Faces of UMSI: Rayoung Yang

Everyday objects at home have become more automated, connected, and intelligent – from lighting systems controlled from cell phones to dishwashers that select energy efficient cycles depending on load. While smart homes promise the benefit of reducing manual work, operating efficiently and effectively, and providing information to the user that was not available previously, if users don’t understand how to manipulate these devices they are of little use.

UMSI PhD candidate Rayoung Yang is interested in end-user interactions with digitally enhanced ‘smart’ technologies in the home. Rayoung studied The Nest Learning Thermostat, which combines machine learning, sensory technology and networking to create a temperature change schedule by remembering temperature adjustments its users make and sensing when people are home. It also allows remote temperature control from mobile devices. “It really improved the user experience, but there’s still a problem because users in the home don’t have a good understanding of this technology,” Rayoung said. Problems include changes in schedules and body temperature, due to everything from illnesses to exercising. Even location of the thermostat (often in hallways) impacts the ability to sense human presence. “In order to develop a better product, you have to have better understanding of people’s daily lives,” she said.

Originally interested in personalized information systems, Rayoung worked for NAVER Corp. in Korea, a search engine company similar to Google in the U.S., for six years. Rayoung’s job was designing and managing search services and online advertising systems. She received 13 patents for her advertising and search methods at NAVER. “While NAVER provided 70 percent of all search queries in Korea, I found it really hard to provide a search service to satisfy the user with different interests and preferences,” she said.

While the company was successful, Rayoung believed that some changes would be beneficial to satisfy customers’ growing expectations. However, she knew she required more than her intuition to effect change.

“I wanted to acquire the knowledge and the tools to conduct the research that would help me understand whether an idea was feasible, whether it would work or not,” she said.

So she decided to pursue her MSI at the University of Michigan. “UMSI seemed to cover a broad range of topics and I thought a more professionally focused-school would be beneficial.”

When she arrived at UMSI, however, her focus changed. “I thought, there are so many people working in the search industry, I wanted to do something more meaningful,” she said. With an interest in human-computer interaction, she aspired to help people with special needs through her work on Talking Points urban orientation system. Talking Points verbalizes information about buildings and stores around the user through mobile apps to help people with visual impairments find their way. Users can point their mobile devices in any direction and be told what is in their path and how far away it is. “When people with visual impairments navigate through an area, both familiar and unfamiliar, it’s very helpful to be aware of what’s around them,” she said.

In addition to her MSI, Rayoung received a BA in English language and literature and a BA in library information science from Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea. She received her PhD in 2016 and plans to work in academia.