In April 2019, a new standard was introduced in France for computer keyboards. This standard now applies to the keyboards used by millions – and to a great extent, the people of France have Anna Maria Feit to thank for their new keyboards. The ETH postdoc is committed to making it as simple as possible to enter text.
Feit was born thirty years ago in Germany’s Saarland region, and she studied computer science in Saarbrücken, just a stone’s throw away from home. “Even as a child, I was interested in mathematics and enjoyed solving logic puzzles.” To mark her first communion, she asked for her first computer. She insists, however, that she is “not a typical nerd.” Rather than study maths, which she felt was too abstract, she chose to study computer science, which for her was more tangible.
Feit completed her Bachelor’s degree in 2012, obtaining her Master’s degree one year later. Her Master’s thesis explored how text can be entered with a piano. “I wanted to find out how to make use of the speed with which pianists play for the interaction between humans and computers.” After she had submitted her Master’s thesis, her mentor, Antti Oulasvirta, was appointed to Aalto University in Helsinki. Having long been fascinated with text entry, Feit was determined to continue her research into optimising it and was keen to do her doctorate with Oulasvirta as her supervisor. And so she moved to the Finnish capital, accompanied by her boyfriend, a computer scientist whom she had met while studying in Saarbrücken.
Focus on the human factor
As a doctoral student of computer science in Helsinki, she discovered that it doesn’t take a typing course or even ten fingers to be able to type quickly and efficiently. But the most important aspect of her work was the algorithm she developed, which allocates the letters and special characters to different keyboards in the most effective way. Together with an international team, she was commissioned by the French government to optimise the French keyboard layout. “For example, under the old standard, it wasn’t possible to enter capital letters with accents,” Feit says, which meant the language loses out. The new keyboard standard supports accents on capital letters, as well as making text entry more efficient and ergonomic.
Feit made her first forays into the field of human computer interaction (HCI) as part of a semester project with Oulasvirta. “I was fascinated by the subject from the very beginning,” she says, adding that she felt it offered more than simple, unexciting computer science. “HCI gives you insights into psychology, cognitive science and design.” Feit is inspired by this interdisciplinarity and by the focus on the human factor: the actual user of the information technology.
She points out that the question of text entry is more crucial in the digital era than ever before. “If schoolchildren are expected to do their final exams on a computer, they have to be able to use keyboards.” This can no longer be taken for granted, given the prevalence of smartphones, smart TV and virtual reality. Nowadays, many young people no longer own a keyboard.
“The north is more family-friendly”
In summer 2018, on completion of her doctoral studies, Feit moved to Zurich with her partner and their six-month-old daughter. After four years in Finland, the two computer scientists wanted to return to central Europe to be near their parents, the grandparents of their young daughter. “I’m glad to be back closer to my family,” Feit says. She is also glad she can understand what people are saying again: despite taking a language course in Helsinki, she never got beyond what she calls “supermarket Finnish”.
In that sense, Zurich offers significant advantages over Helsinki. Feit notes, for example, that actively participating in cultural activities is much easier when you speak the language. Yet there are also drawbacks. “I found Finland more family-friendly,” she says. Parental leave is longer, for one thing, while the infrastructure in northern Europe is geared much more towards families with children. “Switzerland tends to be conservative in this regard, with more traditional roles,” says Feit.
Although attitudes are starting to change here too, she feels that she and her partner count as rather unusual in Switzerland because they share parental leave and both work the equivalent of four days a week. In the mornings, the baby goes to the crèche in the ETH center, with each parent looking after her in turn in the afternoon. “The only way to make this set-up work is if you have the support of your employer, which is unfortunately not always the case in Switzerland.”
Interests as motivation
Be that as it may, she and her partner are still becoming acclimatised. Feit says finding the right work-life balance is a challenge, “but I firmly believe that there is a way, especially if men and women are prepared to accept responsibility in both areas.” The 30-year-old is currently trying to figure out what this might entail. “It’s a sad fact that female researchers are still few and far between, particularly in IT.” Accordingly, she often regrets the lack of role models – and thus support from other women.
Feit wants to other young women to benefit from what she herself lacks, so she has recently started mentoring schoolgirls in Germany. One day, she wants to be able to teach her daughter that women can have successful careers in technical professions without having to miss out on a family.
For as long as she can remember, Feit has been ambitious and resolute, including in her working life. Her Master’s and doctoral theses earned her the highest distinctions. Yet she is not driven by dogged persistence. “I am motivated by my interests and constantly curious as to where they will lead me.”
Her interest in computer science and her fascination with the interaction between humans and computers led her to ETH Zurich, to the group headed by Otmar Hilliges, Associate Professor of Computer Science. She first came to Zurich five years earlier when she presented her piano keyboard on the SRF TV programme “Aeschbacher”. “At the time, I had no inkling that I would end up here.” But she feels at home at ETH. “The students here are outstanding. Our research benefits from the numerous brilliant minds and the excellent infrastructure.”
Getting users involved
Inspired by her work on the French keyboard, Feit is currently exploring how to integrate algorithms when optimising human computer interaction. The main challenge in this respect is that every user is unique, with different goals, computer skills and experience.
Algorithms and artificial intelligence already support us in a variety of tasks: they predict what word we are about to type, what film we want to see and what we want to eat. “However, in my opinion, many algorithms would be more useful if they took greater account of the people whose lives they affect.”
That is why Feit is aiming to give users a way to control the algorithms and influence their functions via direct interaction with the algorithm, while also having the algorithm collect information autonomously. This would let algorithms adapt to the user and their particular situation.
As this is a relatively new research field in HCI, it remains to be seen how it will work in practical terms. But one thing is certain: Feit is unlikely to complain of boredom anytime soon.