Guest post by Julia Meriel

Hi, my name is Julia Meriel and I’m a REAP alumni in my 4th and final year of the Honours Psychology program at UW. This is the story about how I learned about the REAP initiative, and how it has been instrumental in my growth as an undergrad.

I first heard about REAP through my TA, Marta Borowska, in a class called Introduction to Digital Media Studies. She had mentioned it briefly whilst introducing herself and it captivated my attention and I was hooked. I asked her about it and she kindly connected me with Diane Williamson. Diane invited me into the Felt lab and allowed me to explore the technologies they had in their space.

After some poking around, I realized that augmented reality was at the top of my list of technologies I wanted to work with. Though I had very little experience in that field of work, Diane welcomed me into the program after some conversations and challenged me with my first “lean” sprint:

“Get familiar with Augmented Reality by reading the Wiki and Layar discussion and support groups. Propose a simple AR application you’d like to build. Design the marker and the AR experience when the marker is scanned using Layar.”

My deliverable was to present a show-and-tell and an AR demo of what I built, using the Layar app. It was a very different and new thing for me to explore, so, sure it was intimidating, but above all, it was exciting!

Through my research of AR, I learned a lot about it – the way it worked with ‘markers’ – which are identifiable targets that work similar to QR codes – and what it would take to create a good AR experience with the Layar app. After a brainstorming session, the idea came about to create a tool for students in digital media, design or development, that would help showcase their work without the worry of file size. I tackled REAP’s “Big 3” questions: is it technically feasible? Market desirable? And business viable? With all the excitement and all the independent work I completed, I said yes to all these questions and presented my work to the community after 2 weeks of work. It received positive feedback from the REAP community which was very encouraging.

This was then followed by a second sprint to improve the idea and to work on a presentation for the Co-op board of the university, and this is where I was driven to investigate the concept of usability. The presentation was scheduled right after the month of exams, and as I gave the presentation, I found myself hearing some critical questions that I had never thought of answering. A question that still sticks with me today is, “how would an employer use this?” At that point, I could see where I had failed to cover my bases and where I humbly realized, I need to learn more about usability and why it matters so much. A project that I thought for sure would fly, didn’t. Instead, it lost its flair.

But the story doesn’t stop there.

Professor Jill Tomasson Goodwin – a REAP executive – reached out to me and was a catalyst in sparking my interest in UX, something I had only heard of. Jill gave me the opportunity to attend Fluxible, a user experience conference, or as they like to say, “The UX party disguised as a conference”. Here, I met a few fellow REAPsters and some industry professionals and was in awe as I learned about their experiences with UX, their career journey and how UX is in everything. As the weekend wrapped up, my mind was open to something new and a possibility that I never thought existed for me as a Psychology student, and it was really exciting.

Itching to learn more about it and gain more knowledge and hands-on experience, I eagerly enrolled in a Digital Arts Communication course called User Experience Design, taught by Professor Goodwin. I knew that I was exploring the unknown and that this was very unfamiliar territory since only one of my classmates was from the Psychology program and the rest were enrolled in Fine Arts, or in the Speech Communications program. Nonetheless, I persevered through the unique course structure and its components. From integrating some of my skills as a research assistant in Psychology labs, I learned how to develop interview protocols, conduct interviews, build a persona, conduct usability tests, analyze test results and presented them to the Marketing and Undergraduate Recruitment and Admissions Team (MUR, for short).

This experience allowed me to develop some insightful thinking regarding one of REAP’s model of questions: is it market desirable?

The focus of the question being the market. That market consisting of the users of a product –without them, the product does not thrive, and it cannot survive in the competitive environment that all products live in. Looping back to the Augmented Resume, I thought to myself that I naively pursued the development of a product when I really had no idea what potential users would think. And instead of ruminating on this thought, I put on my UX thinking cap and found myself looking for more ways to get involved with and learn what UX is like in the real world and what possibilities were out there for me as a Psychology student. And so I reached out to Jill:

“Hey Jill, what’s the next step from here?”

“Well, there are a few User Experience firms in Toronto that may be worth looking into.”

Jill  mentioned a few, but one name stuck – Akendi, “an innovating user experience design agency, UX research and usability testing consulting firm.”

So a couple of months pass during my 5-month summer in Toronto and after applying to countless jobs, I remembered Akendi and decided to try and pursue an internship with them for the summer. Delightfully surprised, I heard back from them asking to meet. So I prepared my portfolio in a Keynote presentation and populated it with just 2 projects –The Augmented Resume and the work from the User Experience Design course. Projects I would not have otherwise completed, had it not been for my involvement with REAP.

Three weeks later, I started my first day as Akendi’s first UX intern, learning the ropes of the industry from my supervisor, Daniel Iaboni, who happened to be a University of Waterloo Alumni, who did his PhD in Augmented Reality. From gaining exposure to the work culture of an office job, wireframing for a telecommunications company, realizing the constraints of business rules, participating in ethnographic research, completing an internal user experience research project from start to finish, and obtaining a User Experience Specialist certification, I start my last year at UWaterloo with a lot to be thankful for at REAP.

Without the team at REAP, I would not have gone where I’ve been. And my undergraduate experience would not be as fruitful without their support. The best part is that I know I’ll always be welcome as a REAP alumni to come in for the Lunch & Learns and for advice wherever I go on this journey.

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