'If you feel like an idiot every time you use a service, it isn’t very motivating'

Sari Kujala helped Kone improve its elevators and Fiskars make better axes. Now, she works as a deputy director in the DigiIN project that aims to ensure that digital services will not increase social exclusion.
Sari Kujala Computer Science, Aalto University
Research Fellow Sari Kujala wants to ensure that digital health and welfare services support professionals' work and are pleasant to use. Photo Matti Ahlgren / Aalto University

When user experience became a hot topic among product developers and researchers at the beginning of the millennium, Sari Kujala understood something new. Having a user-friendly service is not enough. Instead, a service use should also be pleasant and rewarding to use. ‘If you feel like an idiot every time you use a service, it isn’t very motivating,’ says Kujala.

Kujala, who works as a research fellow at Aalto University Department of Computer Science, has spent the last twenty years studying how human points of view can be taken into account when designing new products and services. Traditionally, developers focused on creating a first impression that increases product sales. Another important aspect, however, is that the client would actually use the product for a long time.

Kujala has collaborated with several companies, for example helping Kone design better elevators. She interviewed users of Fiskars axes, noticing that companies can support long-term user experience even when it comes to pure consumer goods, such as axes. According to Kujala, companies can achieve this by sharing information about product usage and maintenance online.

She now works as a deputy director for the DigiIN project. The project raised funding more than 600,000 euros from the Strategic Research Council at the Academy of Finland in June. DigiIN is a joint project of Aalto University, National Institute for Health and Welfare, University of Helsinki, University of Jyväskylä, Laurea University of Applied Sciences, and Age Institute.

Researcher despite dyslexia

Motivation and rewards are crucial in different types of activities, as without them, one is less likely to work hard to achieve certain goals. Kujala’s first-grade teacher managed to save Kujala’s motivation to learn new things; the teacher helped to discover that Kujala has dyslexia. ‘When I was already a grown-up, I found out that my first-grade teacher in Tampere was a psychologist, which led to the fact that she knew an exceptional amount about dyslexia.’

As Kujala found out about her dyslexia at an early stage, it didn’t have a negative impact on her learning at school. Instead, she was in primary school when she first saw how psychological research can be applied in practice. After upper secondary school she decided to apply to study psychology at the University of Helsinki, and during her university studies dyslexia still bothered her very little. It only made learning of Latin names of brain regions somewhat difficult.

Many people with dyslexia find out about their diagnosis much later when they have already started suffering from learning difficulties. ‘In that sense, I was lucky.’

If people just try out a service and then stop using it, we will not reach health benefits.

Sari Kujala

As a psychology student, Kujala was interested in human behaviour, but she was never very keen on mental health work and decided to pursue a career in research instead. She started her career at the University of Helsinki but, soon, she transferred to the Helsinki University of Technology (which was incorporated into Aalto University) where she did her doctoral studies in human-computer interaction and defended her doctoral dissertation in 2002.

‘I was slightly frustrated as a research psychologist. I studied cognitive psychology that is very theoretical basic research. It felt really good to be able to put knowledge about humans into practice.’

As a researcher, Kujala enjoys the fact that she has freedom and room for creativity. ‘It is rewarding to not just do something but instead come up with new ideas and develop new kinds of thoughts.’

Although Kujala spent five years as a professor of psychology at the Tampere University of Technology, Aalto University and its predecessor have been her workplaces for nearly two decades.

‘I’ve had good cooperation with Marjo Kauppinen (Professor of Practice in Software Engineering). We’ve worked on how users’ needs should be taken into account in software development,’ explains Kujala.

Take users along to design new services

In Finland, an enormous number of new digital health and welfare services will be launched in the coming years. This means that both clinicians and patients will need to be able to take in a lot of new information. If researchers and developers ignore users’ needs, the good intentions of improving the availability of services may actually turn upside-down, and digital services may increase social exclusion. DigiIN project researchers want to ensure that this does not happen.

The idea for the DigiIN project was born during a previous project called COPE, which was associated with the social welfare and healthcare reform. The National Institute for Health and Welfare coordinated COPE and Kujala was involved with it as well.

For COPE, researchers did a questionnaire for social welfare and healthcare professionals and they found out that only about 30% of the professionals thought that their clients are able and willing to use new digital services. Moreover, the patients who participated in the project were worried about older people’s abilities to use such new services.

According to Kujala, designers and researchers still tend to forget to take users into consideration when they are designing new services. At the moment, professionals typically write information about illnesses for different patient groups, which often makes them difficult to read for normal people.

What is central in DigiIN is to understand what types of problems groups like elderly people and immigrants experience when they are using online services and take them along to test the new services and contents.

The researchers want to make sure that the new services facilitate professionals’ work and help to keep it meaningful, but also that they are useful and pleasant for non-professionals to use. This is important just for economic reasons. ‘As a state, we invest millions of euros in them,’ reminds Kujala.

Focusing on the long-term usability is important in designing elevators and axes, and according to Kujala, it is crucial in health care too. She says that health care expenses in Finland have almost doubled in the 21st century due to factors like aging. ‘If people just try out a service and then stop using it, we will not reach health benefits. I am interested in how we can motivate people to use these services.’

Kuva Matti Ahlgren / Aalto-yliopisto
Photo Matti Ahlgren / Aalto University

Sari Kujala, Research Fellow

Education: PhD in Human-Computer Interaction, Helsinki University of Technology

Lives in Espoo

Comes from Pielisjärvi, Finland (current Lieksa)

Funding from the Strategic Research Council at the Academy of Finland for COPE and DigiIN projects

The greatest professional achievement: Worked as a professor of psychology at Tampere University of Technology in 2011–2016

Is also a

Fish-eating vegan. ‘Thanks to my 23-year-old son who encouraged me, I’ve become vegan. Leaving meat out of my diet was easy, because I had been eating mainly vegetarian food even before and I still eat fish. Cheese was the most difficult thing as good vegan cheese does not exist.’

Hiker. ‘My husband is crazy about Norway, so we often travel there. We have visited different places all the way from the Arctic Ocean to south of Norway. For Finns, mountains are fascinating.’

Biologist in her soul. ‘I like nature a lot. Birds, plant biology, and human biology are my hobbies.’

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