Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: UX researcher Ender Ricart harnesses human know-how to make bots higher

Filling out the Geek of the Week questionnaire was another bright idea from Ender Ricart. (Photo courtesy of Ender Ricart)

You’ve likely heard someone complain, “I just want to speak to a human!” when dealing with a customer service issue. This desire is getting more and more difficult to fulfill in the age of artificial intelligence, voice assistants, chatbots and so on. But at least there’s a human like Ender Ricart helping the technology be more … human like.

Ricart is a Seattle-based principal UX researcher for LivePerson, a company that provides brands with the software and platforms needed to manage customer relations. Our latest Geek of the Week works on the Analytics and Intelligence team to measure bot performance and recommend actions to improve or reconfigure its applications.

Ricart is doctor with a PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago. Their dissertation was on Japanese older adults’ sense of self as they transitioned from independent to dependent living.

“I looked specifically at efforts to preserve independence through the use of assistive technologies and in-home modifications,” Ricart said. “Rather than go into academia, I decided to pursue a more applied career in UX, and I’ve found that my education and skills translated really well.”

Ricart previously worked at Amazon on the tech giant’s Alexa voice assistant before joining LivePerson. An avid gamer, they said they see some of the most exciting and creative new technologies being marshaled toward leisure and play — the use of AR and VR for video games, creation of interesting handhelds that utilize motion and biometrics in gameplay, and social network gaming.

“I am excited by mixed reality, I think there is a lot of possibility there to move stores of information collected on human behavior into the everyday, interweaving our realities with a rich lattice of information,” Ricart said. “I see that, more so than VR and even current applications of AR, as kicking off a cascade of rich applications grounded in machine learning.”

On the flip side of that, humans should perhaps be most concerned about what Ricart calls “sci-fi dystopias that position information technologies as tools for policing the public.” Although, in many ways that is already happening, and as a millennial they said they are “perhaps sadly, numb to it.” Ricart would love to see technological prowess turn toward climate change, where eco-friendly forms of energy could “outcompete the current cash cows of the global economy.”

When it comes to user experience, we couldn’t help but ask an expert the last time they experienced some sense of “perfection” in that regard when dealing with tech. Ricart seized on a relatively new entry into our geeky world.

“I won some Apple AirPods and I have to say it was the most recent ‘wow’ moment I had with a piece of technology,” they said. “From the point of opening the little capsule they charge in, I was sort of just blown away. It was completely automated experience and they just worked. I didn’t have to do any set up aside from maybe click something on my phone. It was so easy and fast. The fact that this simple and relatively minor piece of technology wowed me suggests it is actually hard to achieve. It was this thing that I honestly wouldn’t have purchased myself, as I didn’t inherently see its added value to be worth the price point it is set at, but man, once I activated them, I was certainly quickly shown that they are a smart and highly convenient piece of technology.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Ender Ricart — who likes to play video games with her partner after the kids are in bed … and avoid the dishes.

What do you do, and why do you do it? Previously at Amazon’s Alexa and now at LivePerson, my research bridges gaps between a product team’s concepts and the mental models of the users who actually engage with the technology. In tech, we are often one, five, or even 10 years out, so I help product teams build the foundations of that future by grounding those visions in the present context, understanding, expectations, and experiences of the user base.

While my professional title is principal UX researcher, I think it’s more fitting to consider me a qualitative researcher who focuses on user engagement with emerging technologies, specifically conversational AI. You may already be familiar with some conversational AI, the most common being Alexa, Siri, Google Home, and chatbots. Essentially, it’s communicating with a computer through a conversation (voice or text-based), rather than navigating through buttons, menus, and screens. The goal is to accommodate a more free form and natural type of human interaction. To create an AI that can successfully converse with humans, a robust understanding of human motivation, behavior, and understanding is needed. That’s where I come in.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? User experience (UX) is a very diverse and wide ranging profession. More often than not, people will assume I am a designer, or do research for designers. I am first and foremost a qualitative researcher who specializes in building understandings of how people think about and interact with technology, real and conceptual. Based on research insights, I communicate the implications for a product or idea and then provide recommended actions or solutions, which may or may not include design principles.

Where do you find your inspiration? I love a good problem! The process of finding a solution really excites me. My “aha” moments actually often come when I’m not focused on the problem, but while I’m doing or working on something else and suddenly feel the gears clicking into place and causing things to turn more smoothly. Most recently, this happened while I was biking home from work. Unfortunately, it also happens a lot right before I fall asleep, which just reinforces for me how involved the unconscious parts of my mind are in cognition and problem solving, not just the linguistic centers of my conscious mind.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? I would have to say my phone. I wouldn’t have given this answer five years ago, but now I don’t even own a personal computer! After I spilled water on it, I just never got another. It’s been a year, and aside from using my work computer I have gotten along just fine without one at home.

I wonder if you were to ask me this question in another five years, what would I answer? Maybe I’d say that I couldn’t live without my intelligent personal assistant or smart glasses? At least I hope so, because that would mean we have made some real advancements beyond our existing technological paradigms!

(Photo courtesy of Ender Ricart)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I am a transient, so I have to work where it “feels” right, otherwise I just can’t seem to focus. As I hop from space to space and from meeting to meeting, my actual desk just becomes a sort of glorified storage area. All I really need to work is a charger, laptop, headphones, water, and my phone. You can likely find me somewhere in the kitchen, a lounge area, or by the office kombucha tap.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Keep busy! Boredom is the actual mind killer (“Dune” reference!).

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac. I’ve had Macs for so long that now a Windows OS seems foreign to me. Whole separate paradigm there.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? While I love sci-fi now, I was a much bigger fan of “Hercules” the “Legendary Journeys” and “Xena Warrior Princess” when I was growing up.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? An invisibility cloak might be useful for my profession. It would be an unusual consent form — “By signing this form you agree to be observed by a professional wearing a cloak of invisibility…”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Make sure the conditions for accepting the $1 million did not specify that I had to start a startup, and then enjoy being flush with cash.

I once waited in line for … I really can’t think of anything aside from airport security. I try to only wait in lines when it is absolutely necessary. I am inherently impatient, so the idea of waiting in line for anything by choice is beyond comprehension to me.

Your role models: In my professional life, this will often be my coworkers. I appreciate and admire people who are truly collaborative, meaning they actually listen and are not just waiting for their turn to speak. It really is like that expression — “there is no I in team.” When I work with people who can do this, I find that perspectives and ideas are elevated beyond what any one individual can produce. This ability to collaboratively create is not a common skill and is something I aspire to. People who work hard to truly collaborate are my true role models.

Greatest game in history: I am a big gamer, so I’ll need to give a few responses to this question. I lived in Tokyo for about five years, and while I was there, my partner and I started collecting vintage video games and consoles. I played “Genso Suikoden II” for the first time (it was originally released in Japan in 1998 and the U.S. in 1999). It felt more like a story told through the medium of a video game, it was the first time I had experienced such a cohesive and compelling story arch. The music is also really beautiful. I would also place “Soma,” a survival dystopian sci-fi game, up there. It, too, left an impression on me, both in terms of the immersive experience of the game and how it intertwines with the eerie plot line. Lastly, I need to include “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” as one of the greatest games in history. For me, this game is forever a token of my youth, infused with nostalgia. When the game was originally released, I played it non-stop through to completion. Like, literally non-stop. Actually, my partner and I just picked it up the other night and started playing it again. It lives up to the test of time (well, maybe not the graphics)!

Best gadget ever: Swiss Army Knife. It is a marvel of engineering, the sheer amount of raw utility packed into one tiny object.

First computer: I have never lived a day in my life without a computer, but I believe our first one was an Apple Macintosh.

Current phone: iPhone X.

Favorite app: Not super exciting, but the iPhoto app. I have a shared photo app with my partner, and he shares photos of our children throughout the day while I am at work. I check it frequently to see what they are doing and feel connected to them despite being away. It is really great that we can share our days this way.

Favorite cause: I am passionate about environmentalism. As my children grow and I have more time available to me, I do hope to be more actively involved. Right now, I try to always do my part by being as green as possible, using the power available to me as a consumer to make wise and environmentally friendly choices, limiting my carbon footprint.

Most important technology of 2019: My opinion may be somewhat biased given the fact that Seattle is the AI, VR, and AR capital of the U.S., but I see the most important technology of 2019 being artificial intelligence, insofar as it is at the center of so many of the emerging experiences, tools, technologies, and industries.

Most important technology of 2021: Mixed reality and augmented reality. All of the major companies and a lot of startups are focusing on MR and AR, including new and wearable form factors. This, to me, is the most consumer friendly medium for migrating and then growing out the current use cases we have built with our smartphones. AR/VR/MR provides new mechanisms for experiencing and creating digital information, opening up a more dynamic interplay between the virtual and material aspects of our lived realities.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Don’t just look toward the future for ideas. There is so much in the past and present that can and does inspire!

Website: Ender Ricart on Medium

LinkedIn: Ender Ricart

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