Inefficiency Hunter: Deborah Sater Carstens

via the Florida Tech Today

Faulty processes, watch out. Bad systems, beware. With task analysis and usability expert Deborah Carstens on the lookout, you don’t stand a chance.

“I just don’t like inefficiencies,” says Carstens, chair of the project management track in the online M.B.A. and associate professor of information systems in the Nathan M. Bisk College of Business.

“When I notice them, I want to fix them.” Born and raised in Brevard County, Carstens began her career in 1993 at NASA Kennedy Space Center, where she worked as a project manager, engineer and researcher tasked with improving systems related to safety, ergonomics and human factors.

She also studied. While at NASA, Carstens completed two advanced degrees. In 1996, she
earned an M.B.A. from Florida Tech. By 2000, she had completed a Ph.D. in industrial engineering from the University of Central Florida.

“My mentor at NASA always called me a ‘closet engineer’ because my background was in business but my work always revolved around processes,”says Carstens. “That led me to industrial engineering, or ‘business engineering,’ which is the common thread in all of my research.”

Carstens’ research is extensive. In 2008, supported by funds from the Florida Department of Education, she established the Activity Based Total Accountability (ABTA) Institute, which develops reports identifying the true costs of government services throughout the U.S.

“It’s very difficult to measure one state agency’s spending against another state’s because nothing is comparable. It’s like apples to oranges,” explains Carstens. “ABTA is based on this idea that you can break down spending into ‘cost per measure,” or the per-unit cost of specific items.”

Analyzing agency budgets in this way makes it possible to compare spending across state lines. “You’re no longer looking at the budget of the Florida Department of Corrections versus the Alabama Department of Corrections,” says Carstens. “You’re comparing the cost of one inmate meal in Florida to the cost of an inmate meal in Alabama. Apples to apples.”

Carstens received federal funding from the Small Business Administration to expand the ABTA Institute in 2011. She is currently involving students in a study aimed at helping state
governments optimize the “transparency” websites that governments and agencies are using to publicly disclose financial information.“First, we assessed the sites that are out there
and conducted usability tests on them to determine if they met certain needs,” she says.

Now, Carstens and her student researchers are developing standardization criteria that organizations and Web developers can use to enhance and build these sites. Always on the hunt for inefficiency and ways to combat it, Carstens is also conducting research on the usability of privacy settings dashboards on social media platforms like Facebook and Google+, the effectiveness of podcasts as educational media, and error analysis across various industries. “When you publish, people hear about it, it becomes part of the body of knowledge that drives change. That helps organizations and it helps people,” she says.

Her enthusiasm for affecting positive change through scholarship is matched only by Carstens’ passion for teaching. She makes it a matter of policy, she says, to engage students in worthwhile hands-on projects that prepare them for the future. “In my human-computer interaction class,

I have my students do usability tests and submit papers for publication in a local, peer-reviewed conference. Their name goes on it, not mine, and they get that research and professional experience,”she says. Carstens also teaches project management. In that class, her students are responsible for planning a project or event from start to finish. “Their project plan has to outline all the processes— including all the sub-sub-sub-sub processes—and the costs,” she says. “In a way, I ask them to think of everything through the eyes of a project manager.”

A tall order, perhaps, but not without good reason. “We’re training students to go out there in the real world,” says Carstens. “So I like to give them real-world expectations. It’s that whole efficiency thing, you know?”

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