Making Communication More Personal

At Google's Mountain View, California, headquarters

As electronically connected as we are via a variety of devices, Ph.D. candidate Julia Mayer says that our digital interaction could be significantly more personal, and much better for making special connections. Her goal as a researcher in human-centered computing is to suggest ways that people can connect with each other based on mutual interests arising from immediate experience in a particular place, at a particular time.

Attending a professional conference, you may want to have an informal conversation — face-to-face — about a certain topic with other individuals who share the same interest. At an art museum, you may want to explore the nuances of an exhibit with another visitor who could add to your knowledge and enjoyment. Traveling in a foreign country, you may want to know if someone nearby is from your own country. As useful and as capable as mobile computing technology is at present, it has yet to offer this degree of interesting and valuable social interaction.

Mayer came to the U.S. some six years ago from Germany as a Fulbright Fellow, having specifically chosen NJIT’s College of Computing Sciences for graduate study. Although initially intending to focus on computer science, she says that her longstanding interest in our evolving relationship with computers as users motivated a switch to information systems. She completed a master’s in 2010 and is well along with the work on her doctorate, mentored by Associate Professor Quentin Jones.

The tentative title of Mayer’s dissertation is “Mediating Chance Encounters Through Opportunistic Social Matching.” The research that she plans to present has a clearly human focus, an exploration of how understanding the underlying social dynamics can be a key to fostering meaningful technology-mediated interaction. In addition to the technological aspect, this involves studying the circumstances under which we are most likely to use mobile communications to seek in-person contact, and how we can initiate such contact in a manner that is psychologically comfortable. 

“I am deeply interested in how technology can bring people together in a mutually beneficial way, in a way that is really more satisfying than being completely absorbed in digital media as we seem to be today through texting, e-mail or current social apps,” she says.

As with all social communication facilitated by electronic media, the interaction that Mayer envisions presents challenges with respect to privacy and physical safety. She says that the goal is to reach out to others by sharing relevant information that will motivate the desired interaction while ensuring that the process has adequate personal safeguards.

This summer, Mayer has an internship at Google global headquarters in Mountain View, California. Her work includes helping to evaluate how people use Google products and how products can be improved to meet users’ expectations. Mayer has had previous computing internships in Germany, India and the U.S. When asked whether internships are increasingly important as part of the educational experience, her immediate one-word response is “Totally.”

She goes on to say that internships afford a very welcome opportunity to see how individuals with her skill set can contribute to major enterprises outside of academia. “You also get to meet the people — designers, engineers, product managers and others — whose skills are all needed to build a successful organization.”