Sounding Out The Problem
By Andrew Wyder

Halcyon Lawrence (M.S. TCID ’10, Ph.D. TCOM ’13) was struck by the oddity: As she tried to clear up a banking issue with an institution in her home country, Trinidad and Tobago, while pursuing her studies in Chicago, the digitized voice recording that was directing her to help was not native to her Caribbean island nation.

It was, instead, what could be considered a traditional American voice.

“Why are we listening to foreign accents in a local context?” Lawrence remembers wondering, looking back on an incident that was initially brought to her attention by her mother in Trinidad as Lawrence studied at Illinois Institute of Technology.

Her mother told her that the bank had left a recorded message saying that eight transactions had been made on Lawrence’s card, despite her using it rarely, leading Lawrence to believe that she had been hacked. In reality, the call to her mother referenced just one transaction.

“I remember sitting there and actually sketching out phonetically what my mom heard versus what was said and realizing why it was so easy for her to misunderstand a transaction with eight transactions,” says Lawrence, an associate professor of technical communication at Towson University. “It was one of those moments when I thought, ‘We can design speech the way that we design posters and how we think about visual layout and visual design.’ There was no reason why that device could not have said one transaction.”

While her experience was relatively minor, Lawrence recognized that there was more at risk with such little attention paid to the design of sound and speech communications: “There are a lot more high stakes. There are speech technologies being deployed in courts of law. They’re being deployed as emotion detectors in schools, in prisons,” she says.

“I remember sitting there and actually sketching out phonetically what my mom heard versus what was said and realizing why it was so easy for her to misunderstand a transaction with eight transactions.” —Halcyon Lawrence

Upon earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad, Lawrence began working as a technical trainer. With a father who worked at IBM, she grew up with a personal computer in her home, so teaching university students and those in industry about how to use software and other technology came naturally.

But eventually, after serving as an adjunct professor of technical writing at her alma mater, she realized that she needed formalized training. That pursuit led her to Illinois Tech, and, eventually, to Matt Bauer. A linguistics professor, Bauer served as Lawrence’s adviser—and made clear that he could advise her only in his area of expertise.

It was a fortuitous match. Bauer’s courses helped her think more broadly about the linguistic issues that exist in the design of communication. In an Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program course that he taught, with McDonald’s as the client, things began to click. The company wanted to know why their agents didn’t always hear the right order, with Sprite and fries, for example, often being confused for the other.

“It was the first time I started thinking, and he had us thinking about, something other than just the design of communication that was written or visual,” Lawrence says, “that there may have been some sort of sociolinguistic or maybe even an environmental reason why these errors were happening.”

Lawrence saw that void and dove in.

Halcyon Lawrence in her office at Towson University.

Her essay, “Siri Disciplines,” published in Your Computer Is on Fire in 2021, explored the bias that voice technologies such as Siri have toward people who speak with non-western accents.

“A lot of people talk about language diversity in the U.S. just from a U.S. perspective, but Halcyon talks about it through a world-wide perspective,” says Laura Gonzales, an assistant professor of digital writing and cultural rhetoric at the University of Florida and a colleague. “It’s such a great way to illustrate language and accent bias, and how it plays out in everyday ways. It’s really groundbreaking and unique compared to the other research I’ve seen.”

If technical communication is supposed to make technology approachable, Lawrence’s research shows how far it has to go to make it equitable. Her work often explores the impact of technology not being developed in a way to account for people who don’t have traditional, non-western accents.

She points to the development of an artificial intelligence software that makes non-western accents sound like native western speakers in real time as a prime example of the core issue: reacting to the problem not by examining the design of the communication, but by creating a different technology.

“The tech is happening so fast that we are having to debate the ethics of use in real time,” says Sarah Gunning, associate professor of technical communication at Towson and a collaborator. “Her work starts to shine the light on the potential issues we’re going to run into down the road.”

Lawrence’s work has an inherent social justice component—and while she can see the void in recognizing the deficiencies of the design of sound and speech communication, she also recognizes there is a line to tread.

“I’m asking questions about does more representation address the problem? One of the things that we know about communities of color is that they have traditionally found ways of navigating anti-Black spaces. And language is one of the ways that we do that,” Lawrence says. “What does it mean for me to advocate for these languages to be understood without really thinking about how I am opening up communities of color to more harm?”

That approach is but one reason, colleagues say, that Lawrence and her work stands out.

“She blends her lived experience and expertise with the research that she continues to learn from and do. It’s a critical combination,” Gonzales says. “I don’t think anyone else can do the research in the same way. That’s why I’m always following her work. Her perspective is so needed in the field, and has been overlooked for a long time.”