As a user of ASReview, you are probably most familiar with the user interface: the web browser page you use when actually screening your titles and abstracts. The magic behind this user interface is to a large extent created by Yongchao (Terry) Ma. In this blogpost you will be introduced to Yongchao and learn all about his journey of becoming a front-end developer.
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Yongchao is a front-end developer at ASReview LAB, and as of lately he is also a maintainer of the software as well. As a front-end developer, He creates the interface you see while you are screening. Yongchao: “My work is to make the fancy AI techniques accessible to researchers. It’s more intuitive to click on a graphical user interface than it is to type code on the command line.”
Before Yongchao became a front-end developer, he was a research master student in methodology and statistics at Utrecht University. During his studies, he replied to an email from Rens van de Schoot (PI of ASReview), who was asking for a research assistant who could do some data-processing in Python. Yongchao: “As an international student, the tuition fee was very high, giving me some financial difficulties, but the job helped me a lot. So I am really grateful to Rens for giving me this opportunity.”
It did not really matter yet what it looked like, as long as it worked. It was always better than the command-line interface. In the following months, Yongchao learned by doing, evolving as time went and growing in technical skills.
With the help and knowledge of UX-designer Martijn Huijts, Yongchao’s skillset went from functional programming to front-end development with the user and their experience as the end-goal. Developing and using these skills takes a lot of time as Yongchao explains: “It’s not like the obvious levels in a game that you can get through step by step. The process has no clear instructions and requires constant reflection on what you have made.” Even in his daily life, he started to notice the design of apps he was using and took that as inspiration. Now he uses material.io as a starting point for developing new windows in ASReview LAB: “I took the initiative, instead of just following orders.”
What most people probably don’t know, is that the littlest things in software development can take a lot of time. For example, the option to use keyboard shortcuts in ASReview LAB (“R” & “I” for relevant or Irrelevant and “U” for Undo), was quite complicated to implement. Yongchao: “You can find everything you need to know about software development on the Internet. You will find that there are many ways to accomplish the same thing. Usually, you can’t just copy them, you have to develop your own solution based on the actual context.”
It is often the case that, after finding the eventual solution to such a problem, it also returns a feeling of pride when the feature is finally implemented. Yongchao explains that there are many things he is proud of in the software. However, the first thing that comes to his mind is the History dialog, which he actually created at the request of a friend (and other users of ASReview LAB as well). Users wanted to be able to go back to previous decisions, hence the history dialog came to be.
After finally implementing this feature, Yongchao felt like it was perfect. However, with his ever-growing skills and insight, he again sees opportunities for improvement. In fact, he is currently (December 2021), improving the history dialog yet again, together with 1000 other things which will be available in the upcoming release of version 1.0!
According to Yongchao, he is most excited and proud of the software itself, because it removes the barriers between humans and advanced computer technology. Especially since it is open source and promotes reproducible practices, it is of great value and importance to the research community.
From this short interview, you will probably understand why the ASReview team is so happy with Yongchao as a team member! Please consider giving ASReview a star on GitHub to increase the visibility of the project. Donations also make sure that the software remains freely available to everyone, please help to keep it that way.
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