Figure: A prototype created as part of the PhD ‘Socially Designed: A Prescription for Brain Health’ to promote healthy social activity.

From the Edges – Dana Fridman, PhD at School of Design Innovation, Victoria University of Wellington Te Herenga Waka

9 months ago by

In our ‘From The Edges’ series we feature Aotearoa NZ Academic Design Projects. Our practice as designers can be seen to be explored, pushed and perhaps become something entirely new where it exists at the edges of our practice in the world of academia. Free from the constraints of commercial outcomes and clients, designers explore and challenge existing paradigms.

In this article, we talk with Dana Fridman about her dissertation on ‘Socially Designed: A Prescription for Brain Health’ and postgraduate study in Design at Victoria University of Wellington Te Herenga Waka.

Talk to us about your background in design and the path you took to get where you are now?

My background involves psychology and design. My path towards design wasn’t very straightforward. However, it helped me connect various interests to contribute a unique point of view. I see design as a multidisciplinary practice that can aid all aspects of life – from the health of humans to the sustainability of our planet. My approach to research combines perspectives and skills of different fields, collaboration, and delves into diverse knowledge, to find new opportunities for improvement.

Although I was always drawn to art and design, I was fascinated by the human brain, so the first degree I completed was in Psychology. It gave me valuable insights into how and why we think and behave the way we do. While conducting research in developmental psychology and cross-cultural psychology, my creative practice remained a key passion and I exhibited and sold my artworks across New Zealand. When I finished my Psychology degree, I moved to Wellington, working in mental health with young adults. While here I decided to do a one-year Graphic Design diploma. I fell in love with design and the intersections between psychology and creative practice. This inspired my interest in user experience research and design. Creative practice and wellbeing are so intertwined – and my design studies quickly became a key factor in my work with young adults as well. 

My next steps saw me working with a few design agencies and clients but I had the yearning to focus on research. I was interested in the combination of design, psychology and engineering, and I found a home in the Master of Design Innovation at the School of Design Innovation, VUW Te Herenga Waka. In my first research project I used Brain Computer Interface to design games for kids with ADHD. I was passionate about researching ADHD, game design, and emerging technologies. In my projects, I pulled various skills and knowledge together to create new and helpful designs to provide playful and engaging interventions for ADHD. In my second research project I joined the MedTech Centre of Research Excellence and Smart Interactions team to design and develop games for stroke rehabilitation. I was fascinated by neuroplasticity and rehabilitation, and how I could connect this knowledge with game design to help patients in their rehabilitation progress.

After completing my Masters, I kept working in the industry and co-founded a gov-tech start up while also teaching at The School of Design Innovation. My industry practice was already infused with literature reviews, research, participatory design and human-centred design methods. Research is so important for our products, interactions and systems, and I always strive to base design decisions on solid research. Meanwhile, something kept drawing me back to the university. So naturally I became a full time lecturer at the School of Design Innovation and started pursuing my PhD.

I was very lucky to work in a supportive environment that provided me with new opportunities to learn and grow while also staying creative. I think that this is what helped me push through even in the difficult times – the people around me, the purpose that drives me, and the ability to contribute to positive change. Designers are creative problem solvers – I think that a path that keeps challenging you while also providing you with support, purpose, and autonomy to grow, learn and create is the most rewarding for designers’ mindset. It is where designers can contribute the most and achieve their best work. As part of my teaching role and as a programme director, I helped shape a new post graduate degree – the Master of User Experience Design (MUXD) and developed courses in Design for Business, Digital Product Design, Information Design, and Design for Experience. To ensure students are well prepared when they graduate, I collaborated with other disciplines such as business and engineering alongside local and global companies. Community is essential, so to help sustain and grow the UX community in Wellington, I co-organised a local UX community that has regular public talks and workshops. I think that community building, knowledge exchange, and the ability to create and innovate for positive change are all essential to a better future.

My PhD research (Socially Designed: A Prescription for Brain Health) was also related to community building, knowledge and innovation. In my search to find ways to contribute to the ongoing efforts in the prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, I was fascinated by the power of social connectedness and how we need more awareness and tools to help people engage in healthy social activity that can influence their brain positively and help prevent Alzheimer’s Disease. I utilised methods such as interviews, cultural probes and rapid prototyping to build the knowledge around what healthy social activity is, what assistance people need to engage with it, and how we might facilitate these conditions through design. The final output was a set of cards to encourage socially supportive interactions as part of a Brain Health workshopping format for older adults that used the facilitating cards to share stories around brain health, the preparation of a healthy meal, and a public talk on brain health. The cards were later translated to the digital space through the creation of a Brain Health Community app. A set of principles and guidelines were provided based on the research to help others develop interventions, tools or technologies for healthy social activity.

Drawing of dining table with text that says "How might we support each other in maintaining our brain health?"
Figure: Illustration as part of the PhD ‘Socially Designed: A Prescription for Brain Health’

What were the catalysts or inspirations behind your dissertation on designing social interaction tools and frameworks for brain health? What did you discover?

Seeing the impact of Alzheimer’s on people around me, and hoping I could help others to prevent its detrimental impact drove my research. Talking with Geriatricians, including one of my supervisors and participants in the research, alongside the existing literature, revealed how important social activity is for brain health and Alzheimer’s prevention, but also highlighted how little awareness there is for the importance of social activity. Researchers suggest using technologies such as online social networks, however, research also shows the detrimental effect of these on the individuals’ well-being and sense of loneliness. This lack of awareness, alongside the gap of knowledge on how to facilitate interventions that encourage healthy social activity led me to investigate it further. To help reduce loneliness, promote brain health, and mitigate the negative effects of online social networks I asked, what type of social activity could promote brain health, and how can this be facilitated both online and offline.

I first started with literature reviews and discovered empirical studies that showed the importance of social support for our health and how to promote it. I reviewed online social networks and investigated how various existing design mechanisms affect individuals’ sense of loneliness and social support. I found that while people may use online social networks in search of social support, these technologies are not designed to facilitate actual social support. Engagement with subject-matter experts and older adults through interviews, rapid prototyping, cultural probes and testing helped me understand some of the challenges and needs of those who may use the design. Based on the research, I identified a framework, a prototype, design mechanisms, and design principles which were tested with experts and older adults and could guide us when we design for healthy social activity. Future clinical study would identify the long-term effects of the design.

What was the most challenging part of your research, and how did you overcome this?

The most challenging part of my research was researching social connectedness during the pandemic. I had to find new and creative ways to conduct the research. However, I think that it helped me shape the research for the better and we managed to run in-person workshops between lockdowns in times when people needed to get out and connect with others the most. Furthermore, designing for social connection has become even more relevant during lockdowns and it helped me and others realise the importance of social technologies.

The other challenging part of research is the ability to keep an open mind to multiple perspectives before nailing down a certain solution. My determination lay in my passion to investigate and find answers and this required a variety of methods that included literature reviews, interviews, cultural probes, workshops, prototyping and testing – all while maintaining an open ear to the needs of other people. This integrity helped me finalise the prototype confident that people would benefit from using it and that it would provide them with a meaningful and improved experience.

Why did you choose Victoria University to complete your PhD?

The School of Design Innovation at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington is unique. It enables and promotes a cross-disciplinary approach to design through its programmes and structure and facilitates enrolment in courses across the entirety of the university. Furthermore, it is a leading institution in research and has a growing number of PhD students in Design. Design research is essential to the discipline, and progresses the expansion of knowledge, and design’s capacity to contribute across all aspects of humanity. The third reason I chose Victoria University of Wellington was the School of Design Innovation’s fierce curiosity and its constant push to innovate in new ways, to explore what has not yet been explored and develop design and designers through research, new programmes, cross-disciplinary collaborations, alongside local and global collaborations. The fourth reason is the drive across the entire school to design ‘for good’. You can see this through programmes such as Design for Social Innovation and through the cutting-edge research conducted for health and sustainability in the research labs. Finally, and most importantly, the community of academics at the School of Design Innovation promotes a supportive environment of excellence, collaboration, integrity and innovation between high calibre experts who are kind and generous with their knowledge – which is highly valuable when you are pursuing a PhD.

How has pursuing a postgraduate degree impacted your own design practice?

Postgraduate degrees can provide designers with expansive research tools that add to their toolkit, expand their knowledge in a specific area they choose to specialise in, develop their design skills, and sharpen their capacities and capabilities to work independently. Most importantly, pursuing a research Master or PhD in Design gives you the time to really focus on a topic that you care about, investigate it deeply, and practise what you love – design. A PhD principally creates new knowledge. It is a unique and meaningful experience which I enjoyed greatly and would recommend anyone to do. 

How can people follow you or where can we see more of your own work?

You can follow my research publications under my VUW profile page:

And join my network on linkedin:

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