Experiential learning reveals changing higher ed landscape

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Dr. Robin Cole Jr. began his position as the new vice president of economic and workforce development and career technical education at Monroe Community College (MCC) this summer. He’s already thrilled by the commitment shown by businesses in the Rochester region to support college students through experiential learning.


“In Rochester there are a lot of local industries that are motivated and passionate about the community and our students,” said Cole, who has served in higher education leadership positions at institutions in numerous states including Tennessee, Louisiana and Florida. “Every community I’ve worked has had a specialized interest and a focus – in Jacksonville it was IT, in Louisiana it was welding, in Tennessee it was Nike. Rochester is very blessed with a flagship optics industry.”

The optics industry is just one of the many that want to be involved with MCC students while they are in school and beyond, Cole said. He added that overall, 167 employers and organizations in myriad fields provide workforce development opportunities like co-ops, internships, and apprenticeships to MCC students. He noted that 100% of MCC students do some type of applied learning during their certificate or associate degree studies.

Cole believes in the law of exposure when it comes to ensuring graduating students have the necessary skills for today’s available jobs. He explained it like this: “We give them career exposure; the opportunity to see what’s out there. Experiential learning offers individuals the opportunity to think bigger and better, to feel comfortable in the work environment, to gain experience and to eliminate fear and doubt.”

At Roberts Wesleyan College, the career development office also focuses on the interpersonal and personal skills students need to be successful in the workplace.


“A lot of what we do is help our students build confidence in themselves and what they bring to the table,” said  Kathleen Raniewicz, a career success coach who has been with the private, four-year college for almost ten years. “We listen and really focus on encouraging students at the undergraduate level. Skills we lean into are the eight NACE competencies.”

Created by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in 2015 and updated in 2020 these eight career readiness competencies and examples of each are:

  • Career & Self-Development display curiosity; seek out opportunities to learn
  • Communication employ active listening, persuasion, and influencing skills
  • Critical Thinking multi-task well in a fast-paced environment
  • Equity & Inclusion advocate for inclusion, equitable practices, justice, and

empowerment for historically marginalized communities

  • Leadership use innovative thinking to go beyond traditional methods
  • Professionalism ex. maintain a positive personal brand in alignment with organization and personal career values
  • Teamwork collaborate with others to achieve common goals and
  • Technology quickly adapt to new or unfamiliar technologies.

These competencies can be strengthened through experiential learning and about 65% of undergraduate majors at Roberts Wesleyan require an experiential learning component. Such experiences could be, for example, an internship at a local non-profit or shadowing at a health clinic. All students are encouraged to participate in at least one experiential learning opportunity during their time at Roberts Wesleyan.

If there are equity, accessibility, or other issues that don’t allow for a student to go off campus to complete experiential learning, the career development office provides assistance to find on-campus opportunities related to their fields. They also support curricular-based projects where businesses come to campus to work with groups of students on real-world projects.

“An important part of experiential learning is academic reflection work,” Raniewicz said. “It’s not just about the task, but ultimately learning and developing from the opportunity.”

When Dr. Julia Overton-Healy, director of career services, St. John Fisher University, assumed her role in 2018 she, like Cole, was not familiar with the Rochester business community but has been extremely pleased with how they welcome student learners.


“When we put out a call for a mock interview night we’re flooded with volunteers,” Overton-Healy said. “The Rochester business community is very helpful and very engaged. They really want to mentor and foster students from all the local colleges and universities. They know that this is an important part of attracting and retaining talent locally.”

Overton-Healy called Fisher’s relationship with the business community “wonderful synergistic” and pointed to Wegmans, Paychex, Constellation Brands, Rochester Regional, UR Medicine, and the Buffalo Bills [Pegula Sports and Entertainment LLC] as just a few of the regional employers that support students with rich experiential learning opportunities.

“One of the unique things about St. John Fisher is that we’ve embedded career design into our curriculum,” Overton-Healy said. “It’s woven throughout the entire academic experience here and we’re committed heavily to experiential learning in many forms, like mentorships, internships, job site visits, and sponsored research with faculty members.”

A survey of Fisher’s past two graduating classes showed that 87% of undergraduates completed some form of practical or experiential learning experience during their time at the university and, of those, 40% completed two or more. These numbers are only from students who responded and could be even higher, Overton-Healy notes.

All of the professionals interviewed for this piece noted the impact COVID-19 has had on experiential learning and workplace hiring. Many experiential learning opportunities continued for college students during the pandemic’s lockdown but were done remotely or in other ways not typically done before. Both students and internship hosts had to be flexible and open to change.

“COVID has changed the way we have all done our work,” Overton-Healy said. “As employers revisit the way they attract talent and re-frame their recruiting strategies, it’s more important than ever they look at an applicant’s reliance, grit, and problem-solving skills.”

Caurie Putnam is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

Monroe Community Hospital acquires virtual reality technology for rehab patients

Monroe Community Hospital will begin using cutting-edge virtual reality technology to help rehabilitation patients.

MCH is the only long-term care facility in New York to have a C-Mill VR+ on site. The C-Mill VR+ is a motivational step and balance training treadmill system that simulates challenges in everyday life through augmented and virtual reality.

C-Mill VR+ helps prepare patients for real-life situations again after a trauma or injury by giving them a safe and engaging way to practice simulated activities such as walking on uneven pavement, lifting their feet over doorsteps and navigating obstacles.

“The C-Mill VR+ uses the latest technology to return mobility to those who are injured or suffer from trauma be they rehab patients or long-term care residents,” said Monroe County Executive Adam Bello in a statement. “MCH continues to lead with therapies that give residents the best chance at a positive outcome and success. I thank our donors and the MCH team for all they do every day to care for our hospital residents.”

The technology was made possible in part through donations from West Herr Auto Group and the MCH Foundation.

“Thank you to the West Herr Auto Group and MCH Foundation for making it possible for us to acquire this amazing new system,” said MCH Executive Health Director Alyssa Tallo. “Their support gives MCH cutting-edge treatment approaches for a variety of patient populations, to help further progress their mobility and prevent resident declines. As the only long-term care facility in the state to have this technology, we can’t wait to start our residents and patients on this unique therapy.”

The technology also will benefit individuals in long-term care who need to improve their overall walking performance and reduce the risk of falling. Additionally, the device can help individuals who are not yet mobile improve their strength and balance while remaining seated.

“We are grateful for the support the Rochester community has shown to our seven West Herr Rochester area dealerships,” said West Herr Automotive Group President and CEO Scott Bieler. “It is because of that support that we continue to be dedicated to contributing in our small way to making Western New York a better place to live, work and play.”

MCH is the 17th largest standalone skilled nursing facility in the U.S., and the largest in Western New York, operating 566 skilled nursing beds.

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer

Orolia acquires Spanish firm

Rochester’s Orolia, a leader in resilient positioning, navigation and timing solutions, has acquired Seven Solutions, a global innovator in White Rabbit sub-nanosecond time transfer and synchronization technology. Financial details of the transaction were not disclosed.

White Rabbit technology is an extension of Ethernet developed at CERN.

The merger with Seven Solutions, based in Granada, Spain, will enhance Orolia’s portfolio for defense, aerospace, data centers, telecom, financial services, smart grids and other critical infrastructure industries and will enable the next generation applications dependent on ultra-precise, resilient timing and frequency technology.

“Orolia and Seven Solutions under one umbrella will combine our world-leading technologies to draw a new frontier in network timing to sub-nanosecond levels, delivering the most robust and accurate resilient PNT solutions for our customers,” said Orolia CEO Jean-Yves Courtois in a statement. “Seven Solutions’ long history of delivering cutting-edge time distribution solutions to sectors like telecommunications, smart-grid, aerospace, defense and scientific facilities aligns perfectly with Orolia’s DNA. It will add to the list of industry-first capabilities that Orolia regularly brings to market to unlock new possibilities for our customers, including to further protect their critical applications against threats, disruption, manipulation of PNT services, such as GPS/GNSS jamming, spoofing and outages.”

The two companies will integrate global sales, marketing, product development and operations.

“We believe the union of our companies will produce the future of time transfer and frequency distribution solutions in terms of accuracy, reliability and interoperability,” said Seven Solutions co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Rafael Rodriguez. “Finance, 5G telecommunications, data centers and hyperscalers have new and upgraded functionalities requiring ultra-accurate time distribution accuracy. To maximize interoperability, our solution for time transfer is based on the White Rabbit concept that has been pushed over the last decade to become the basis of the standard high accuracy time transfer profile.”

Both companies are members of the Open PNT Industry Alliance, an international organization that focuses on market concepts that strengthen economic and national security by supporting government efforts to implement resilient PNT capabilities for critical infrastructure.

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer

Boundless Connections to offer summer technology camp for teens

Boundless Connections Technology Center will offer a technology summer camp for teens from July 26 to July 30.

The TECH Unleashed program is for kids aged 13 to 17 who are interested in computer programming, 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality, graphic arts and video/audio editing. The camp will take place at the technology center at Sibley Square in downtown Rochester from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.

“This camp is a kickoff to our year-round TECH Unleashed after-school program,” Boundless Connections CEO Christina Lopez said in a statement. “Giving young people the opportunity to engage with technology at their pace is part of our goal of developing a pipeline of tech-savvy people who want to live and work in the Rochester area.”

Participants also will receive guidance on project and time management, leadership and team building, public speaking, research and industry networking.

“Our Olean pilot tech center started around TECH Unleashed and it’s been a turning point for many of the young people who have participated,” Lopez said. “We’ve had members go on to pursue careers in different tech-based fields, from video production to web and app design to rocket science and everything in between.”

Full scholarships are available and camp space is limited to 20 participants. Year-round membership is not necessary to attend camp. More information is available by emailing [email protected]

“Part of what sets our programs apart is the autonomy we give members,” Lopez said. “As facilitators, we help guide them and keep them on track with their goals, but this isn’t a class, so everyone is learning and exploring what they’re passionate about at their own pace.”

TECH Unleashed members receive a junior membership giving them access to the tech center during staffed hours without a parent or guardian. Boundless Connections’ goal is to help community members keep up with the rapid pace of change in technology, meeting the demands of a dynamic and evolving workforce while helping members develop essential skills.

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer

Boys & Girls Clubs, AT&T collaborate on summer digital literacy program for kids

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Rochester has partnered with AT&T to create a free digital literacy and education summer program to address equality issues in technology education.

The program will help local students impacted by the digital divide by encouraging more underserved and diverse students to enter the field of technology, a field with a known diversity gap. AT&T and BGC Digital Experience will provide 40 underrepresented students ages nine to 18 in the Rochester region an opportunity to gain digital literacy and readiness skills through unique technology-focused immersive experiences while encouraging them to explore a STEM education and career path.

The program runs from July 5 through Aug. 30 at 500 Genesee St. The free program has been made possible by financial support and programming collaboration from AT&T.

“AT&T is proud to collaborate with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Rochester to develop and support this innovative experience for students, as it further enhances our commitment to providing resources to STEM-related educational programming throughout New York, and builds upon our vigorous efforts to bridge the diversity gap in the technology industry,” said Amy Kramer, president, New York, AT&T. “Our economy continues to transform at a robust pace, requiring a workforce with a focus on technological education and literacy, and digital literacy programs like the AT&T and BGC Digital Experience are vital to ensure that students, despite gender, race or ethnicity, are equipped to compete in the global innovation economy of tomorrow.”

Over the two-month program, participants will learn digital literacy skills that include computer coding basics, drone design and operations, robotics building and programming, innovative engineering design, virtual reality fundamentals and aeronautics.

The program also will connect students with team-based coding projects designed to make a difference in their schools and in their communities, while providing them hands-on experience developing their own technology. Students also will learn from local mentors and professionals as well as attend field trips to tech settings and companies in their community to learn more about career opportunities.

“Combatting summer learning loss, especially this summer, is exceptionally critical,” said Boys & Girls Clubs of Rochester Executive Director Dwayne Mahoney. “AT&T’s support of our club members’ futures and their achievements is greatly appreciated and will continue to have a positive impact on each of them well into their lives beyond the club.”

The deadline to apply for the program is June 30.

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer

Xerox acquires augmented reality firm, makes changes to business segments

Xerox Holdings Corp. is in the midst of reinventing itself with a number of management and divisional changes.

The former document company — and one of Rochester’s one-time Big Three employers — has expanded its software portfolio with the acquisition of CareAR, an augmented reality support platform company that provides real-time access to expertise for customers, employees and field workers.

With CareAR software, remote agents and experts can virtually set the situation and visually guide a solution using a suite of augmented reality tools via desktop, mobile and smart glasses devices, as though they were there in person.

“Our software solutions address some of the biggest needs for customers: content management, digital transformation and personalized communications. And now we’ve added enterprise augmented reality,” said Xerox President and Chief Operations Officer Steve Bandrowczak in a statement last week. “By combining DocuShare, XMPie and CareAR, we have a software business that can together and apart support a wide range of clients’ needs.”

On Monday, Xerox announced organizational changes to support its plans to create three new businesses — Software, Financing and Innovation — aimed at delivering long-term growth this year and beyond.

“We are focused on increasing the breadth of our offerings to better reach new and existing clients and drive organic growth,” Xerox Vice Chairman and CEO John Visentin said. “Our plan to stand up three separate businesses by 2022 will provide greater focus, flexibility and visibility as we position Xerox for the future.”

Nicole Torraco has been promoted to senior vice president, Xerox Financial Services, to lead the company’s financing business. XFS will become a global payment solutions business, aimed at expanding its customer base, creating potential cross-selling opportunities and helping to support small and medium-sized businesses.

Sam Waicberg will lead the Software business as vice president and general manager of Digital Services. He joined the organization with the acquisition of CareAR.

Naresh Shanker will lead the PARC Innovation business as senior vice president and chief technology officer. Xerox has made progress advancing new technology in recent years with products including 3D liquid metal and industrial IoT products, cleantech technology and more. PARC will include the scientists and engineers in Palo Alto, Calif., Cary, N.C., Toronto, Ont. and the Xerox campus in Webster.

Executive Vice President Louie Pastor has been appointed chief corporate development officer and chief legal officer. He will lead a new Corporate Development group responsible for sourcing, evaluating and executing mergers and acquisitions opportunities and venture investments, including the company’s recently announced $250 million corporate venture capital fund.

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer

Luminate NY winners announced

A Boston-based tech manufacturer will receive a $1 million award and set up operations in Rochester as part of its Company of the Year Award in Round 3 of the Luminate NY Accelerator Competition.

SunDensity, which originated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will locate its manufacturing facility in Rochester. The company produces Photonic Smart Coatings (PSC) for utility solar power producers who need to reduce the cost of energy. Its nano-optical coating improves solar output by 20 percent more than other coatings for solar panels, thus propelling solar energy adoption into the next generation of clean power.

“We are really delighted to win this award. With this support, SunDensity is on its way to great success in New York State and beyond,” said SunDensity CEO Nishikant Sonwalkar.

Luminate’s Finals 2020 competition was held at the Optical Society’s International Frontiers in Optics & Laser Science APS/DLS conference. Funding comes from the state of New York through the Finger Lakes Forward Upstate Revitalization Initiative.

“Luminate NY’s strategic investments in these emerging companies have upheld New York as a worldwide leader in optics, photonics, and imaging,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday. “I congratulate SunDensity on winning Round 3 of the innovative Luminate NY competition and look forward to the company contributing to the growth of our region’s OPI industry, which will continue to help move the Finger Lakes economy forward.”

Finals 2020 marked the half-way point of the five-year, $25 million Luminate accelerator program. Since its inception, the program has invested $7 million in 30 startups. The companies in the portfolio now share a net worth of $160 million, officials said.

In addition to providing an estimated 1.5 to 2 times return on investment, many of the companies are establishing U.S. operations or some aspect of research and manufacturing in the Rochester region, which continues to be the epicenter of the OPI industry in North America.

Rochester-based Simulated Inanimate Models was awarded the Outstanding Graduate Award and $400,000. Its technology, SIM ARTS, offers an immersive “flight simulator for surgery” that eliminates patient risk by enabling surgeons to practice complete procedures on lifelike anatomical models in an augmented reality environment that does not require the presence of the expert instructing surgeon.

Rubitection, based in Pittsburgh, secured the Distinguished Graduate Award and $300,000 for its Rubitect Assessment System (RAS), which provides early bedsore detection and management tools. Honorable Achievements and $250,000 in funding each went to two companies: AkknaTek — a Germany based company providing a Lens Reviewer, Optical Imaging System that reduces post-operative refractive surprises after cataract surgery — and Nodetect, a Denmark company offering a portable, rapid nanosensor for analyzing biochemicals in the agriculture and farming industries.

“Luminate NY continues to give companies from around the world a resource-rich place to establish U.S. operations and to advance the caliber of their technology and business,” said Sujatha Ramanujan, managing director of Luminate NY. “It’s this type of inventive ecosystem and statewide support that makes the Finger Lakes region a smart destination for OPI based companies.”

The Luminate NY accelerator is based in Rochester and selects 10 promising companies each year to participate in its six-month program. During that time, companies are provided with comprehensive training and resources to advance their technologies and businesses. Applications are now being accepted for Round 4 through Jan. 7, 2021.

Because of the challenges presented by the pandemic, Luminate has adjusted its participation requirements. Teams that can physically locate to Rochester for the six-month program will receive $100,000 in funding upon program start in April 2021. Teams that are unable to locate to Rochester due to travel and Visa restrictions will receive $50,000 in funding upon program start and an additional $50,000 that must be used to engage resources in the Finger Lakes region during their time in the accelerator.

“The Luminate NY competition has been a great addition to Monroe County over the last several years and has really tapped into our region’s entrepreneurial spirit and storied leadership in innovation, photonics and advanced technology,” said Monroe County Executive Adam Bello. “The seed money that Luminate NY provides for these start-ups is critically important and can help to grow jobs and ideas right here in Monroe County. Congratulations to this year’s award winners.”

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer

Research Internet of Things devices before purchasing for business use

Heidi Trost
Heidi Trost

Internet of Things (IoT) technology refers to giving everyday objects access to the internet. That includes your coffee maker, refrigerator, thermostat and nearly any other object can collect data, perform actions, communicate with people and other objects, and be controlled remotely.

Benefits of IoT tech

IoT technology is amazing. Today, you don’t have to be at home in order to see who is at your front door. Video doorbells, which connect a video feed to your smartphone, allow you to monitor what’s happening at your home remotely. Some even let you talk to the person who is at the door.

Video doorbells are just the beginning. IoT technology has major implications for businesses. Sensors placed on objects can track what’s happening around them, turning areas that were previously difficult to monitor—like manufacturing plants and a farmer’s field of crops—into data-rich environments that help business leaders make informed decisions.

Like the thermostat you can control from your phone, a major benefit of IoT devices in a business setting is the ability to control systems remotely. Some IoT devices are even smart enough to make autonomous adjustments in response to the data they receive—even communicate with or control other devices. That means an IoT device can not only tell you that one of your business-critical machines is not functioning properly, it can actually do something about it.

Challenges with IoT tech

IoT technology also presents unique challenges. The IoT devices available today are built for different purposes and produced by a wide range of manufacturers that don’t have a set of universal standards

Many IoT devices and the user interfaces that allow humans to interact with them don’t adhere to basic usability principles. That means the devices are not only annoying to set up and use, but also increase the probability of human error, which could have larger safety and security consequences. This can also affect your business in two important ways: First, the interface slows employees down because it’s hard to configure and use. Second, a confusing interface could have life-threatening consequences when you consider contexts such as in medicine, power plants or while driving a car.

Speaking of security, the same video-monitoring technology that helps you keep your home safe could potentially be used for nefarious purposes by the people you are trying to keep out. The major flaw in IoT devices is that security is often not built into the devices from the start. Just as you can’t expect long-term structural integrity from a house built on a cracked foundation, you shouldn’t expect security from a device that wasn’t initially designed with security in mind. This is especially true when an object that was not previously intended to connect to the internet is given this capability as an afterthought.

If you’re buying IoT products for your organization, here are a few areas of concern relating to usability, privacy and security:

  • The manufacturer often doesn’t support the device after it ships. Security threats are constantly evolving, so IoT devices that are shipped and never updated again—despite new threats or uncovered vulnerabilities—are a major security risk.
  • IoT devices are shipped with terrible default usernames and passwords (for example, username: admin, password: password). To make things worse, the end user often doesn’t even know the credentials exist, so they don’t think to change them.
  • Lack of security around the data that sits on the device, as well as data going to and from the device. For many IoT devices, data needs to be both stored and transmitted. Unfortunately, not all manufacturers have taken the right steps to ensure data is secure when on the device. Further, the data is not always encrypted as it travels to and from the device.

Planning ahead

IoT devices pose security risks. So what does that mean for your organization? First, research the devices prior to purchasing them. What security measures has the manufacturer built into the device? How will the device be supported—if at all—after you receive it?

From a usability perspective, how well will employees be able to use and manage the devices? What risks do the devices pose in terms of increasing human error? If you’re developing custom systems and software around the devices, have you taken steps to ensure errors are prevented and, if they occur, can they be easily rectified?

Finally, and most importantly, what internal security measures do you have in place? Just like you would not give out copies of your house keys to everyone you meet, limiting the people and devices that access to your network is a security best practice. Keep in mind, when a vulnerability on an IoT device is exploited, bad actors can gain access to your network through the device, and then gain access to everything else on that network. The solution? Segregate IoT devices from the rest of your network. If you don’t have an internal IT team to help you, enlist the help of an IT services firm.

IoT technology presents amazing opportunities for businesses and consumers. They also present major usability and security risks. Before purchasing IoT devices, research the products to understand the security implications of each device. As a best practice, limit access to your network. As part of that, IoT devices should be siloed from the rest of the network.

Heidi Trost is a usability expert, user experience researcher, speaker and founder at Voice+Code.


Virtual and augmented reality have promising business, consumer uses

Heidi Trost
Heidi Trost

Although the concept of virtual reality (VR) has been around for a long time, the buzz around Google Glass in 2013—Google’s initial failed attempt at smart glasses—made the combination of the virtual and physical worlds seem right around the corner.

VR refers to an experience where the user is completely immersed in a computer-generated environment. Augmented reality (AR) refers to an experience where computer-generated content is mixed with the physical environment. Mixed reality (MR) melds the real world and computer-generated environments, allowing real-world movement and objects to affect the virtual world. Despite the support of a software giant and ample publicity, Google Glass never took off. People weren’t convinced that the benefits of the technology outweighed the requirement of having to wear clunky glasses in public.

Year after year, VR seems to be in the headlines featured as the “next big thing,” with much of the fanfare being centered around gaming and entertainment. In 2016, Goldman Sachs predicted virtual and augmented reality could be an $80 billion market by 2025. But what recent progress has been made? Google Cardboard is a cheap contraption that attaches your smartphone to your face, turning it into a VR experience. More expensive VR headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, because of their high frame rates, require a powerful PC for the best gaming experience in addition to the purchase of the headset.

Expanding VR/AR use cases

While virtual reality may not be an overnight success, recent developments are encouraging. VR, not surprisingly, has been used for entertainment purposes, from games to live broadcasts of sporting events. But VR and AR have also been used for more mundane activities, such as choosing the right furniture for your living room. Modsy is a design service that allows you to use AR to create renderings of your room that you can then rearrange and style. Furniture retailers are quickly starting to offer the same service.

VR and AR also have promising educational use cases. VR gives students the opportunity to visit historic locations and time periods without needing to leave the classroom. Similarly, corporate training can be transformed from boring videos and webinars into immersive, engaging experiences.

Vuzix, an AR technology company with headquarters in Rochester, has both consumer and enterprise smart glasses. The consumer smart glasses, which rely on the user’s smartphone, can be used to take and share photos and receive notifications. The business-specific products can help employees identify objects in a warehouse and field service technicians easily access documentation.

VR/AR and your business

So what does VR/AR mean for your business? As VR/AR hardware improves and its use cases expand, businesses have the opportunity to create immersive experiences for both customers and employees. Through the research we’ve done at Voice+Code, we know that digital experiences are human experiences. People don’t separate the two.

Think about how our smart devices have already become extensions of ourselves. Virtual and augmented reality further blur the boundaries between what is real and what is digital. VR headsets immerse us in a computer-generated world and block out our current environment. Smart glasses can enhance activities we already do online, such as comparing items to buy. The technology can also transform offline experiences into virtual or blended experiences. For example, AR can provide informational overlays as we complete complex tasks, impacting professions from architecture to medicine.

As with any new technology, the future is both exciting and worrisome. AR will make employees more efficient and help doctors make more accurate diagnoses. But becoming more deeply immersed in the technologies we develop isn’t always a good thing. For example, the inability to establish boundaries between the real world and the digital world can negatively impact relationships. In addition, the immense attention we give to our smartphones has caused accidents involving drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. Even though you may be looking ahead as opposed to down at a screen, smart glasses could enhance your experience of the physical world one minute but detract and distract a minute later. As use cases expand, designers and developers should be taking into account the broader impact the technologies will have.

It has taken time to improve VR and AR hardware, software and, most importantly, find an alignment between business and user goals. But, despite the slow progress, the impact on businesses is real.

If you’re in the business of competing for attention, VR will be a way to create engaging experiences. AR can improve efficiency in business-to-business as well as business-to-consumer contexts. The merging of the virtual and physical worlds has already happened and lines will continue to blur.

Heidi Trost is a usability expert, user experience researcher, speaker and founder at Voice+Code.


Bridging the digital divide between technology creators and technology consumers

Heidi Trost
Heidi Trost

If you’re in the business of creating new technologies, including designing and developing software and hardware, your technology skills far exceed the average person, according to an international study published in 2016 by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (“Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills”). And that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. The truth is, keeping up with the latest technology advancements and improving technology skills aren’t on the average person’s list of top priorities.

Tech creators assume tech savviness

The problem with this is that today’s digital products assume a level of technology savviness that people simply don’t have. This is not only frustrating for the end user, but also potentially puts them at risk. Let’s consider an example that affects every person who uses email: phishing.

I first learned about phishing (when an email pretending to come from a legitimate sender tries to trick you into disclosing personal information, download malware, or go to a malicious website) in the early days of email. I received an email from a banking institution I had never done business with. When I called the institution in confusion, they informed me that the email was fraudulent.

The ploy is still used successfully today—despite greater awareness and security measures designed to prevent these types of messages from entering your inbox. Yes, even relatively new internet users understand that not everything on the Internet should be trusted. But how does the average email user know what or who to trust? For example, do you know how to tell where an email message originated? Most people don’t. Email users shouldn’t have to understand acronyms like SPF, DKIM, and DMARC (methods used to authenticate email) in order to send and receive email. Yet, alarmingly, email providers have only just recently started to include warning messages that flag potentially untrustworthy messages.

Let’s look at another example that, again, affects many consumers. In 2018, the FBI warned Americans to reset their routers to thwart malware that may have infected their devices. Some news outlets reported that people needed to reboot the routers—presumably just turn them off and on again. Other outlets reported that the routers needed to be restored to their factory settings and be configured with new passwords.

Considering that most routers are initially set up by service providers, assuming the average consumer would know how to reset and reconfigure a router is unreasonable. While most routers have a tiny reset button on the back of them, the process of changing any setting is a user experience feat that most people would avoid. It’s not simple, and most people have never done it before.

A digital divide

If you want to use high-speed internet at home or partake in a multitude of activities that require you to have an email address, a router and email are technologies you must use. Increasingly, the institutions that provide essential services make it difficult for people who can’t or don’t want to use technology.

This creates a gap between people who have a lot of knowledge around technology and those who don’t. When the top tier of technology experts builds products, they inevitably build in their own biases, often leaving out the needs and circumstances of the people who will actually use it. Perhaps one of the most obvious implications based on the examples cited previously is that this knowledge gap presents security risks for both individuals and institutions.

In addition, many websites are designed and developed with little thought given to people who use screen readers or other assistive technologies to access them. Interestingly, many of practices that go into making a website accessible are relatively simple and go a long way in making websites easier for everyone to use.

When technology helps us make decisions, as with artificial intelligence (AI), we rely on technology that can pick up on human biases. The data and algorithms that power AI, after all, were compiled and built by humans. Amazon, for example, stopped work on a recruiting tool powered by artificial intelligence because it showed bias against women.

Bridging the divide

So what’s the answer? I don’t think there is a simple one. The first step is to have an awareness that the problem exists: there is a divide between people who build technology and people—the majority of people—who do not. The consequences of this divide have social, economic, ethical and legal implications.

For companies designing and developing technology, understand that your tech savviness typically far exceeds the people who will use the product. The differences probably don’t stop there. Better understanding and empathizing with end users will allow technology teams to not only build better products, but also have a deeper awareness of the broader impact of those products.

On a larger scale, we need to have more conversations about the unintended consequences of technology. While conversations are far from a solution, they are a start if we want to create technologies that improve people’s lives and are safer, inclusive and more accessible.

Heidi Trost is a usability expert, user experience researcher, speaker and founder at Voice+Code.

RIT’s Munson discusses joys, challenges of his time in Rochester so far

RIT President David Munson
RIT President David Munson (Photo by Kate Melton)

Rochester Institute of Technology, with its more than 19,000 students and focus on career-minded majors and job creation, is the fifth-largest employer in the Rochester area. Locally the university employs 4,123 people with the vast majority of those in full-time jobs.

RBJ Reporter Diana Louise Carter and Editor Ben Jacobs sat down in March with the man who manages all that, RIT President David C. Munson. He arrived less than two years ago but in that time, he has proved to be a quick study on Rochester, and quick to come up with bold plans for RIT.  This interview has been edited for length.

RBJ: How have you and your wife settled into the RIT community and Rochester at large?

Munson: I think we’ve settled in well.  Rochester is probably the friendliest place we’ve lived, and we’ve lived in really friendly places in the past. It’s a very welcoming community. Obviously it’s a philanthropic community. There is a lot of arts and culture supported around the city. We happen to like the outdoors and so that’s been great, too. You don’t have to get very far outside Rochester for hiking or kayaking. That’s been terrific. The only hard part really has been that we have four sons and four grandchildren and none of them are here. So we have to occasionally slip out of town for birthdays and things like that.

RBJ: Has anything surprised you about RIT or Rochester?

Munson: Certainly no big surprises. When I was thinking about this position I looked into RIT really carefully and was somewhat familiar with the Rochester area. I had visited here a couple of times. I had visited the research labs at Kodak,  and I attended a technical conference that was at the convention center. When I was in grad school in Princeton, my brother was in grad school at the same time in Cornell. (We had) a lot of visits back and forth. So I knew this part of the state pretty well.

That doesn’t mean that things were in any way dull or unexciting.  I had been at the University of Illinois for a long time and later at the University of Michigan and I decided I wanted to go to a different kind of university. So I looked into RIT very carefully and decided, at least for me, it was a very different kind of university. When I got here it was different in just the ways I expected. We have a lot of really creative students who have ideas and they just can’t sit still. They’ve got to get their hands dirty. They want to create something. They want to do something.

I also knew RIT was very strong in the arts. For me that was a major attraction. I don’t have much affinity at all for universities that only do technology. … RIT is also a place , and I found this attractive, that has rapidly been getting better for at least the last 20 years. And there’s a lot of headroom to be doing even more. People are excited about doing more and doing better. So the job here is not just to maintain quality where it is, but to shoot for the stars and just keep doing one new thing after another. That had happened under Al Simone, it happened under Bill Destler.  And it’s still happening.

RBJ: How important to your choice was RIT’s involvement in Rochester’s economic development?

Munson: It was really important. There’s another university I won’t name where they were courting me for president. That particular university sits right adjacent to the community and I just didn’t see much interaction and I wondered what was wrong, what’s going on. It was almost as if–they hadn’t literally built a wall around the university, but it felt like that. You were right on the edge of campus. Where were all the restaurants and things, where do students hang out? There weren’t any. Everything happened on campus. Now here, we’re out on–I jokingly refer to this as “The Farm”–but we do a lot to integrate with the city. We’ve got programs that bring our students into the city for cultural events, we have programs that involve our students giving service, and as I mentioned, I’m very involved with some of the economic development agencies. I’m downtown a lot. Of course, we own the old bank building at 40 Franklin Street. Recently we leased space in the revitalized, rehabbed Sibley building for an art gallery and various kinds of events. We haven’t decided what else we will do in the city, but we’re certainly considering things that are much more major than done in the past.  A lot of people sort of chuckle because, hey, we started in the city and then we came out here. Now the new president talks about going back to the city. Of course, we wouldn’t take the entire campus back to the city, but I would like to see us do more in the city.

RBJ: One of those stars that you’re shooting for, that you mentioned when you first arrived, was doing more with the performing arts. How’s that going?

Munson: It’s going well. And let me be clear, obviously we’re not going to compete with Eastman. We already have an outstanding classical-type musical school. I think we’re going to emphasize a lot of things Eastman probably doesn’t work so hard at. The centerpiece for us ultimately is going to be musical theater because that involves music, theater, dance and technology, which we’re really good at. We’re going to need some new facilities to push that along, so we’re thinking about that. And we have a list of the types of faculty we want to hire in the performing arts. We’re getting started–and I don’t really want to tell you everything we’re doing yet, because there are a whole lot of things cooking behind the scenes.

This semester we started the steel drum band. That’s just sort of the tiny little tip of the iceberg. Not every university has a steel drum band, but now we do. We’re very strong in the realm of a cappella groups. We’ve got about 10 a cappella groups.  The men’s group called Eight Beat Measure is really absolutely outstanding. … There’s a huge intersection in terms of how human brains work, in talent in math and science and talent in music. So we’ve got so many students who are good in math and science, and a lot of those students are also really good in music.

We have some other things we’ll be hatching pretty soon but we’re not ready to announce. Some things that will involve more being in the community and not just sit on our campus here.

RBJ: Do you foresee partnerships with any of Rochester’s performing arts organizations?

Munson: Well, so we’ve talked to a couple. We’ll see how that develops and I can’t say for sure. Our geography makes some things difficult because we do need to have some new facilities right here on our campus just for the sake of convenience. But we certainly have thought about possibly having some facilities downtown that could be shared with others.

RBJ: What do you think your best work has been in this job so far?

Munson: Oh, boy. Now you’re really putting me on the spot. Really others should make that judgment. I don’t think that’s my call.

I guess what I’m told is that there’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm around the campus for where we’re headed. A lot of that is charted out in our strategic plan. So when I first arrived, the campus was operating under a strategic plan but it had an enormous number of goals and objectives. I thought maybe we should try to focus more. So we spent a lot of my first year kind of whittling down that strategic plan and then adding a number of new elements to it. We got the number of goals and objectives down from about 121, I think it was, down to 25. And 25 that fall into four categories: people, programs, places—including the physical facilities–and partnerships including the external world. One can just go to our website…there’s a high-level description of it there.

Another thing just has to do with that people category. We really just have to continually strive to bring in–as good as our faculty and students are–even better faculty and students. That’s something that I’ve always worked on, probably harder than anything else. It was all about accumulating talent. Kind of whoever has the best talent, they end up winning at the end of the day.

Our former provost left to take another position and the first thing we did was recruit a really unbelievable provost, Ellen Granberg. She was at Clemson and was one of the sparkplugs behind really raising the profile and kind of the reality of Clemson in a major way.

We’re also very fortunate to recruit Ian Mortimer, who is our new vice president for enrollment management. Ian had been at Nazareth and was looking to be at a bigger place. And Ian doesn’t just recruit students. He gets involved in a lot of the strategic conversations around RIT. He’s only been with us since August but already making major impacts. Our number of applications are way up. I think the selectivity of RIT is going to be coming way down in the sense that it’s going to be a lot harder to get in here. We’re going to have many, many more applications. We’ve got now a much bigger focus on New York City, that area of the state, and we’re going to be developing  a much bigger focus on the international realm, as well as some other selected areas in the nation. We’re a tuition-driven institution, so we really have to be able to recruit students, including some families who can pay something close to full price. With Ian on board we’re set. It’s just really exciting to be pulling some talent into the administration. But we’re also hard at work recruiting deans, and this will trickle down into department chairs, and we’re also looking at how we’re going to be taking talent away from other universities.

RIT President Dr. David Munson
RIT President Dr. David Munson (Photo by Kate Melton)

RBJ: What have been your greatest challenges since you started here?

Munson: There have been some challenges. They’ve been more on the internal communications, sort of public relations side. We have a very activist student body.  I like that. In fact, depending on what they’re protesting, I’ll be out there with them. But there were a couple of things that occurred in my first year. And one had to do with the level of care that we–medical care, health-related care–that we offered to transgender students. When I arrived, there was a doc in our health center who had been working with some transgender students. And she had been let go. I can’t really comment on why and what happened there; it’s a personnel thing. I just kind of walked right into that. I had nothing to do with the decisions or anything that occurred before that. But our student body, understandably, was very upset. We took a lot of criticism over that, not just from our students but from some faculty and staff, from some alumni. And we took our time to figure out what we were going to do. We don’t really and didn’t at the time have experts in providing hormone therapy to transgender students. So we contracted with a doc at the UR and he’s been spending time now, this whole academic year, with our staff. Our staff is getting trained and the doc is assisting in developing care plans, if you will, for the trans community. That’s turned out well, but it was really rough for a while. Could we have communicated better or differently? I’m not so sure, because when you have personnel issues, you simply cannot talk about them.

Then a second thing that occurred, completely unrelated, was the student suicide…at the end of October.  In a big community, we lose people to all sorts of things, whether it’s student member or faculty member. We do have suicides, we do have drug overdoses, we do have deaths due to various medical kinds of conditions. We do have deaths due to automotive accidents. When your community is big…the numbers are so large that things like that are pretty much going to happen every year. But in the case of suicides, a lot of times they’re not visible to the community. This one was very visible. …This one was different, which involved the young man leaping out of the top floor of a building. Another complicating factor, though, is that we couldn’t really talk about it very openly, especially early on. You’ve got to figure out what is going on, what has occurred. ….

We immediately–because of all the uproar we had heard from the student body–scheduled an open forum for all of our students to attend. If you get in front of the students and talk about the services you offer and all the ways we might be able to help, a lot of students take that as defensive. They want to be able to talk about what happened, not about how great we are, or that we’ve got this amount of counselors, or that we’ve increased the staff in some way in mental health counseling or whatever. So we decided to hold a listening session. That occurred just a day or two after the suicide, so it was very quick. It was scheduled to go on, for I don’t know, an hour and a half or two hours, but there were students that probably stayed for three and four hours.

That was difficult, I think, for the whole community because most of the session involved students walking up to microphones we had in Ingle Auditorium and telling their own personal stories. Again, in a community this size, there are going to be people that have almost tragic kinds of stories. A lot of students displayed an awful lot of courage to talk about their own personal situation. I think that kind of session has a way of kind of unravelling things a little bit. You’re not starting to feel better, for a while you’re going to feel worse. And that’s what happened.

We took the weekend to decide how we would respond. On Monday we sent out an announcement to the campus that we were going to add a lot more staff in the mental health counseling area and a bunch of other actions we were going to take, including that we’ve launched a mental health task force, and a number of other things. I think the whole campus is now feeling way better about where we are. We’ve hired a number of those new counselors, the mental health task force is off and running and doing a great job. There’s a lot of student representation on that task force. We also have set up, or are setting up …more of a standing committee, not just for mental health but for overall health and wellness, which will include students, faculty and staff, and provide advice for the services we offer. We’re in a better spot now. That was rough. I never would have anticipated this sort of thing.

In my previous position at the University of Michigan, I certainly encountered numerous student deaths. That was always the hardest part of my job, even if you didn’t know the student. (Munson went on to describe two “totally heart-breaking” tragedies from his former university job. Both involved motor vehicle deaths of international students, whose parents had to come from abroad in the aftermath.) 

These things happen and our students, some of them, want to see a real emotional response. But we also do need to talk about the kinds of services and counseling and things that are available. So we advertise those things. You’re kind of walking this fine line where you kind of want to mourn with the community, but you also have to provide at least some leadership about how we’re going to create a path forward out of this chaos if you will. I’m still figuring some of that out.

RBJ: Recently a black-face photo from RIT’s past emerged and you responded immediately. Can you tell us about your decision process?

Munson: We’ve got a lot more emphasis on what I would label as crisis communication. That has developed since my arrival. I don’t take a lot of credit for it. There was a whole team of us that tried to figure out what we needed to try to better in this realm. So we actually made a new hire in Bob’s organization (Bob Finnerty, chief communications officer for RIT) and he’s heading up crisis communication. He was in place when this photo emerged. By that time I think we all had decided that we’re going to be really proactive on certain things and not kind of wait and to see what community reaction develops and then we’ll comment. But rather if we see something and we think we’re going to need to comment, let’s comment sooner rather than later. Bob and his team alerted me that this was being looked into by USA Today, that they had found something in one of our old yearbooks. Frankly, when I saw particularly the one photo with the students dressed up in the Ku Klux Klan outfits, I went ballistic. I wasn’t here at the time, obviously, but man, oh man, oh man. This was in the late ’70s, hey, I was in college in the late ’70s. That was not acceptable. We came out with a very strong statement alerting our community that something might come out. We felt better just telling our community ahead of time: We heard something and it’s not good and then I used the words “we condemn this in the strongest possible terms,” and that’s accurate. It turned out it took a little while for the USA Today and affiliates to put the story together but ultimately it did come out. By the time it came out, our community had already been warned about it, and they already knew how we felt about it. I think we managed that as well as we could.

Now, once the photo’s out and people see what it is, obviously people are upset, we’re all upset. We have a discussion group called “Grey Matters.’ That group discusses a lot of difficult topics throughout the year. So we just convened a special session and invited everyone to attend. There were a hundred or so people that attended. I think we had a lot of good conversation. (Racism) is something we’re always working on. I’m not going to pat ourselves on the back or anything, but I think we handled things as well as we could.

RBJ: How do you react to systemic issues, such as the recent scandal about parents paying for test takers and athletic positions so their children can attend Ivy League colleges?

Munson: The first thing is I don’t think it’s systemic. Maybe we’ll hear something else. As far as I know it’s not systemic. What occurred is definitely pretty atrocious stuff.. They’ve identified so far , I guess, 50 students or something that benefited from this fraudulent scheme. That’s 50 students out of millions, right? We’ll see.

On the other hand, the biggest negative is it’s coloring all of higher education. In my time in academia in three different institutions, I never heard a single story even remotely like this involving our students.

RBJ: Does that spark a larger conversation about colleges giving preferences to legacy students or children of large donors, which isn’t illegal?

Munson: That conversation might get a little bigger but that’s not a new conversation. It’s been going on for decades. It’s picked up steam in recent years. I think it’s a conversation worth having. I think it’s true that at some of the quote wealthier schools, wealthy donors can have at least some influence on the admissions process and there are two camps on that. Some people say, hey, that’s wrong! But other people say, wait a minute, if this person gave enough money for a whole facility or a gigantic number of scholarships, that benefits the campus, that benefits the students on the campus, so maybe it’s OK. I think it’s a healthy conversation to talk about that.

RBJ: What evidence will there be in the future of your tenure here?

Munson: The things spelled out in the strategic plan are the things I want to achieve. If we get all those things done, I’m going to be feeling good, not just for myself, but for the whole organization. I’ll feel like we really accomplished something.

The trick is to elevate the whole institution in about every possible way but try to remain distinctive as we do that. We’re not trying to be like any other university and that’s a very strong sort of desire or request from our alumni base. So when I talk about us elevating our research and development programs, I have alums that will put their hand up and say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, that’s what every other university does.” So I point out to them that I don’t think everything Harvard and MIT do is necessarily bad. There are some things that are probably OK. And I also point out we can do more than one thing at once.  The students, they’re passionate about ice hockey, but they’re also equally passionate about Humans vs. Zombies. There’s a lot of craziness on this campus and we want to keep that going.

RBJ: RIT is the fifth largest employer in Rochester area. Do you feel any particular responsibility because of that status?

Munson: We do. Because of our size, we’re one of the larger entities in the community so I think we have to feel responsibility. For example, the United Way Fund Drive. We take that very seriously. We just kicked that off. We have a nice-size goal and we feel we have to do our part. I already mentioned economic development. I serve on the boards of (Greater Rochester Enterprise, The Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council and the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce.) Anytime Matt Hurlbutt at GRE has a company coming into town that might need talent that RIT could provide, we’re right there, meeting with people and trying to get them to move here. We’ve had some big successes recently. I’ll give most of the credit to Matt and his people but we were instrumental in a number of companies coming here.

There are a couple of (alumni) that have been attracted here recently. They’re in the bay area, but they’ve opened a branch here in Rochester. The one that’s probably getting the most attention is called EmployeeChannel. The alum is Mark Oney. He’s become a huge Rochester champion. He lives in the bay area of California, but he’s talking up Rochester: “Hey let’s all move to Rochester. There’s a lot of talent available there, the cost of living is low and you can actually hang on to your employees, they don’t just skip around from one company to the next every year or two.” He’s  thrilled to be here. We’re talking to other alums, too, saying “Rochester is it, you’ve got to think about Rochester.”

RBJ: What are your thoughts about the Rochester economy?

Munson: The Rochester economy is doing better than people think. Rochester has been through this long period where the number of employees at Kodak, at Xerox, at Bausch and Lomb, what have you, has been declining, declining.  Especially with Kodak, which I understand in its heyday had 64,000 employees and now has something closer to 1,000. The thing people have to remember is at some point those declines are over. At some point you hit zero. We’re getting pretty close, right? For the last few years, actually, I think if you look at the job statistics, we’re actually growing a little bit. I think from here on out, we’re going to see just steady growth. That’s the way I look at it.

Some of the companies that have been brought to town recently, I’ll mention another one by name, LiveTiles, based in Australia. We played a role in getting them to move here. They’re looking to hire 500 employees. They work in artificial intelligence. Man, it doesn’t get more cutting edge than that. They’ve already hired a whole bunch of employees. We just couldn’t be happier that they’re here. It benefits the community obviously to have this kind of economic activity but it benefits the university, too. If more of our alums stay here locally, we can interact with them. They can work with our students. It’s all a great thing.

I should also mention we have other kinds of start-up activity here. We’ve got massive startups for our undergrads. We have the Simone Center, that works in the area of entrepreneurship on campus. Right adjacent to campus we have on John Street, we have Venture Creations. At any one time we have about 25 startup companies there. I kind of jokingly refer to them as the grown-up startup companies because they tend to be faculty or faculty and graduate students and others. We have a remarkable success rate out of Venture Creations. About 80 percent of the companies that have graduated out of there are still in business. Some of them are really poised to do amazing things. We’re just blessed across the board in entrepreneurship and economic development.

dcar[email protected] / (585) 363-7275

What voice-enabled technologies mean for businesses

Heidi Trost
Heidi Trost

The implications of voice-enabled technologies really hit me when I watched my extended family first interact with Alexa. Half of the people in the room grew up long before there were computers; they are not early adopters of technology.

My mom, for example, started her career using a typewriter and mostly relied on the telephone (the one you have to plug in) for communication. Ten years later, she was forced to use new hardware and software. While the goals of her job remained the same, the processes were completely different. She resented how confusing these new technologies could be despite the fact that many processes eventually made her job easier.

Contrast that to her first experience using Alexa. Outside of the difficulties in setting up the device, there was no user manual or learning curve. The human connection my family established with the device was instantaneous and unprecedented. Communicating through voice was natural and easy for everyone in the room from age two to 82.

When Alexa didn’t respond with the correct information, my mom was quick to come to her rescue explaining, “She didn’t understand. Say it slowly.” My young niece was delighted when Alexa told her a story and, in a digital version of hide-and-go-seek, exclaimed, “Alexa! Where are you?!” This personification is interesting and consistent with user research we’ve done at Voice+Code. Nearly all people refer to the voice-enabled technologies as “you, her or him” not “it.”

An important trend

So what does that mean for you? Simply this: Ignoring voice as part of the customer experience is not a sound business decision. For example, there are very few websites that can rival the type of interaction that voice can provide. Traditional websites are a static, one-way mode of communication that struggle to mimic the nuances in the human voice such as inflection and tone.

Take a look at these numbers as you contemplate your business strategy. Nearly half of Americans use voice digital assistants like Siri and Google Now, according to a 2017 PEW Research Center study. Over 50 million Americans own a smart speaker, according to a late 2018 NPR and Edison Research Smart Audio report.

With these numbers, it’s not surprising that businesses are trying to jump on the “voice” bandwagon, developing apps and features that take advantage of voice-activated technologies. But like all new technologies, there are important things to consider.

Five lessons for business leaders

  1. Evaluate the context of the interaction. Voice may be the opportunity to provide content in a new, more helpful way, facilitate customer service, or solve challenges in contexts where being hands-free is essential such as driving or preparing meals. Voice is not appropriate in all circumstances. Obviously, using voice-enabled technologies would not be ideal in a crowded subway setting. The content communicated during the interaction will likely determine how comfortable users are with others overhearing the conversation.
  2. Understand the type of information. It’s important to consider that voice is not the most effective way to communicate certain types of information. Long lists of options are cumbersome for users to listen to and choose from. Some content is much better described in visuals, as opposed to words. The new Amazon Echo Show, which features a touch screen, is one solution to this problem. The challenge will be to ensure voice and visuals work together seamlessly. Observing representative customers perform realistic will give your team the insights they need to understand how these products are used and how to best build your voice-activated service.
  3. Don’t expect it to cure systemic issues. Voice-enabled technologies are not a Band-Aid that will fix systemic inadequacies. For example, if your company has a history of poor customer service, voice-activated services will simply highlight those problems—not fix them. In fact, if your business currently has any customer experience issues, I strongly urge you to conduct customer research and address those problems prior to investing in any new technology. Voice-activated services rely on sound customer research, processes, and data. If those are lacking, you’re simply adding a new mode of interaction to a product that is fundamentally broken.
  4. Be transparent. Amazon doesn’t pretend that Alexa is a human; your voice-enabled technology or service shouldn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. Be transparent with users, but keep in mind that the instant connection people have with these devices is in part due to the effortlessness of the interaction. To establish the connection required to encourage continued use, the technology must indeed be intuitive and easy to use.
  5. Privacy matters. Consider the privacy concerns that your users may have. Voice+Code’s research indicates that current privacy concerns are rooted in fear of the institution and what they do with the data—not necessarily fear of the technology itself. While, as a business leader you can’t change your customers’ perception of Amazon, Facebook or Google, you can provide an experience that at least promotes trust around your organization. By this I mean the entire customer experience with your brand—not just their experience with your voice-enabled technology or service.

As voice-enabled technologies become more deeply integrated into people’s lives, the room for poor experiences diminishes. It’s important to remember that these technologies are not the solution to larger customer experience problems within your organization. They will only amplify those problems. Customer research will enable your team to craft experiences that truly help and provide value to your customers, which is the key to establishing a connection and encouraging ongoing engagement.

Heidi Trost is a usability expert, user experience researcher, speaker and founder at Voice+Code.


What you need to know about technology for a successful 2019

Heidi Trost
Heidi Trost

Every January there are predictions about what will happen in the upcoming year. At Voice+Code, we’ve put together advice about how businesses can use technology to be more successful in 2019.

Reactions to technology changes need to be faster and smarter. Companies have replaced the waterfall method of software development with agile methodology, which allows teams to respond faster to an ever-changing environment. Faster, however, is not the answer if you are building the wrong product or features. Many teams still focus on the software, not the end user. So if you are using agile development methodology, make sure you are asking the right questions and validating your assumptions with users.

It’s also important to learn from mistakes. Many people in the startup world talk about “failing fast.” But “fail fast” doesn’t mean fail on purpose by making uninformed decisions that waste time and money. “Fail fast” means learning from mistakes and doing better next time. It means building on knowledge with each cycle, allowing your team to move faster but with better results.


You can’t compete on customer experience if you ignore the user experience. Businesses will continue competing on the customer experience. It will only get more intense in 2019. A key aspect of the customer experience is the user experience. Yes, your company needs to build products quickly in response to quickly-changing technology. But companies that build products based on user research are in a better position to thrive.

Business leaders sometimes think user research stifles innovation. But the opposite is true. User research allows us to understand the people using our products and gives us the information we need to build ground-breaking, industry-disrupting solutions. When business incorporate this research into a process of rapid iteration, such as the agile methodology, they are poised to create pioneering results that people actual want. That’s the key to a return on investment.

Artificial intelligence will impact nearly every industry. Artificial intelligence (AI) will continue to impact nearly every industry at even a more rapid pace in 2019. AI gives machines the ability to behave and function in a way similar to humans. Recent increases in data and computing power have enabled AI to emerge in a variety of applications and across industries. For example, AI is at play when you get show recommendations on Netflix or use Amazon Alexa or Apple’s Siri.

AI is just getting started with service industries as one of the first areas that will feel its impact. Personal assistants, such as Alexa and Siri, will only get more accurate and better able to perform complicated tasks. Self-driving cars will disrupt the transportation industry. Customer service agents will be replaced by bots that can make recommendations, process requests, and rectify product or service issues. Doctors will use AI to analyze data and help make diagnoses.

Not in the services industry? AI is helping businesses in every industry analyze data, make recommendations, and predict outcomes. If your business fails to take AI in account, you won’t just be a step behind. You may be out of business.

Data privacy and security must come first — not be an afterthought. Until recently, many business’ approaches to privacy and security have been reactive as opposed to proactive. The only time they thought about privacy and security were when a breach occurred. Privacy and security weren’t built into products because businesses assumed that users’ didn’t care enough to warrant the investment.

This is changing rapidly. The percentage of people who are concerned about what personal information is collected, stored, and shared by businesses is increasing.

Through Voice+Code’s research, we’ve seen changes in consumer awareness about how companies collect and use personal information. This awareness is starting to change perceptions and — most importantly — behaviors. For example, some consumers have altered how they consume news information, what products they will buy, and which businesses they will engage with.

Data privacy and security have three interrelated components:

  • How the individual perceives and manages their own data.
  • How the business perceives and manages its customers’ data.
  • How the digital layer (the liaison between the company and the individual) communicates and safeguard’s the relationship with that data.

The individual plays a key role in managing their own data, which means educating people on how to keep their data secure is incredibly important. Sometimes they have a choice in what data they share. More than ever, consumers are interested in exercising this choice.

Businesses that emphasize the privacy and safety of their customers’ information have an indisputable advantage over companies who ignore data privacy and security. Those who ignore customer data privacy and security face two challenges. First, technologies like blockchain have the potential to give individuals greater control over their own information.

Second, recent legislation will likely influence how companies collect and manage customer data. Last year, California passed The California Consumer Privacy Act, which will go into effect in 2020. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation went into effect in May 2018 and will likely influence legislation in the United States.

Once a business makes a commitment to customer data privacy and security, it is the digital layer that communicates that commitment and provides each user with control over their information, as well as facilitates the ability to exercise that control. Forward-thinking businesses have already implemented privacy and security controls in digital portals that house private information. Further, they proactively help educate users on what information is stored and how to access and manage that information. In 2019, we will see more businesses integrate data and security into the foundation of their digital products.


We are convinced that development cycles that emphasize the end user and, in turn, create better user experiences are the key to building better products that demonstrate a return on investment. Artificial intelligence is likely already disrupting your industry — understand those implications or risk being left behind. Finally, planned data privacy and security will be a key point of differentiation for successful business.

Heidi Trost is a usability expert, user experience researcher, speaker and founder at Voice+Code.

Artificial intelligence is changing the face of business

Heidi Trost
Heidi Trost

What do “2001: Space Odyssey,” “The Matrix,” “The Terminator,” and “WALL-E” all have in common? They are all science fiction movies that examined the advantages and potential dangers of artificial intelligence, commonly known as AI. While the concept of AI is not new, its applications have expanded because of huge increases in data and computing power.

Artificial intelligence provides machines with human capabilities and behaviors. Machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence, feeds machines large amounts of data from which to “learn” and improve accuracy. For example, using machine learning, AI-powered machines can learn to tell the difference between a poisonous snake and a harmless one or to spot tissue abnormalities in an MRI.

Tech giants such as Google, Apple and Microsoft are investing heavily in AI research and development. For instance, Amazon uses AI to power its recommendation engine, Alexa, and its delivery drones. And Google’s AI-powered AlphaGo won against champion opponents in the strategy-laden game of Go, proving its potential superiority in strategic decision-making.

While some worry that machines equipped with artificial intelligence will do more harm than good, it’s clear AI is a game-changer that is here to stay. Quite simply, if it hasn’t affected your business already, it undoubtedly will very soon.

Improving people’s lives

While AI does force us to question exactly what we mean by “human,” I think a more relevant issue is how it can help us be better humans. One of those areas is improving accessibility. For example, Aira, a self-described “visual information service,” uses AI to help blind or low vision individuals interpret and interact with the world.

Microsoft, through its AI for Accessibility initiative, partnered with Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Institute of the Deaf to help deliver more accurate real-time captioning during lectures. The captions are generated through Microsoft Translator, an AI-powered technology that learns the pronunciation of difficult scientific terms using data from previous lectures. Interestingly, the professors found the captions improved lecture comprehension for all students in the class.

Improving decision-making

Data cannot help us if we can’t do anything with it due to its sheer volume. Through machine learning, AI-powered machines can interpret more data than a human ever could. The more data available, the more accurate they can become. The implications are staggering and span across every industry.

AI has the potential to help doctors make more informed and efficient medical diagnoses, as well as help business executives make decisions to improve manufacturing efficiencies, quality control, and even sustainability.

As someone who focuses on customers’ digital experiences, I fully expect AI to play a role in evaluating, improving, and even creating more usable and accessible experiences. By raising the baseline, AI would give my team the time to focus on the complex challenges of integrating the physical and digital worlds to improve the human experience.

Asking important questions

Instead of shying away from a technology that shows no sign of stopping, this is an opportune time to address some of the philosophical, ethical and legal questions that have been facing the digital age for a long time, such as data privacy and control. It’s also critical to take into account that AI is only as good as the data and algorithms that power it, so its output can be biased or even exploited. Addressing these issues now will help set a precedent for new technologies that will inevitably follow.

For businesses, it’s important to question how AI affects the entire customer digital experience. More than ever, there is awareness and advocacy around using technology to help people and improve the lives of generations to come.

Customers are demanding that businesses address difficult questions: How do we use technology to reduce bias instead of proliferate it? What processes and boundaries should be put in place when it comes to making decisions? What role will AI play in customer service and support? How do we build privacy and security into digital products? How do we use AI to improve usability, accessibility, and safety? These are some of the questions we are working through with our clients at Voice+Code.

Heidi Trost is a usability expert, user experience researcher, speaker and founder at Voice+Code.


Automation threatens 80,000 jobs in Finger Lakes region, study says

factory-girl-hard-1108101More than 80,000 jobs in the Finger Lakes region are highly vulnerable to automation, a new study published by the Center for an Urban Future contends, and roughly $9.7 billion in annual wages could be affected by automation in the Finger Lakes.

Of all regions in New York, the Finger Lakes region, which includes Rochester, is slightly better than average when it comes to the share of jobs that are highly automatable. The report find that 13.6 percent of all jobs in the Finger Lakes region are highly automatable, higher than New York City, where 10.2 percent of jobs are highly automatable; Hudson Valley, where 12.5 percent are vulnerable to automation; and the Capital region, where 13.2 percent are highly automatable.

Among the state’s 10 regions, the Finger Lakes has the fourth lowest automation potential, which measures the share of all job tasks that could be done using existing technology. The Finger Lakes has an automation potential of 42.9 percent, lower than Western and Central New York and the North Country, the report found.

“A new wave of automation is coming down the pike, and it has the potential to transform tens of thousands of jobs across the state,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future. “State and local officials need to get ahead of this and start preparing New Yorkers now for a more automated economy.”

However, the report’s authors caution that while 80,470 jobs are highly automatable here, that’s not to say all of those jobs will disappear anytime soon, or at all, “but a significant share of these jobs will be fundamentally transformed in the years ahead, with many requiring a higher degree of technology fluency, and some going away completely.”

The largest highly automatable occupations in the Finger Lakes are combined food preparation and serving workers, bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks and stock clerks and order fillers, according to the report.

Slightly fewer than 25,000 positions across the state of New York are 100 percent automatable. Those jobs include packaging and filling machine operators, ophthalmic laboratory technicians, logging equipment operators, slaughterers and meat packers and movie projectionists.

However, the report concludes, nearly 1.2 million jobs statewide could have 80 percent or more of their tasks performed by machines in the coming decades. Among those are bakers, bicycle mechanics, mail clerks and fast food workers.

Lower- and middle-income jobs likely will be most affected by the coming wave of automation, according to the report. Among the 100 most automatable occupations in the state with at least 1,000 workers, 68 percent make less than $40,000 per year, while 31 percent make between $40,000 and $80,000.

The report makes a number of recommendations for state and local policymakers. Among those suggestions are to expand upskilling programs that enable adults already in the workforce to develop new skills and credentials and to establish a statewide student success fund, which would empower SUNY and CUNY to implement and expand programs that help students earn a credential. The report’s authors also suggest making use of some of the state’s new $175 million investment in workforce development for programs that retrain workers for jobs of the future, and enacting federal legislation that would extend benefits from the Trade Adjustment Act to workers who lose jobs due to automation.

The Center for an Urban Future is a New York City-based think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity, reducing inequality and growing the economy in New York.

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