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Computer Science

Arna D. Ionescu ’00

Head of User Experience, Proteus Biomedical

I entered Princeton as a ballet-dancing math/science girl who liked calculus and who spent every evening in the ballet studio. I left Princeton with a broad set of passions, and an inkling of the unique path I would follow to bring them all together.

Given my academic interests, I pursued a B.S.E. degree, but I struggled to pick my major. I finally settled on computer science because I figured it would narrow me the least. I also spent most afternoons in the dance studio at 185 Nassau Street, earning a certificate in dance upon graduation.

My non-engineering coursework surprised me. I never expected to love psychology, cognitive science, and philosophy. It was junior year when I realized that my calling was at a new intersection of fields called human-computer interaction.

This field, sitting at the intersection of computer science, psychology, and art, was just emerging in the mid-1990s. My adviser and I identified a set of relevant courses from an array of departments, and I read a lot on the side. This led directly to my graduate studies, after which I spent a whirlwind seven years tackling a vast array of challenges with design and innovation consultancy IDEO.

When companies have a question about their product offering, anything from what market X might want, to how they might miniaturize component Y, they go to IDEO. IDEO applies a process called human-centered design to a broad array of challenges to generate innovative ideas. Some of my favorite projects included:

  • Designing hardware and software for an image-guided surgery tool intended for spine and cranial procedures.
  • Designing a service model and support tools that allow minimally trained technicians in emerging markets to distribute and tune hearing aids.
  • Designing a solution to help reduce unplanned pregnancy in 18-to-29-year-old Americans.

A perfect challenge

In my final year at IDEO I learned about the product challenges facing Proteus Biomedical. They make smart medication—pills that know exactly when they are taken. Medication adherence is a huge challenge in health care. The World Health Organization estimates that 50 percent of pills are either not taken or taken incorrectly. The challenge is complex and multifaceted: perfect for a human-centered designer!

The challenge was so perfect that I joined Proteus as the head of user experience. Proteus had developed a technology, and my role is now to transform that technology into a product that people actually want to use and that helps people to be more adherent. I collaborate with our engineering, clinical, and commercial teams, I spend time in the field understanding our target users, and I guide a multidisciplinary team of designers in defining our solution. In the way human-computer interaction was emerging in the 1990s, user experience is emerging now, and my role allows me to help shape this field. At Proteus I not only get to figure out our product, but also what it means to bring user experience inside an organization.

I did not follow a standard path, in part because my career didn’t quite exist when I was at Princeton. But Princeton prepared me nonetheless by ensuring that I developed multiple dimensions. A balanced courseload meant I found passions I didn’t expect. Frequent writing assignments meant that I learned to communicate, and now I write about user experience for major publications. Accessible professors meant I learned to think academically, and now I teach at various Bay Area universities to bring others into my field. Princeton gave me a foundation from which I could not only build a career, but contribute to an emerging profession. 

Ionescu-Arna