Katja Sednew working with a colleague in the lab

Engineering By Humans, For Humans

Katja Sednew

Katja Sednew portrait

Katja Sednew thinks a lot about people. Specifically, how humans interact with their environment and the systems, technologies, and tools behind their work. She considers herself a user advocate for everyone. This includes users of all abilities.  

As a human factors engineer, Sednew’s goal is to figure out how to upgrade the user experience. That means understanding a range of elements, both human and machine, to design tools to support the way people make decisions.

Whether she’s evaluating a user’s mental workload while using an automated system or testing an app to assist a deaf person or person with hearing loss, Sednew considers multiple influences: the person, their setting, and their mental models, or an individual’s thoughts about how something works.

“You can’t have good design without understanding the person using the system. That has to happen prior to everything else.”

The right sequence is key to user—and mission—success.

This is especially true in high-stakes situations, such as the crashes that grounded the Boeing 737 MAX. Investigations found that pilots were untrained on new software and did not know how certain sensors worked, Sednew explains. "They had no warning of the problem or how to correct it."

That’s why it’s crucial that modeling and analysis take place before a tool or technology reaches a user.

Putting Users and Usability to the Test

How do you safely test real-world scenarios? By conducting human-in-the-loop (HITL) experiments, observing how a person’s actions influence a system. HITL findings inform procedures and protocols in every sector—from transportation to healthcare.  

Sednew currently works with air traffic controllers and pilots in the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development, the federally funded research and development center MITRE operates for the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We observe users conducting actual job tasks, such as controlling air traffic [from a tower simulator] or designing instrument flight procedures,” Sednew explains. “The information and data form the basis of user-centered requirements.

“From there, we develop tools to automate certain decisions, freeing up attention for critical decisions.”

Her deep understanding of all aspects of what’s called human-machine teaming (HMT) put Sednew on a path to growing the human factors capability across several MITRE-operated federally funded research and development centers.

Her department is growing as demand for cognitive engineering and usability expertise increases.

It’s refreshing to work at a place where inclusion and diversity is real and there’s a true sense of community.

Katja Sednew, Human Factors Engineer

The Right Fit

Sednew didn’t take a direct route to MITRE. After graduating into a recession with a bachelor’s in psychology from Indiana University, she ran pharmacogenetic (how genes affect a person’s response to medicines) studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

While networking, she met people in the field of aviation psychology who were designing systems to meet human limitations. “They were human factors engineers,” Sednew says.  

A light bulb went off. She landed a job as a human factors contractor with a government agency in Washington, DC, her hometown. She became a federal employee and earned a master’s in human factors and applied cognition.

She joined MITRE five years ago on a friend’s recommendation and found a perfect fit in MITRE Labs and innovation centers.

“Right now, I’m providing HMT support for a study using artificial intelligence for air traffic flow management.”

Sednew developed an automated usability review tool—the Usabili-tool—to check technologies against user-centered criteria. The idea won the MITRE Bears’ Den, our equivalent of “Shark Tank.”

All Abilities Welcome

Sednew’s first MITRE project made a lasting impression. She worked with the Federal Communications Commission, testing assistive technologies for d/Deaf or hard of hearing users. She saw a natural intersection between human factors engineering and accessible design, which helps someone with a disability or neurodiverse thinking be successful in the workplace.

While on the project, a colleague invited her to a MITRE Accessibility Business Resource Group (BRG) talk about assistive technologies for vision loss. The Accessibility BRG is one of nine employee-driven groups that focus on multiple dimensions of social identity.

Sednew proposed a new subgroup: non-apparent disabilities, or disabilities that aren’t always evident. She became the subgroup’s founder and chair.

Assistive tools—a cane or a hearing aid—are visible. A non-apparent disability is one you can’t always see. For example, you might have a colleague who’s quiet in meetings. Perhaps they have a stutter and worry they’ll have a moment of disfluency, keeping their message from getting across.

Nearly one in 10 Americans, or 26 million people, live with a severe disability. Of those, 74 percent don’t use assistive equipment, meaning many struggle with disabilities others are unaware of.   

The subgroup partners with MITRE’s Wellness Center and Inclusion and Diversity team to help people with chronic and non-apparent disabilities navigate work and life successfully, with tools and accommodations.

Sednew speaks from experience, having suffered from severe migraine headaches since age 15.

“My vision changes. One arm goes numb. I sometimes can’t find words or make decisions. I’m nauseous and sensitive to light, sound, and smell. And there’s the excruciating pain.

“I can only lay in a dark room and hope the medications I have stop it.”

If a migraine starts at work, Sednew can’t drive home. She requires several sick days each year and time for three-hour IV infusions. Now a full-time teleworker, she says her leadership and colleagues are supportive.

“It’s refreshing to work at a place where inclusion and diversity is real and there’s a true sense of community.”

Sednew even created a migraine support group on MITRE’s Slack channel.

“Someone might be uncomfortable disclosing [a disability], and that’s understandable. But it really helps hearing other people’s stories and sharing experiences.

“I hope these discussions and resources benefit employees in different ways.”  

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