Alannah Oleson

HCI + Design + Computing Education.


I'm a PhD student in the Information School at the University of Washington, advised by Prof. Andrew J. Ko in the Code & Cognition lab. My research interest is in HCI education, particularly how we can leverage the wealth of work from design education (e.g., on perspective-taking, empathy, and creativity) to enable computing students to create inclusive, ethical, and usable software interfaces.

Prior to attending UW, I was a student at Oregon State University advised by Prof. Margaret Burnett, researching gender-inclusive software as part of the GenderMag project. I founded the GenderMag-Teach effort to understand the pedagogical content knowledge that university-level educators develop as they teach their students the principles of inclusive software design.

I am a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellow and formerly an Adobe Research Women-in-Technology scholar.

Quick links: My CV (updated May 2019) | Medium Blog | Twitter

News + Updates.


A sketch of a bright yellow lightbulb with light rays coming out of it.

Integrating Design Skills & Practices into Computing Education

2018 -

Design skills are often used as the "front door" to computing education, motivating students to engage with programming so they can gain computing literacy. However, skills such as protoyping, needfinding, and understanding users are often presented as part of the CS field. This masking of design is a disservice to students, teachers, researchers, and professionals. By recognizing the role that design plays in introductory computing education, we can begin to better understand how computing education and design intertwine to promote computing literacy.

A sketch of an orange heart, with an arrow leading into the heart and another leading out.

Understanding "Useful" Empathy in UX Design

2018 -

Empathy with target population users is a hot topic in today's UX climate. Under the purported goal of inclusive software interface design, both industry leaders and academic researchers encourage UX designers to empathize with their users. However, empathy is a multidimensional construct. Different aspects of empathy may affect UX designers' abilities to create suitable interfaces for their target populations.

A hierarchy of empathy dimensions and facets, as reported in Davis 1983 (

So far, I've conducted interviews with eight UX designers to explore the ways in which they leveraged cognitive empathy - understanding users' points of view - and affective empathy - identifying with users through emotion - in their design processes. In-progress work on this project is digging deeper into the differences in dimensional empathy between various populations of UX designers and the general population. Since the colloquial definition of empathy aligns better with affective empathy, these findings indicate a need to better scope discourse around empathy in the UX community to avoid misinterpretation, especially by novice or student UX designers.

Stylized woman writing on chalkboard


2017 - 2018

The GenderMag-Teach community provides support and resources for those who are interested in teaching gender-inclusive software design to their classes using the GenderMag method.

[GenderMag-Teach Community Wiki]     [GenderMag-Teach Google Group]

Motivated by the observation that those who are unfamiliar with gender-inclusive interface design may face difficulties teaching the concepts to their students, we set out to discover the pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) that higher-ed teachers need to teach the GenderMag method effectively.

Toward this end, I conducted an action research study with the help of nine teacher-researchers across eight U.S. universities who collectively taught gender-inclusive interface design to more than 400 students. Through interviews with the teachers themselves and in-class observations, I identified 11 pieces of PCK for teaching gender-inclusive software design. I hope to evalute these PCKs in future work and determine which are the most crucial for educators to embrace as they teach the principles of ethical software interfaces. This community is still active and growing as more and more educators become interested in teaching gender-inclusive software design.


Adobe Systems Incorporated Logo


2017 - 2018

With the advent of smartphones, anyone can take selfies and portraits quickly and cheaply. However, not everyone is a professional photographer. Most users are not trained in lighting and pose principles that play into portraits. The result of this is low-quality selfies and portraits. Pro photographers follow known portraiture setups to produce high-quality pictures. Can we enable average people, armed only with their phones, to mimic these professional setups to produce high-quality selfies?

To explore this question, I designed and conducted a formative user study to learn our target demographic's motivations and attitudes toward smartphone photography. Then, informed by the study, we created a proof-of-concept augmented reality iOS app to guide users to replicate portraiture setups. The resulting app reads in the lighting in the user's environment with the front-facing camera and directs the user to position themselves to achieve optimal lighting, then leverages gamification principles to "score" the user on how closely they achieved their target setup.

In collaboration with Adobe Research's Creative Intelligence Lab. Mentors: Jingwan (Cynthia) Lu, Jose Echevarria, & Radomir Mech. Interface tech is patent pending.

SmartPhotography app interface comparison with correct lighting and incorrect lighting.

Stylized woman writing on chalkboard

The Idea Garden

2015 - 2016

Description available soon.





Alannah Oleson, Christopher Mendez, Zoe Steine-Hanson, Claudia Hilderbrand, Christopher Perdriau, Margaret Burnett, Andrew J. Ko (2018)
ACM International Computing Education Research Conference (ICER), 69-77.
Through observations and interviews with 9 teacher-researchers at 8 U.S. universities, this paper identifies 11 pieces of pedagogical content knowledge for teaching inclusive software design in higher education, including strategies for anticipating and addressing resistance, modeling and scaffolding perspective-taking, and tailoring instruction to students' prior beliefs.

Christopher Mendez, Zoe Steine Hanson, Alannah Oleson, Amber Horvath, Charles Hill, Claudia Hilderbrand, Anita Sarma, Margaret Burnett (2018)
IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing, to appear.
Through a field study and a controlled 92-participant study, discusses the benefits and drawbacks of semi-automating parts of the software inspection process from the perspective of cognitive load.

Margaret Burnett, Anita Sarma, Christopher Mendez, Alannah Oleson, Claudia Hilderbrand, Zoe Steine-Hanson, Andrew J. Ko (2018)
Wokshop at VL/HCC 2018: Designing Technologies to Support Human Problem Solving
Position paper to call attention to how software can be biased against certain problem-solving styles, espcially those favored by women, and how to address these issues from the perspective of the GenderMag Method (


Margaret Burnett, Todd Kulesza, Alannah Oleson, Shannon Ernst, Laura Beckwith, Jill Cao, William Jernigan, Valentina Grigoreanu (2017)
in New Perspectives in End-User Development (F. Paterno and V. Wulf, eds.)
The field of end-user software engineering (EUSE) has grown to include a large body of literature since the early 2000s, but it can be difficult to build upon projects in the absence of cross-cutting theoretical foundations. We advocate for stronger theoretical foundations and present examples of EUSE projects that sucessfully went beyond individual tools to produce general methods and principles.

  ★   Best Paper Honorable Mention  
Charles Hill, Maren Haag, Alannah Oleson, Chris Mendez, Nicola Marsden, Anita Sarma, Margaret Burnett (2017)
ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI), 6658-6671.
Using multiple profile pictures on one persona may expand product designers' consideration of multiple genders without harming persona engagement or advancing harmful gender stereotypes.

William Jernigan, Amber Horvath, Michael Lee, Margaret Burnett, Taylor Cuilty, Sandeep Kuttal, Anicia Peters, Irwin Kwan, Faezeh Bahmani, Andrew Ko, Christopher J. Mendez, Alannah Oleson (2017)
Journal of Visual Languages and Computing, Vol. 39, 51-65.
End-user programmers who are not necessarily interested in learning programming can benefit from a just-in-time help system called the Idea Garden, which is built on the presented generalized architecture.


Charles Hill, Shannon Ernst, Alannah Oleson, Amber Horvath, Margaret Burnett (2016)
IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing (VL/HCC), 199-207.
Software practitioners who use the GenderMag method to identify gender-inclusiveness issues in their software interfaces engage with the GenderMag personas at a high rate, but may also detour and introduce recording errors during GenderMag sessions.

Dastyni Loksa, Andrew J. Ko, William Jernigan, Alannah Oleson, Christopher J. Mendez, Margaret M. Burnett (2016)
ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI), 1449-1461.
Teaching novice programmers explicit problem-solving strategies can positively impact their productivity, self-efficacy, independence, and growth mindset development.


Smart Guide to Capture Digital Images that Align with a Target Image Model
Alannah Oleson, Radomir Mech, Jose Echevarria, Cynthia (Jingwan) Lu
P7429-US 20030.152, Filed Feb. 2018
Motivated by the observation that most smartphone photographers are not trained in portrait photography techniques, this system provides a model for analyzing a device's camera feed as a picture is being taken and guiding the user to achieve a higher-quality selfie or portrait.

Awards + Honors.

National Science Foundation Logo
National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow
Recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines.

Computing Research Association Logo
Computing Research Association Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher
Finalist, 2018
Recognizes undergraduate students in North American colleges and universities who show outstanding research potential in an area of computing research.

Adobe Systems Inc. Logo
Adobe Research Women-in-Technology Scholarship
Recognizes outstanding undergraduate and masters female students anywhere in the world who study computer science.



Email is the best way to get in touch with me.

Check out my blog: @OAlannah on Medium

I write about the grad school life and post trip reports about conferences and workshops I go to. Sometimes I'll post about my research.

Online profiles


Mary Gates Hall 015, University of Washington

              © Alannah Oleson 2019