UW News

November 30, 2011

Judy Ramey: From medieval studies to technical communication and beyond

On the day before Thanksgiving, UW Professor Judy Ramey was in the kitchen of her house in Wallingford, working with 17 people who volunteered to help her cook the holiday meal. But the food wasnt for them; it was for the Plymouth Housing Group, an agency that provides services for the homeless.

Judy Ramey

Judy RameyMary Levin

“I asked for volunteers on my blog,” Ramey said. “But I didnt get much response, so I asked Wallyhood, my neighborhood blog, to run an announcement.”

Before long, her UW department, Human Centered Design and Engineering, had also run an announcement, and so had the Seattle PI.com. Suddenly Ramey had so many volunteers she wondered where she would put them in her small house. But she rose to the challenge.

“Im not an engineer, but this brought out all my engineering instincts that have been honed by being in the College of Engineering,” she said before the fateful day. “I now have flow charts. I have task dependencies worked out. Ive divided these people into two shifts. Well see how it goes. Thats the kind of thing that I really enjoy doing.”

To hear Ramey talk, she enjoys pretty much everything in her life. Fun is one of her favorite words — used to describe not only the cooking and gardening she does in her spare time, but the teaching and research shes done in her career. Yet, but for a few happy accidents, she might have had a very different career.

Laki and Darivanh Vlachos and their sons, Vasili, left, and Suriya, make cornbread dressing for the Thanksgiving feast.

Laki and Darivanh Vlachos and their sons, Vasili, left, and Suriya, make cornbread dressing for the Thanksgiving feast.Judy Ramey

Ramey grew up in a small town in South Texas, and was fascinated with all things from the Middle Ages. At the University of Texas, she majored in English, and went on to graduate school in medieval studies. Then she took a break from school and moved to Portland, Ore., where she cast about looking for work. Shed worked on a magazine and was interested in publishing, so when she heard of a job with a small publishing company in Forest Grove, she applied.

“This person had a bunch of small presses — including a computer-related imprint called Dilithium Press,” Ramey said. “I worked for him for a year, and we put out a whole bunch of books around computers. This was in 1978, so were talking about soldering irons and things like that.”

When she returned to graduate school, she applied for a teaching assistantship and her experience in technical publishing was noticed, so she became a TA in technical writing. And then Texas Instruments came knocking. The company had decided, Ramey said, that what they really needed was a bunch of English majors to work for them as technical editors. She applied and was hired.

Marcel Blonk and his wife Charlotte Lee prepare sweet potatoes.

Marcel Blonk and his wife Charlotte Lee prepare sweet potatoes.Judy Ramey

“As a TA at UT, I was making about $300 a month,” Ramey said. “At Texas Instruments I was making the lavish amount of $1,500 a month. I couldnt believe it.”

Ramey was writing her dissertation at that point, on the influence of Boethius on 12th century Provencale love poets. Boethius, she explained, was a very late classical Roman philosopher who wrote a famous book called The Consolation of Philosophy.  It might seem to have little to do with Texas Instruments in the early ‘80s, but Ramey thinks otherwise, because the IBM PC had just come out.

“What I was studying in my dissertation work was cultural clashes, and what I was encountering at TI was cultural clashes,” she said. “The engineers were really under a lot of pressure to design products that ordinary people could use and to write documents that ordinary people could understand. There was a lot of feeling among them, ‘If they dont know enough to understand a computer, they shouldnt be buying one and they shouldnt be using one. Trying to cope with that…it was a very confusing time…people were very passionate about all of this.”

And in the midst of it, Ramey saw an advertisement for a position at the UW in technical communication. “I thought, ‘Wow, you can actually study this stuff? I hadnt known that before.”

Plymouth Housing Group employees Brian Hatfield and Alan Berliner take Rameys food delivery at the Gatewood Apartments near the Pike Place Market.

Plymouth Housing Group employees Brian Hatfield and Alan Berliner take Rameys food delivery at the Gatewood Apartments near the Pike Place Market.Judy Ramey

So the decision was made. Although she finished the dissertation, Ramey abandoned the medieval world for something much more contemporary. She arrived at the UW in 1983, a time when her students majored in general studies with a concentration in technical communication. Since then, shes seen a department, Technical Communication, form and offer first an undergraduate major, then a masters and finally a doctorate. And a few years ago, it changed its name to Human Centered Design and Engineering.

Ramey herself has been human-centered all along. When she arrived at Texas Instruments, she explained, she had to learn to use a computer for the first time and found it difficult. So it dawned on her that if you wanted to help users, you had to consult with them as you designed your product.

Thats why, from the first time she taught computer documentation, she required her students to do a field study in which they sat down with somebody who matched the profile of their intended user, handed them the documentation and noted any problems they had.

That kind of user research is common now, but was in its infancy then, Ramey said. Her career has included plenty of it. Most often shes worked with industry, helping them design systems that work for people.

“It really interests me to look at work,” she said. “I ask, ‘Who are the people who do this work? How do they do this work? What do they care about? People are terribly thoughtful and clever about how they work. They always have these stratagems that theyve come up with to do it a little bit better. Thats fascinating to me. In designing a system, I want to make it about people and what they can do rather than about technology and what it can do.”

When she isnt working, Ramey said she loves to cook (like that Thanksgiving dinner), and not quite a year ago she started a food blog, EatTheBestFoodInTheWorld.com. Subtitled “about beautiful food and the people who make it,” she says the blog is a clearinghouse where she writes about whatever interests her. She also garden
s, though not very successfully, she said, “because my yard isnt sunny enough.”

Shell have more time for both pursuits come fall when she retires from the University.

“Its hard to say whats been most satisfying about my career,” Ramey said. “I guess there are two things. One was being chair of the department and really working with people to enhance its reputation, grow it, improve its quality, keep it current. That has been hugely gratifying.

“The other is taking students and helping them build themselves into top-quality professionals. When I go out to places like Microsoft and see the work some of our alums are doing Im just completely blown away. They really are taking the field in directions we couldnt have imagined when they were here in school. They are the big reward.”