Angela Chan (BSSED 2021): Designing Society

May 10, 2022

William Gillespie

Angela Chan
Angela Chan

Angela Chan has returned to ISE to earn her master’s and to learn new, often nontraditional, forms and methods of design.

As a graduate student, she will be working in the Human Factors in Sociotechnical Systems (HFSS) Laboratory under Professor Abigail Wooldridge, where she is currently engaged in studying food-insecure communities in rural Illinois.

While the plight of those struggling to get enough to eat may seem more like the domain of a sociologist than an engineer, Angela Chan has been engineering and designing for social change since she was an ISE freshman.

Chan is of Chinese descent. She grew up among the Asian majority of Fremont, California, on the east Bay. The Asian population was so established, she laughs, that the Costco carried oyster sauce. Her dad was a computer engineer, and she was attracted to engineering, but, despite the emphasis on CS in the Silicon Valley area and California more broadly, she didn’t want to code. Attracted to the flexibility of the ISE program, she decided to challenge herself by moving to a new part of the country with such exotic features as cornfields and snow. A desire to do work that was “hands-on” led her to studying design and adopting Professor Molly Goldstein as her informal undergraduate adviser. 

Chan joined Design for America (DFA) as a freshman and stayed with the organization through senior year. According to the Watson Foundation, “Design for America (DFA) is a network of innovators using design thinking skills for local social impact.” DFA works through student groups across the U.S. exploring ways design can be applied to social problems. 

According to Chan, Design Thinking (also known as Human Centered Design or HCD), is “designing with the intention of listening to and putting the experiences of people first before developing ideas on how to tackle a challenge they face.” 

With DFA, Chan worked on many worthy projects. Her freshman year, she joined a project that started with the goal of helping seniors avoid financial fraud. The students worked with the members of Champaign’s “50 Plus! Club.” Club leadership had stipulated a concern that students using the seniors for research should also socialize with them, and DFA, following the ethos of HCD, did just that, expanding their mandate from financial fraud to chair exercises and other group events.

Chan says it was “super fun”. She liked talking to people and she liked solving problems with them. And so from freshman year on, she pursued “community design” and continued to work with DFA, doing leadership and education. 

Chan defines “community design” as “oriented towards designing for collectivism and understanding intersectional identities vs thinking about the broad, vague range of individual needs.” When the users are not only studied but invited into the actual design process, the result is sometimes called “Co-Creation” or “Participatory Design”.

Chan explains, “All these different flavors of design are ways of centering intention in frameworks of listening to, uplifting, and giving power back to marginalized voices.” Examples include:

For the rest of her undergraduate years, Chan continued to work with DFA, take design classes, and get involved wherever she could. She teamed up with Siebel Center for Design for a summer designing summer camps to teach human-centered design. In SE 302, she designed 3-D-printable shoes for seniors.

Final poster for the shoes for seniors project.
Final poster, shoes for seniors project.

Her junior year she served as DFA President; senior year she organized a small conference: Social Hack.

Organizing any conference, especially during a pandemic, takes commitment. Although it was a bit of a struggle, Chan followed through and secured a number of distinguished speakers from across America to join in dialog, including the publishers of the design magazine Deem. She had done her due diligence with a semester-long REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) project with Professor Goldstein that was a literature review of civic hackathons. During the conference, Chan was especially happy to be able to share new ways of thinking about design with the younger members of DFA—freshmen and sophomores who had spent the first years of their education isolated by COVID-19. As a happy side-effect of moving Social Hack online because of the pandemic, they had funds left over for student scholarships.

Having made the most of her undergraduate years by vigorously exploring and defining her interests, Chan returned to ISE last fall to continue to “ learn more research and participatory methods for service design/user experience research.” Quick with the definitions, she explains that User Experience Design “usually uses some brand of HCD, is a field in software dev, consumer products, and can also be used to design public services (often called service design). A lot of these are used interchangeably/are nested roles.”

It’s clear that whatever career is lucky enough to claim her, Angela Chan will be designing for the common good. Thanks, Angela!

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