Two Ph.D. candidates are following internet lesson No. 1 in the iSchool: Put yourself in the shoes of the user. These innovative iSchool researchers, recipients of prestigious Facebook Fellowship awards, are designing innovations for a future web that will be increasingly tailored to individuals and customized for special fit: What will each user need? What will the user want? And what are real-world ways that will enhance that personal experience online?
"I'm always interested in making people have a better user experience. And with a search engine that's easier and that's faster, that's a better experience," says Jeff Huang, who calls the 2012-2013 Facebook Fellowship he recently landed "a Ph.D student's dream."
The no-strings grant covers a full year's tuition, pays travel costs for conferences, backs doctoral research with a $30,000 stipend, doles up $2,500 toward a new computer, and offers its select recipients paid internships at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto.
And that's just the tangible stuff. For doctoral candidates, the grant also means a year free of distractions - like teaching and research assistantships. "It didn't hit me right off when I got the email from Facebook. I thought, 'Oh, that's cool.' Then I realized that this fellowship would allow me an entire year to do whatever I wanted to do with my research," says Huang, who worked in search engine research at Yahoo before joining the iSchool. "That's what everyone here wants to do - challenging research that will solve the world's problems."
Huang is the second iSchool doctoral student to land one of the fellowships. Parmit Chilana won in 2010, the first year of the grants. Before coming to the iSchool, she worked as a programmer with the Digital Library Group at Princeton University. "I came to the iSchool because they put the priority on the user, they explore the people side of things," she says.
Funding from her Facebook Fellowship has allowed her to travel to China, Spain, and Canada for conferences. She also had a paid internship at Facebook headquarters last summer, conducting a case study on their design processes that involved interviewing Facebook engineers, designers, and user experience researchers.
Working at a social media giant that has at least 845 million monthly active users, operating in more than 70 languages, was eye-opening. "People there are young, innovative, really, really smart, and willing to try things out. They really care about users," she says. "But there are challenges in designing for a billion users. It was interesting to see the compromises that have to be made."
Chilana is advised by iSchool associate professor Jacob Wobbrock and assistant professor Andrew Ko. Huang is also advised by Wobbrock, as well as affiliate professor Susan Dumais, of Microsoft Research.
Wobbrock points out that both students moved from computer science backgrounds into iSchool interdisciplinary information science studies, mixing their technical backgrounds with human-centered skills and interests. "Together, these two Facebook Fellows are a testament to the strength of the iSchool's Ph.D. students and the relevance of their work to technology, information, and the people, the 'raw materials' from which Facebook is built," he says.
In fact, of the 22 Facebook Fellows named to date, two have now come from the UW iSchool. "Many interesting and relevant topics lie at the seams between traditional disciplines, and Facebook has now recognized this a second time by picking another winner from the UW Information School," says Wobbrock.
Another UW doctoral student, Adrian Sampson, from the UW's Computer Science department, was also granted one of the fellowships, for his work in making computers more energy efficient.
Facebook began the Ph.D. fellowships to foster strong ties with academic communities conducting promising research into challenges facing the social web and internet technology. In 2010, there were five winners, all from the United States. This year, there were twelve, selected from a field of almost 300, from all over the world. Judges looked for students with a strong history of academic accomplishment in a diversity of research fields, from internet economics and cyber-security, to cloud computing and machine learning.
Huang's research examines interaction data on web pages. He studies cursor movements, scrolling, and tabbed browsing, as well as speed of movement, duration, and use: How do visitors view a webpage: the content, ads, images? Why do they hover over a link, only to abandon it? What does it mean when they cut and run? "Right now, Facebook can measure what people do click on, but not what they don't," says Huang, who field-tested his project during an internship Microsoft Research.
Ultimately, he says, the project will help individual users be more likely to get what they're looking for. "It will give you a more fine-grained look at what individuals are actually examining on each page."
Parmit Chilana is currently researching the use of crowd-sourcing in an instant on-site web-based tool she developed. "Why have we made it so hard for people to get help and find answers?" she asks. "I think it's because when we build systems in a traditional way, that user-centered approach is often lacking."
Her "just-in-time contextual help" tool, called LemonAid, lets users point to specific keywords and objects on a screen and explore relevant questions and solutions contributed by other users. "Users are too often left on their own to find answers, but many have similar questions, and they can be a great resource for each other," says Chilana, who is now deploying and testing the tool at several different UW sites. "I'll be gathering real-world usage ideas to give me more insight into, 'Does this approach work?' and 'Can I improve this?'"
The tool, she says, has the potential to eliminate frustrating and scattered searches across forums and internet resources and help lines. And it could save companies a bundle. "A lot of them cannot afford one-on-one tech support; it's very expensive. But if technical support can answer a question once and it propagates to thousands or millions of users, it's a much more effective way of managing help systems."
Working from small to large scale, putting their ideas into mega-circulation, appeals to both Huang and Chilana. The more people they can serve with their research, the better. "I want to expand to help millions and billions of people," says Huang. "I want to work with psychologies on a really large scale."
At the same time, he admits, he's a little paranoid about a web so intensely personalized, with individual tracking accelerating at such a fast pace, that "already, they can almost figure out for you what you looking for even if you don't know what it is."
That's why Huang himself is constantly changing sneaky data-collecting supermarket cards and clearing his browser cookies. "It's so important to collect data," he says. "But it has to be useful. It has to improve the experience for the user. It has to improve the system."
More information about the Facebook Fellowship and the 2012-2013 winners can be found here.