Graduate student and Design Lab member, Tricia Ngoon has always been interested in the science of learning. “It was always kind of born in me that I would do some sort of higher education, academic, STEM route,” she says as she reflects on the heavy influence of education, science, and math in her youth. “My parents always encouraged me to explore different fields… I think when I was a kid, I wanted to be a lawyer at some point, then a marine biologist at another point, and then all these different things. My parents were always very supportive of that.” It wasn’t until high school that her aspirations gained specificity–a community college course in psychology solidified her interest in both psychology and neuroscience. As an undergraduate, she studied psychology and then worked at a neuroscience lab at Stanford. While exploring what she wanted to do for grad school, she came across Scott Klemmer’s work with The Design Lab and was inspired to apply. Her eventual involvement with the Lab opened up many new doors and introduced exciting possibilities as the focus of her research pivoted onto creativity and human-computer-interaction.
Tricia Ngoon, PhD, UC San Diego, Design Lab member
While acting as a teaching assistant for design courses at UC San Diego, Ngoon was inspired to start thinking about creativity specifically. She realized that the relationship between creativity and problem-solving is complex. “Creativity is really hard to define and really hard to assess,” she notes. “You need to be able to quantify something… that is inherently not quantifiable.” Another challenge in creativity-based research, she adds, is the general ambiguity of the term and the fact that “creativity means different things to different people.” Regardless, she is excited to continue answering the question of how researchers can define and measure creativity. To expand on this question, she notes that “with the advancements in [artificial intelligence] and machine learning… there’s the question of how does AI help with creativity, or can AI be creative?” According to Ngoon, AI can’t be creative on its own, “but it can push people to be more creative.” Ngoon is passionate about shifting the question from how do researchers help “computers themselves [be] ‘creative’?” to “how do [researchers] help computers or technology help people be more creative?”
Currently, in the spotlight of Ngoon’s research and involvement with The Design Lab is her recently accepted paper, Shöwn: Adaptive Conceptual Guidance Aids Example Use in Creative Tasks, which will appear in the Designing Interactive Systems virtual conference this summer, 2021. Her research hypothesizes that providing “adaptive conceptual guidance” will improve a person’s implementation of examples within creative work, as opposed to providing a static example. Using the domain of web comics, “[researchers in the study] present concepts to people alongside examples as they work.” Ngoon adds that “It’s essentially a step towards coaching. For example, if [a person is] working on a comic you might present a concept to consider the framing or kind of the composition of the panel and then [show] examples of different types of framing and composition.” Ultimately, her research concluded that “these adaptive suggestions as a person is working in context really help with making a clear and more unique story. It kind of changes the way they look at their ideas because they are more likely to explore different [ones].”
Beyond these research achievements, The Design Lab has opened new doors for Ngoon, both personally and professionally. The Design Lab facilitates a supportive and diverse community of researchers and practitioners in fields ranging from automation to healthcare. “I think that it has been really important seeing how different design research touches different fields,” she adds. “That, I think, is what is most possible in being part of The Design Lab.” Similarly, as someone who has been affiliated with The Design Lab for nearly six years, Ngoon reflects on the exponential growth of The Design Lab community over the years as it’s been “exciting to see.” On a more personal level, involvement with The Design Lab and UCSD has introduced Ngoon to the many exciting leisure activities that San Diego offers–from surfing at La Jolla shores and hiking in the neighboring mountains, to trivia night at a craft brewery. “I think that being here has been great for discovering all these different sorts of activities that I don’t think I would normally be able to do anywhere else, and I think that’s what makes The Design Lab within UCSD really special. As well as just being able to be in an environment where you have a good work-life balance just because there’s so many things around you.”
Having just defended her PhD, Ngoon’s future research will be at Carnegie Mellon University, where she will be a postdoctoral researcher working on a project with educational technologist, Amy Ogan. Their study will use data collected from various sensors inside the classroom to help teachers improve teaching methods. This project will “follow on some of [Ngoon’s] research on feedback and critique that [she] did in grad school,” and marks an exciting new endeavor for her eminent future. The future beyond Carnegie Mellon, however, is less clear. Regardless, Ngoon is certain that she would like to “continue doing research that is in creativity and in creativity support tools, and to be part of a lab or work environment that’s similar to The Design Lab in terms of its collegiately and interdisciplinarity.” Ngoon is grateful for her advisor, Scott Klemmer, for pushing her to be not just a better researcher, but a “better thinker,” and she is inspired to continue pursuing the question of what it means to be a creative coach.