Assistant Professor Mairead O'Connor has been interested in inclusive design ever since she started working in the field of Information Systems.

But a career in technology and business wasn’t always on her agenda, despite spending an entire summer learning to code as a teenager.

"At school, the educational system directed girls towards professions in nursing or teaching, while channeling boys into engineering and trades,” she recalls.

“Despite my early interest in technology and the fact that my parents provided me with a personal computer at a young age, the possibility of pursuing a career in technology never seemed feasible due to the prevailing gender biases and stereotypes."

It was this experience growing up that led Assistant Professor O’Connor to develop an interest in inclusive design.

"Though I grew up privileged, pervasive social conditioning often restricted my ability to engage in activities traditionally deemed non-feminine, such as spending time on the dairy farm where I was raised and participating in sports.”

“These gender norms and societal expectations defined masculine and feminine roles, creating a dichotomy that I was constantly aware of. This awareness allowed me to observe the profound impact that such rigid gender roles can have on individuals' experiences and life choices. I have witnessed firsthand how the lack of understanding and flexibility in gender roles can constrain personal development and limit opportunities," she explains.

Today, as an Assistant Professor in the School of Information Systems and Technology Management at UNSW Business School, O'Connor is putting this interest and curiosity to good use by helping transform the way we design systems and technology for a more inclusive society.

Designing for the edge

Assistant Professor O’Connor’s work focuses on digital responsibility, specifically how technology is designed and developed within organisations.

"I focus on how we can design products and systems with inclusivity at the forefront. This involves identifying the necessary stakeholders, examining critical junctures in the product development lifecycle, and continuously questioning whether all perspectives and needs have been considered. Are we accounting for potential biases?" she shares.

Assistant Professor O’Connor’s research looks at what 17 leading organisations in inclusive design are doing and explores how we can apply these insights across different applications – from FinTech and cybersecurity to AI.

“The companies I interviewed are innovative in their practices and very intentional about bringing in user groups and doing it at a large scale. They’re looking at designing for the full range of human diversity, including age, socioeconomic status, religion, and sexuality. And they are designing with the edge user – or marginalised groups – in mind.”

Marginalised voices are often the ones that help us transform how we approach and think about a lot of important things in life. That’s why considering their challenges and experiences in designing technology is critical.

Assistant Professor O’Connor worked with a fintech platform to make it more accessible for elderly users. Her team focused on making the user interface more interactive, simpler and more responsive.

“We added larger fonts, intuitive navigation paths, and voice-assisted technology to help users who might be less tech-savvy or face physical limitations. These features also benefited a broader range of users, including young adults new to personal finance and non-native language speakers. By designing for elderly users, we inadvertently improved the experience for anyone who may find digital banking platforms intimidating or overly complex.”

And it’s this approach of designing for the edge user that Assistant Professor O’Connor is working to embed in all technology design practices.

"We must shift our mindset to understand these diverse user groups and their unique challenges, which differ from conventional experiences. We are applying user-centered design principles and developing inclusive design frameworks. By operationalizing these frameworks, we are implementing strategies that address the specific needs of marginalized and diverse populations. This is the value we can bring to organizations"

The versatility of Information Systems

Assistant Professor O’Connor fell in love with technology while studying for a degree in Business in Ireland. After reading her Business Information Systems textbook cover to cover, she applied to do her Masters then got referred to do a PhD in the field.

"Technology is constantly evolving, bringing new and exciting developments. Its applications are vast, allowing you to work in various fields, from government and healthcare to education and environmental conservation.”

“Whether you're passionate about social justice, scientific research, or the arts, technology provides tools and opportunities to make a meaningful impact. It's not solely about business; it's about leveraging innovation to drive change in any area you care about" she says.

For example, Assistant Professor O’Connor is now using her skills and knowledge to rekindle a passion she couldn’t freely pursue as a child – sports. She is currently designing a course for Cricket Australia on sports digitalisation.

Over her career so far, she has worked with a range of different organisations including PayPal, Dell EMC, Fidelity Investmens, The Centre for Inclusive Design and the ACT Government, and Assistant Professor O’Connor has an ongoing relationship with UN Women.

"UN Women aims to stay abreast of emerging research by engaging early career female researchers to drive innovation in the technology sector. They have shown great interest in my work on inclusive design, which focuses on engaging marginalized communities in Australia. I regularly update them with new developments in my research to support their initiatives."

Being part of a world-leading Business School

Having worked in the leading research group in Ireland, Assistant Professor O’Connor wanted to expand her horizons overseas.

"I sought out the top-performing information systems departments globally, and UNSW Business School stood out among them. The school's renowned researchers, expertise in advanced research methods, and unique blend of business and social impact focus made UNSW my first choice."

And the university didn’t disappoint, she says.

As well as her research and designing bespoke courses for clients like Cricket Australia and Suncorp, Assistant Professor O’Connor teaches Business Analysis and Agile Product Management, and the university keeps her at the top of her game.

“I am really impressed with the emphasis the school places on its lecturers' continuous professional development. The commitment to regularly redesigning courses ensures they remain relevant and adhere to world-leading academic standards,” she says.

“UNSW highly values student feedback, integrating it as a critical component of the pedagogical process. This student-centric approach is actively encouraged, demonstrating the school's dedication to creating an environment where students' needs and perspectives are prioritized in the educational experience. It embodies a student-first mindset."

It’s the high caliber of staff that also makes the university special, according to Assistant Professor O’Connor. Students learn from world-leading academics who are actively working on some of the most challenging and interesting industry projects.

And this connection and collaboration with industry brings many benefits to students. For example, UNSW’s Sandbox program allows students to work on real-world, timely problems in the classroom.

"Organizations present a problem to a lecturer, and students work to solve it over a 10-week period. This approach is highly structured and focused on real-life learning. By the time they graduate from UNSW, students have practical experience and multiple examples of industry problems they have successfully addressed. For instance, in my class alone, we have collaborated with Microsoft and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as our Sandbox Industry Partners."

Time for more girls in business

Having more women in business – much like designing for marginalised audiences in tech – can transform the world. From new perspectives to different mindsets, women bring a lot of powerful qualities to the world of business, helping spark creativity and disruption and changing the way people work.

And there’s never been a better time to be a woman in business, according to Assistant Professor O’Connor.

“A degree in business sets you up to take advantage of all the opportunities out there. It enables you to gain a global experience and perspective, enriching your professional and personal growth. And your career opportunities are so diverse – you can do business or marketing, information systems or accounting. You can work in the corporate sector, government or change the world working with purpose-driven organisations.”

Want to explore your future in business?

Learn from inspiring leaders like Assistant Professor O’Connor at the UNSW Girls in Business Camp. The Camp is open to any year 10, 11 or 12 female-identifying high school students in New South Wales who have a genuine interest in studying Banking and Finance, Economics, Information Systems and Technology Management, Risk and Actuarial Studies at UNSW Business School.


Learn more about the UNSW Girls in Business Camp

Learn more about Information Systems and Technology Management at UNSW Business School

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