UCL Research Domains


Together We Create - Episode 6

Studying children’s interactions from an interdisciplinary perspective

In this episode, we are joined by Dr Seray Ibrahim a collaborative social researcher who investigates the communication of children with severe speech and physical impairments.



Lili Golmohammadi  00:04

Hello and welcome to Together We Create a podcast about collaborative social research. 


Lili Golmohammadi  00:10

My name is Lili Golmohammadi, I'm a collaborative researcher working across design technology and social research and a final year PhD student at UCL. In each episode, I'll be talking to an early career researcher at UCL to find out more about how and why social researchers collaborate with engineers, scientists, health practitioners and designers and hearing about their research stories and top tips as we discuss the benefits and challenges of taking a multidisciplinary approach. 


Lili Golmohammadi  00:43

In this episode, I'm joined by Dr. Seray Ibrahim, a collaborative social researcher who investigates the communication of children with severe speech and physical impairments. She asks how technologies can be designed in new ways to foreground the many different resources people use to communicate. Her aim is to bring children's views into the design process to improve the communication technologies available to them. Before becoming a researcher, Seray worked as a speech and language therapist and National Health Service hospitals and community settings in the UK. She was awarded her PhD at UCL in 2019. And in 2020, she received a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.


Lili Golmohammadi  01:27

Seray, so how did you get to this point, what led you from working as a speech and language therapist to researching communication technologies?


Seray Ibrahim  01:35

So I worked in the NHS in special schools and clinics and whatnot, and I've always worked with children who have neurodisabilities like cerebral palsy, and I was always interested in ways of supporting communication. And one of the areas that I worked in was this area of assistive technology. So introducing technologies that can support children to say things through electronic speech. But then in my clinical work, I always found that these devices were really difficult for children to learn to use, especially if they didn't have reading and writing. There's so much time and effort and energy that goes into making sure you've got the right vocabularies, making sure the right images are on there, you know, fixing technical issues, and people would come to you to sort of say, oh, it's not working, or it's skipped to the wrong page or whatnot. But actually, that really distracts from the issue, which is like, well, we're supposed to be finding solutions to help children communicate with their social groups and their friends. But actually, like, there are so many barriers to doing that, and also, like, these devices are so expensive in the grand scheme of it, you know, in terms of like, technologies, like they cost so much and they're just so underused, that it's just it - that's what made me interested in trying to think about like, well, what can we do about it? And what do we need to understand more about technologies and communication?


Lili Golmohammadi  03:00

I suppose it's kind of like a focus on language, isn't it? Particularly. And you use something - a lens of multimodal communication for studying interactions and communication between people. Can you tell us a bit about what multimodal communication means and why it's important to your work?


Seray Ibrahim  03:17

So the field of multi-modality sort of studies, how different modes come together to produce meaning. And separately, in my sort of clinical work as a speech therapist, I was always looking at how we can support communications through speech or gesture. And there was always this sort of recognition that, you know, people communicate in different modes, but I think like taking this sort of multimodal view has really helped me sort of, in my own research, to think about, sort of, the broader range of modes and like to help sort of think through how we might study communication differently by not trying to credit like one type of mode, like speech or written language. So, in my own work, I've used it as a lens to help with understanding and talking about language and talking about communication.


Lili Golmohammadi  04:09

Oh, fantastic. So let's start with your postdoctoral fellowship research. What's been the focus of this?


Seray Ibrahim  04:16

So I was, yeah, I'm very grateful to be awarded this one year postdoctoral fellowship, funded by the ESRC, to build on my PhD research and to do that by sort of communicating the findings of my research, engaging with different stakeholders to sort of translate some of these research findings into practice, and also extend sort of where I am now to where I want to get to which is like about speaking to new people and building sort of new links and collaborations with people outside of my immediate disciplinary environment.


Lili Golmohammadi  04:52

And what were the main aims and questions of that research?


Seray Ibrahim  04:58

My doctoral research was really focused on investigating communication so that I could look at different ways that perhaps new technologies might help with supporting communication that involves children who have severe speech and physical impairments and their social groups. So the first strand of that was to look at understanding how conversations happen when they involve assistive communication technologies and people. The second strand was really to investigate communication more broadly. So looking at what multimodal communication entails, and what it meant for, you know, how children used all these sort of different resources that were available to them to, to create meaning and to interact with their social peers. And then the third strand was really about thinking about how these insights could inform the design of new technologies, when it happened from a child centered perspective. So really engaging sort of with what children would see as priorities for their communication and their technologies.


Lili Golmohammadi  06:02

And can you share a few of your main headline findings from that research?


Seray Ibrahim  06:07

One of the main sort of significant findings was that, you know, these technologies that are intended to support communication can actually inhibit communication in that often augmentative and alternative communication devices are these sort of big technologies, these big material objects that might block children from seeing each other. So yeah, there's sort of a paradox there with the fact that it's supposed to support but it hinders through being a physical barrier. So, you know, there were findings about sort of the materiality of technology being very obvious and talked about rather than talked through, but also sort of physically present in space. And another finding was that, you know, it's really important to attend to all of the other things that children are doing. So looking at how they communicate through their whole bodies. And I think by recognising that then we can really start to think about how technologies might be designed differently. And also, by attending to what children are doing through their whole bodies, you're sort of supporting children to have more agency and in steering the conversation in ways that they want, because you're really looking at where they're showing that they're interested in, you know, the things that they want to communicate.


Theme music  07:22


Lili Golmohammadi  07:29

So from what I understand, most of the work on assisted augmented or alternative communication technologies either focuses on the structure and patterns of how people talk when they use these technologies, or it focuses on the technology of the device. But in your work, you look at both these things by shifting that focus, and this is underpinned by bringing together these areas of speech therapy, human computer interaction design, and multimodal theories of communication, can you tell us a little about the methods and ideas that you use from these three areas and how you bring them together in your work?


Seray Ibrahim  08:03

So from an augmentative, and alternative communication research perspective, often there is there is a focus on how things happen through speech and other modes. And in my speech and language therapy, sort of clinical practice, I'd always look at how we can support conversations in sort of different ways. So not just sort of focusing on speech, and also sort of, from clinical guidelines, like we know that it's not so helpful just to focus on bodily impairment, and that there's this whole sort of social system around children that you need to consider when you design an intervention. The way that I've been bringing in human computer interaction into this well, is to really think about how stuff gets done when you've got a computer and a person present. Because as we know, like, human computer interaction in itself is quite an interdisciplinary field, which is, you know, informed by psychology, computer science, sociology... you know, many different disciplines. So, you know, really, it's about looking at, in my work, it was really pulling in some of these perspectives to look at how people can have agency over the interactions that they're involved in, when there are people and computers present. Separately, you know, like the multimodal perspective will also help to sort of look at people's agency in communicating about the things that they find interesting or yeah how they sort of convey what they want to say through different modes that they sort of pull together to create meaning. So yeah, for me, it was like I was using, I've been sort of taking this multimodal lens to think more about how we can think of different modes sort of more broadly and think about who's making the meaning, you know. What does that person wants to convey? And then sort of drawing on HCI, human computer interaction, to look at, you know, the impact that the technology has on the interaction, and also what it might mean for how we change things and how we design things differently, which is really exciting.


Lili Golmohammadi  10:13

Yeah, that is really, exciting... Going back to the groups you collaborated with over the past year, how has that added to your understanding of the communication needs of children and young people and how these needs might be met.


Seray Ibrahim  10:27

So I think, discussions with teachers and the discussions especially that I've had with therapists who are working in the area of AAC have really helped to sort of confirm some of the research findings, and also sort of extend them. So you know, where I've been sharing some of the findings around the power dynamics at play, you know, and how adults can sometimes steer a conversation in a certain way, I think it's been really helpful to hear from clinicians about, you know, how they're saying, Well, yeah, actually, I see that happening all the time. And maybe we should think about, you know, our conversation partner training. And, you know, this isn't necessarily anything new. But I think it's been helpful to hear that actually, it does reflect some of the things that are going on. And I think it's also been helpful because I think by talking about some of the barriers that existing technologies create, I think it helps people think through on a practical level, how they might address them. So the thing about a device being quite a big sort of visual obstruction between people, I think it's helping sort of start this conversation about how we need to maybe have things that move in and out of focus when we need them.


Lili Golmohammadi  11:43

Yeah. And I was thinking about the video storytelling that you've been using to communicate your research. So you've created these, like bite size videos, basically, haven't you, which is kind of a method you've been using to communicate your research. How have you find found that as a method, and what's been the reception to those little videos you've made?


Seray Ibrahim  12:07

Oh my gosh, so this might sound a bit strange, but I really feel like, you know, researchers, particularly who are working sort of across disciplines, like should, you know, really look into media training and so one thing that I did to help me get to that point of creating those videos was, I did this course in film editing. And, and I'm not sort of saying this for people to sort of go off and make films about their research, because there are other people who could, you know, who are trained to do this, who could do it much better. But, for me, it really helped with helping me to understand what editing is and how to create a compelling story. So understanding that editing is about selecting information and organising it to tell a story is such a key skill to have, because actually, we do that all the time when we're writing things, you know, when I was writing my dissertation, I was trying to create a compelling story to get to this, you know, point of saying what I wanted to say, and when we do it in papers, but you know, you can also do it in all these other  means. So, you know, when you do it through, through a short video, you know, you want people to be able to sort of find it interesting, but also follow the thread of what you're trying to say and I think that for me personally, sort of media training really helped to understand that the bits that people might want to follow and knowing that actually, there's a perspective and it's your perspective that you're trying to share, and what is it you want to convey to people and you can do that with these tools. 


Lili Golmohammadi  13:42

Yeah, and I suppose it's a nice conversation between the practice of writing as a researcher and thinking and developing your ideas through writing and thinking and developing your ideas through this other medium and having them in conversation and also videos are very important for studying multimodal communication and communicating about multimodal communication, isn't it?


Seray Ibrahim  14:03

It is! You see it all sort of feeds into each other and it all like helps each of the different sort of things too. Because such a big part of research is about communicating it to the right audiences in the right ways. So, you know, it might be fine to, to have, you know, a template of a way you present at sort of academic conferences, but actually, if you want this to reach sort of wider people and the public, you have to find different ways of doing this. So that it looks meaningful to people and it's understandable and not just getting rid of the jargon but actually making sure that we're that we're really clear about why does it matter? Like what is the impact and, and how can I sort of express that in a yeah, in an interesting way that people will sort of relate to?


Lili Golmohammadi  14:51

And on your website, you have these little videos and yeah, it's very powerful because you can see just in a, you know, a thirty second video of an interaction happening, you can see how important what you're doing is and what you're trying to - the messages that you're trying to get across, you know, through your research, and have you experienced any challenges or tensions trying to work across these disciplines? And how have you managed these if so?


Seray Ibrahim  15:20

I mean, if I'm honest, I think people are quite receptive to some of the things that I've been talking about and sharing, I think, like, maybe the challenges lie in being able to use the language of that discipline to then make sure that it's understandable to that audience. So, you know, for example, when I talk about multimodal communication in a clinical context with like, speech therapy colleagues, like people sort of understand that in terms of okay, verbal and nonverbal communication, but actually, you know, there's, sort of some subtleties in what that then means for the assumptions we have about what communication is. You know, you've got this Speech Mode, and then all the other modes as a sort of a big group. So some of the challenges are really about, well, when you when you say a word, you have to sort of really explain it or throw it, you know, you can't just sort of throw it out there and hope that people have the same understandings as you.


Theme music  16:15


Lili Golmohammadi  16:23

So thinking about you as a researcher, how would you say that working collaboratively with human computer interaction specialists has developed your research skills and approach?


Seray Ibrahim  16:36

Oh, I think, for me, speaking to people across disciplines, and particularly, you know, in the field of HCI, and multimodality, it's just been so generative for rethinking how we might study communication, how we might design for it, and how we sort of talk about communication. So I think in terms of advice, one thing, I would say, which is probably something that isn't new or original, but it's just, if you're if you're looking to do interdisciplinary research, or, or collaborative research across disciplines, make the time to talk to other people, and when you do, talk to people who have really different perspectives to you, who are outside of your discipline, because, you know, it's easy to have a conversation with people who think the same as you, because you get that sort of confirmation and yeah, it helps you to sort of... it can be quite comforting, but it's only - what I realised is it's only when you have conversations with people who have very different opinions to you is when you can sort of really help craft what you are saying. So for me, that was really helpful, and just being like, open to, to hearing out what people are saying without making an assumption about what you think they're saying. So I mean, that's all very elusive. Like, if I give you an example, you know, it's like, when I had been speaking to sort of linguists say, I would, I would think, well, actually, they've got this really, you know, speech oriented perspective, and it's about theories of language around talk and words and whatnot, but actually, it's really important to sort of hold off your interpretations about that and listen through and yeah, I think for me, it's just been really helpful and generative to hold off with thinking I know what people mean, and I do this thing, which I take from my clinical practice, but I do this thing of waiting and wondering, so I... when I'm having a conversation with someone, and it's sort of a strategy that's used in interactions anyway, but I sort of wait and I sort of instead of knowing instead of trying to interpret what the person is going to say, I sort of hold off with with those interpretations and give space for sort of all the different possible explanations that might follow. So it's really just about being a bit creative with the information you sort of you're hearing or what people are sort of saying and giving the possibility for stuff to go somewhere, even if it doesn't lead to anything, just giving that possibility of sort of having that conversation, even if it's like, wildly different to what you're doing.


Lili Golmohammadi  19:19

So when you say, "hold off," so if I want to practice this, listening to very different opinions and hearing people out and holding off, how do you - what's the technique for holding off? What do you mean? Like leave a few days for it to filter before you make any decisions about what you've learned? Or?


Seray Ibrahim  19:37

I think it's, it's even before that so you know, like if you if you want to have a conversation with someone from a different discipline, and you're thinking of who to get in touch with, perhaps before you sort of cut off the discussion, before you even initiate it, maybe think about well, you know, I wonder what would happen if I spoke to computer scientists or I wonder what would happen if I if I spoke to a shoe designer or you know, I'm just sort of like throwing stuff out but because you don't really know what someone can bring to your perspective until you have that conversation. So I think it's just about like when you're looking to initiate conversations with people, perhaps don't limit yourself to people in your in your sort of immediate field. You know, think really, yeah, you can take it anywhere.


Lili Golmohammadi  20:27

Yeah, that's really really nice. That's such good advice. Thank you so much for Seray for your time, it's been lovely.


Seray Ibrahim  20:34

Thank you. I've really enjoyed it too. Thanks.


Lili Golmohammadi  20:39

You've been listening to Together We Create. This episode was presented by myself Lili Golmohammadi and edited by Cerys Bradley. I was joined today by Seray Ibrahim. If you want to find out more about her research or the podcast series, please follow the links in the description. This podcast is brought to you by the UCL Collaborative Social Science Domain