Posted May 10, 2018
Karthik Srinivasan has always loved stories.
As a child, he would listen to mythologies or ancient tales that would communicate some moral. He was fascinated by the characters, each influenced by another, and how they grew and developed to achieve some enlightenment by the end of the story.
From listening to stories, he began telling his own. He would invite friends to sit around him and he would narrate tales, paying close attention to his friends’ reactions. A positive reaction might convey their interest, while some other expression might encourage him to alter the story to make it more engaging.
“Their engagement or inspiration by what I was telling them gave me confidence,” said Srinivasan, who just finished his first year as an MS-HCI student at Georgia Tech. “That immediate feedback fueled my storytelling. I think research is a lot like that.”
Srinivasan came to Georgia Tech in 2017 to study human-computer interaction (HCI) with a focus in user experience (UX) research. To him, UX is just another form of storytelling. There is a message that needs to be conveyed, he said, and how you convey it – how you tell that story – determines engagement and overall success.
Whether he is working on a screenplay in his spare time or working on design for a mobile application, Srinivasan always keeps that simple question at the surface:
Who is the audience, and how can we make sure they’re engaged?
Setting the scene
Srinivasan remembers a time as a child when his father would give him storybooks to read. They would be tales of animals, all with a specific theme. Even as a young reader, he began to notice the interactions and the character development and appreciate how the protagonist and antagonist influenced each other.
He was enthralled. He paid attention to the dialogue and the action, the setting and the overall tone of the story. Most importantly, he paid attention to what engaged him and what didn’t.
Often, he would take those stories and mold them into his own, trying to develop a narrative that he found more satisfying.
“I would lift elements of the stories that I was reading or I saw on television and find a new way to tell them,” he said. “They felt like my own, even though I was just creating something from a story that had already been written. Soon, though, I began developing my own.”
He took pride in creating characters, understanding how humans interact and trying to mold that into dialogue and an organic plot. In college, he connected with a schoolmate who directed short films as a hobby and had the opportunity to work on one of his own.
Srinivasan wrote the story, getting assistance from his friend with dialogue, and the two were able to produce the film.
“It was okay,” Srinivasan said. “But I got to see my story on the screen. It was not necessarily a technically well-made film, but it was my story coming to life.”
They put it on YouTube and it garnered over 70,000 views.
“It really surprised me,” he said. “I started getting more feedback from people asking me to work with them. That’s when I realized that maybe I was okay at telling stories.”
Telling tales through tech
Immediately after finishing his undergraduate degree at SRM University in India, Srinivasan began a career in software development. He wanted to do something where he felt like he was making an impact on people’s lives, where he could gain immediate feedback and be able to develop novel approaches that better suited their needs.
He worked for a short period at a startup but wasn’t entirely fulfilled with what he was doing.
“I always had questions about why I was doing this particular task,” he explained. “I want to know who I am doing this for, why I am doing this, and how this is going to be useful. These thoughts made me realize that a career in UX research would be something very helpful. Those are the questions that UX research tries to answer.”
Like storytelling, he could see his audience and how it interacted with his product – whether a screenplay or a mobile application. Based on that immediate feedback, he can determine what approach works best. He searched through HCI programs for one that fit his goal of accomplishing good research, working in a rich academic community, and impacting the world around him in a positive way.
“I found Georgia Tech to be a good fit,” he said.
At Georgia Tech, where he is advised by Assistant Professor Betsy DiSalvo, he has already contributed to a few projects, like the Fitting Easy App, a project to improve the purchasing experience of clothes in retail stores for people in a wheelchair.
His current work with DiSalvo focuses on gamification as motivation, which aims to understand how gamifying – applying typical elements of game playing – education could motivate learning. He plans to use insights from his research to build a personalized motivation system to assist in online learning over the next year.
“Will people be interested in using those sorts of games for a social good?” Srinivasan asked. “So, we wanted to understand the reward system and the game mechanics and how motivation really plays a role in learning using gamification.”
In this research at Georgia Tech, he can see immediate results. Like storytelling, he sees what works and what doesn’t, and makes adjustments as he goes.
“If I can see that some kind of positive change is coming out of my work, that would give me a kind of enthusiasm or motivation,” he said. “Just like if I was narrating and I could see my friends’ expressions. That’s what I’m trying to bring to my work.”
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