Users have to have a big role in the product design process!

Farshad Farahnakian is a Human-Computer Interaction master's programme graduate, who now is completing his PhD in Finland. Moving from Iran to Estonia was challenging in the beginning, but Farshad managed to find his educational and professional path here.

While studying in Estonia Farshad got 3rd place in a student research competition, had chance to work on a project named “Future Colleague Robot” and find a lot of new ways how to engage users in the product design process!

Farshad Farahnakian

Farshad, how did you start your studies at Tallinn University’s School of Digital Technologies?

After finishing my bachelor's degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering in 2017, I started working in a company where I was designing and developing light systems for different locations such as streets or highways, shopping centres, and concert halls. One day when I was coming back home, I thought to myself: " Why product users do not have any role in the designing process! I develop and design the systems without knowing their expectations, needs and ideas". This question encouraged me to read more about well-established design approaches used to create innovative products, especially new digital tools. Then, I noticed that there are some academic fields like Interaction design, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). After that, I did a research and found out that Tallinn University is famous for offering best studies in HCI. Finally, I got the acceptance letter and my master's journey started in August 2019. To be honest, the first six months were one of the most challenging parts of my life due to some reasons, for instance, living far away from my family, a new field with no background, managing finances, weather, and making friends. However, everything changed after six months, and I could find myself again. I also have to mention that the role of lecturers in creating a friendly and supportive environment was inevitable, and they perfectly supported me.

Which was the main thing in the study program that caught your eye?

There were many positive things that got my attention, for instance, planning and designing courses based on group work, using modern teaching techniques and diverse learning environments, and offering low-cost sports facilities. However, creating an opportunity for master's students to work with senior and doctoral researchers was the most fascinating thing. Furthermore, the professors and teachers were easily accessible for discussions and informal consultations. I have to say that, this interaction between me and researchers was very beneficial for me.

Have you worked on some interesting projects during your studies?

I had been working part-time on various projects for some startups, technology companies, and universities as a junior Machine Learning (ML) researcher and User Experience/User Interface (UX/UI) designer. The first project aimed at designing User Interfaces (UI) for autonomous city buses to make the trip enjoyable for passengers. I started working as a User Experience (UX) designer,  and my duty was to conduct user research to find out users' behaviours, needs, and motivations through interviews, and surveys. This was the first time that I should use what I’d learned to solve a real problem. The project played a very important role in my preparation for professional life. The second project was for the School of Educational Science named “Future Colleague Robot” and my master's supervisor invited me to work as a Machine Learning (ML) researcher as she was aware of my interest in Artificial Intelligence (AI). The goal of the project was to develop an educational robot to assist teachers during the teaching process. In the second project, I proposed a student emotion detection system using ML-based techniques, and I presented it as an academic article at the mLearn conference that took place in October 2021 at Tallinn university. Also, I joined the Future Technology lab at the University of Turku to collaborate on a project named “AutoPig” where I prepared and annotated gathered data for training and testing the proposed framework. This project was for the faculty of veterinary at the University of Helsinki. 

My career in those positions has taught me to think strategically and critically, analyse the data and finally design suitable techniques and algorithms to address the problem in any application. Furthermore, I’ve gained valuable experiences, and have enhanced the level of my communication, and teamwork skills during my studies. 

Now you are completing your PhD in Finland. Please tell more about it.

Thanks to my collaboration with the Future Technology lab in the last project I was then introduced to the leader (my doctoral supervisor) of a maritime project named “AI-ARC” which is founded by the European Commission. The main objective of the AI-ARC proposal is to create an innovative, robust, efficient, and user-friendly artificial intelligence (AI) based platform for the coast and border guards, which allows traditional and VR-based interfaces to adapt to users’ preferences in terms of information management, anomaly detection, risk analyses and interoperability; to realize a comprehensive surveillance system that delivers powerful sensor fusion based situational awareness for decision making, and safety for all maritime actors. At the moment, I am working on one of the defined tasks which I am assigned to do, and the tasks is about designing and developing a system for detecting vessel abnormal behaviours in the maritime environment.

You got 3rd place in a student research competition at Tallinn University. Please tell more about it.

As I could publish a paper at a high-regarded and peer-reviewed conference, I had a chance to participate in the student research competition where I got the 3rd place. In fact, the article was extracted from my master's thesis. In my thesis, I applied one of the best Deep Learning (DL) methods, Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) to detect drowsy drivers while driving. In the proposed model, the framework first applies novel classifiers on the input image to extract the region proposal of the driver's face, eyes and mouth. These interest proposals are then fed into three separate CNN to extract features and predict a class for each proposal based on defined classes (drowsy, not drowsy). Furthermore, the obtained results on the real showed that the proposed framework can identify driver drowsiness with high accuracy and speed. 

How do you use skills gained while studying in the School of Digital technologies in your daily life?

If I mention the most important skills that I gained in my master's journey, I would say the three following things:

- Time management: my assignment always have deadlines and this teaches me that I need to set a deadline for my important tasks. 

- Communication and group working skills: I had to spend a lot of time in different groups for each homework course during my master's which helped me to develop also social skills.     

- Strategic planning: I have understood that I need to have an efficient plan to achieve something great, and nothing is reachable without a plan. Let me say this impressive quote from Warren Buffett to figure out how vital to have a plan for your life. He said that “an idiot with a plan can beat a genius without a plan”.

What problems do you see in the Digital world nowadays and how can we solve them?

Unfortunately, there are many problems in the digital world today. For example, excessive internet use among adults, teenagers, and even children, cyberbullying, data privacy, online hate, and poor user experience. However, the continuous evolution of customer needs is the most challenging issue that we are facing. The world is changing quickly, so it is obvious that customer needs are also changing. For example, COVID-19 has pushed industries to create new things and move forward as user behaviours were changing. Generally, to solve this issue, I believe that we as academic people need to work more closely with industries, and we should try and apply the methods, methodology, and models which are obtained in the academic sectors for real-world problems. It is time to produce something based on a lot of research and studies and focus on them instead of just business interests.            

What is your favourite digital tool?

Figma is still my favourite digital tool without any doubt. It is a collaborative and innovative web application tool that helps me take my creative ideas and start building these drafts in an easy and efficient way. The best feature of Figma is that you can design a wide variety of things, quickly and easily collaborate and leave feedback for your team.

In the end, I would like to thank Dr Janika Leoste, Prof. David Lamas, Dr Sónia Sousa, Dr Ilja Šmorgun, and Dr Kai Pata for making my master's programme enjoyable, challenging, and fruitful.

Source: Tallinn University webpage


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