitely miss my family and friends the most. (What I miss the least about Texas is the heat, scorpions, roaches, and rattlesnakes!)

Q: You studied at the University of Texas in Austin for both your undergraduate and graduate education. How did you get into usability studies after completing a PhD in Medieval Studies?

The threads of my interests were more intertwined than that. In late undergrad-early grad school, I was involved with some friends in publishing a little magazine of poetry and fiction. Then, in the middle of graduate school, I moved to Portland, OR, for a while, where I worked for a small nonfiction publisher; one of his imprints published books for computer hobbyists. (I got there in 1976, so think Atari, hand-soldered circuit boards, etc.)

After going back to school in Austin in 1979, and based on my Portland publishing experience, I received a teaching assistantship in technical writing while I worked on my dissertation. (In short, my dissertation focused on a question of clashes between secular and religious culture in the Twelfth Century.)

In 1980, I went to work for Texas Instruments (TI) as a technical writer and editor. Remember that this was when personal computers (PCs) came out, and TI was in the throes of making a PC clone, with no real understanding of end-user needs or how to meet them. As I got caught up in those issues, I actually saw similar culture clashes taking shape between makers and users of computers! So when I learned about the faculty opening at the University of Washington, I applied and started here in March 1983.

Q: The Laboratory for Usability Testing and Evaluation (LUTE) was the first of its kind in the country. How did LUTE come to fruition when you founded it in 1990?

In 1988, I did a large usability study for a local company, and Professor Mark Haselkorn, who was Chair at the time, worked with me to use that money to hire someone to help me design the lab and buy the video equipment. The College of Engineering gave me a small room in the basement of the Engineering Library, and I started doing a series of standard usability studies, mostly for local software companies, with students staffing the lab. Soon after that, as part of a larger project team, I worked on a three-year contract with IBM in diagnostic radiology systems that really gave me the scope to add a range of other methods to our toolkit (for example, field observation).

Later, when the College of Engineering wanted to hire Cindy Atman, the Dean at the time, Denice Denton, invested in a remodel of LUTE in the Engineering Library so that Cindy could also use the lab. We also had great success in getting Student Technology Fee support to keep the equipment current. When HCDE moved to Sieg Hall in 2008, we made further upgrades, including adding several "labs-in-a-bag" for mobile studies, test-management software, etc.

Q: You began at the UW in 1983. Can you describe one or two of the highlights of your career in Seattle?

I've been here almost 30 years, so it's hard to choose highlights! A few highlights include getting LUTE going, serving as chair, and launching our evening Master's and PhD degrees. It was incredibly gratifying to take part in building up the department over all these years!

Q: In addition to your research and teaching at the UW, you also maintain a food website, Eat the Best Food in the World. How did you become so interested in food and cooking? Do you have a favorite restaurant in Seattle?

When I was Chair, I developed a severe need for a hobby! I was getting way too serious about work. Just on impulse, I signed up for a cooking class; before then (obviously, since I stayed alive) I managed to eat, but I didn't cook much or pay all that much attention to what I ate. But once you start thinking about food and what makes it good, you end up caring about the whole food system—where it comes from, how it was grown, how it gets here, how you cook it, who gets to eat well, and who doesn't. You begin to appreciate it as a window into your whole culture.

My favorite restaurant in Seattle is Osteria La Spiga on Capitol Hill!