Junior faculty blaze path forward for iSchool

The creativity and expertise of three junior faculty are driving strong iSchool contributions in areas as diverse as interface design, software development and children's developmental health. Assistant Professors Jacob O. Wobbrock, Andrew J. Ko and Julie Kientz are so deeply impacting the field of human-computer interaction (HCI) that the National Science Foundation (NSF) has given all three CAREER awards -- the NSF's prestigious award in support of the most promising young faculty in their respective fields nationwide.

As these faculty wrote in interactions magazine (September-October 2009), working the spaces where people and technology intersect means combining "deep social science with deep technology innovation." Their ability to bring together the cultures of social scientists, designers and engineers reflects the best qualities of the information school movement they are shaping.

While they have strong connections to computer science, all three find the iSchool an appropriate home for their HCI research.

Jacob Wobbrock

A leader in the HCI arena at UW and nationally, Jacob Wobbrock is creating new ways of inputting information into computer systems, including more accessible ways of entering text or selecting on-screen targets like buttons -- two fundamental tasks in the operation of any computer, desktop or mobile. "About half of my projects are designed to help people with various impairments," he said.

Wobbrock's NSF grant, "Advancing Accessible Computing with Tools for Ability-Based Design," continues his work in creating low-cost accessibility solutions that make everyday input devices, such as mice, trackballs and touchpads, easier for people with disabilities to use.

"Ability-based design," a term Wobbrock coined, attempts to place the burden of accommodation on the computer, not the user. "Interacting with a computer now requires you to be amenable to its demands," Wobbrock explained. For impaired users, costly and hard-to-find special devices, such as a one-handed keyboard or eye-tracking device, require the user to adapt to the computer.

But "with ability-based design, adaptation is flipped from the user to the system. The goal is to have the software observe and understand the user's abilities and adapt itself, or offer options for adaptation."

The first step is using science to "understand the suitability of psycho-motor laws, which model how a person moves, for people with motor impairments," Wobbrock said. Second is to create a mouse perturber, a tool to inject noise into the movements of an able-bodied person commensurate with how people with motor impairments actually move, enabling faster testing and iteration on accessible designs.

Third is developing an input observer tool to watch and measure impaired users' text entry and mouse performance on their own computers. Last is feeding to a new tool a model of a motor-impaired user's movements and a description of a user interface, then predicting that user's performance and trouble-spots. "We could then reconfigure the interface to address problematic areas," Wobbrock said, eventually completing the process of enabling the computer to empower the user. On this last effort, Wobbrock is collaborating with his former advisee Dr. Krzysztof Gajos, now a professor at Harvard University, who specializes in automatic user-interface generation and ability-based design.

Andrew Ko

How do software developers and help teams find, address and triage problems users of their software are experiencing? Which issues deserve their attention first? Moving the triaging of software problems from speculation to evidence-based decision-making is the goal of Andrew Ko's NSF grant, "Enabling and Exploiting Evidence-Based Bug Triage." The ideal outcome is software fixes that affect the most users.

Right now too much is speculative, Ko explained. You might hear a software team saying, "It doesn't seem that our users care much about this issue, but crashing seems like something we should address now."

"Crashing is easy to document," said Ko. "But there's no way of reporting users' other problems on a large scale."

Today most software companies lack data to drive triaging decisions. "The grant is all about new ways of gathering evidence to support those decisions and how to prioritize problems," said Ko.

"If you record all the questions people ask about specific aspects of a software application in a highly structured way," said Ko, "it's much easier to aggregate the problems and capture frequency data. When you take this data to a software team, their discussion moves from being speculative to evidence-based." For example, it might document that 1 million people in the past week struggled with one specific problem and only a few with others.

Ko and a PhD student are helping Microsoft understand the limitations of the data they're gathering about Windows and its applications and what other data they could be collecting to better support their triaging decisions.

Another area of Ko's research is developing technology to enable users having difficulty with a software issue to point to the problem. "Pointing to something is more accurate than trying to explain it," he said.

Julie Kientz

When developing new technologies, Julie Kientz conducts extensive upfront user research to determine design requirements. Later she evaluates the results to ensure that the technologies work for users as intended.

Kientz is well beyond the first step in developing her Baby Steps multimedia system for parents. Her NSF grant, "Healthy Families: Technology to Support the Health and Wellness of Young Children," supports an extension of and improvement upon existing technology to help parents store memories of their children birth to 5 and track developmental milestones. "Such data can help pediatricians detect early developmental delays, problems such as autism, hearing impairments and other potential health risks," Kientz said.

"In general people of most interest to pediatricians are those who don't have a regular connection with their doctor--for example, people who move a lot or immigrants. It's important to develop new technologies to reach these types of families."

Offering more multimedia options for parents is one of Kientz's goals. Her grant will help her design a mobile-based version of the software and enable text messaging and use of social media for tracking children's developmental progress.

"But we're trying to reach more people than just those with computer Internet access," Kientz said. A call-in system would enable parents to take surveys or screening tests by phone.

Kientz is collaborating with outreach programs to widen parent demographics. "Seattle Public Health is putting my students and me in touch with specific populations. Some students are now interviewing single mothers. We're also hoping to reach recent Somalian immigrants in Yakima."

In all, Kientz said, "my work centers on designing and developing novel technologies to help with data collection and reflection for healthcare providers and educators. I'm hoping to make data collection easier, more efficient, less tedious, more active, maybe even more fun, interesting and accurate. Another goal is helping people make sense of the data, share it with the right people and use it in the decision-making process."

Why the iSchool for Their Work in HCI?

"I came to the iSchool because I was more interested in solving human problems than studying computation," Ko said. "My colleagues might have different answers, but we all rally around making technology useful and useable by people, not just technology that can perform certain functions. Inevitably it's part social science because you have to understand people and their problems to design good solutions."

Kientz agrees: "The Information School has a human-centered focus for technology design."

"My personal tagline is 'an iSchool is where people and technology meet.' It's where social science and computing intersect," Wobbrock said.

Some iSchools have maintained their library roots, others have abandoned them and some don't come from library roots at all, Wobbrock explained. "The UW iSchool is one of the few neither abandoning its library roots nor resisting expansion. We're expanding our view while keeping our anchor in the same place. That makes for a larger view of the information world."

"ISchools are relatively new," said Ko. "I'm excited about the prospect of getting the rest of the world to know what we do, why we're important and why we're the right people" to be doing research in HCI.