Q&A with Jacob Wobbrock on UW's new accessible technology research center

By Doug Parry Thursday, May 28, 2020

Information School Professor Jacob O. Wobbrock is one of the co-directors of the University of Washington’s new CREATE center, along with Professor Jennifer Mankoff of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. CREATE, which stands for the Center for Research and Education on Accessible Technology and Experiences, is the culmination of a career in which Wobbrock has become one of the world’s foremost experts on accessible computing and human-computer interaction.

Wobbrock’s research seeks to understand and improve people’s experiences of computers and information through design and engineering – especially the experiences of people with disabilities. In 2019, his research was honored with the SIGACCESS ASSETS Paper Impact Award for “Slide Rule,” an innovation from 2007 that allowed blind users to operate touch screens and influenced the design of Apple’s VoiceOver screen reader. Along with Mankoff, Wobbrock was inducted in 2019 into the prestigious CHI Academy, the highest honor in the field of human-computer interaction.

Wobbrock’s approach, honed over nearly 15 years at the iSchool, is to create interactive systems that can capitalize on the situated abilities of users, whatever they are, rather than make users contort themselves to become amenable to the ability-assumptions of rigid technologies. He calls this perspective Ability-Based Design. We talked to him about CREATE and what it will mean for his research.

(Read about the launch of CREATE here.)

Q: Why do we need a CREATE center?

A: This time in history shows that more than ever before, we rely on technology and technology mediated services for full participation in society. I think the COVID-19 pandemic has really shown this clearly. We need access to technology for filing for unemployment benefits, for keeping in touch with family members who live in different households, or for having interviews like this one on Zoom. People with disabilities have long known and recognized and experienced the need for accessible technology and accessible technology-mediated services in their lives, but in our current pandemic, we all experience this need across all areas of society.

"We’re getting older and living longer. If we live long enough, we will all have disabilities. So the need for technology to be accessible, and for technology-mediated services to be accessible, is clearer than ever."

And yet, despite its centrality and importance in our lives, technology still remains inaccessible to a lot of people, and technology-mediated services are not available to a great many people who need them. On top of that, the world’s population, and in particular the American population, is aging. We’re getting older and living longer. If we live long enough, we will all have disabilities. So the need for technology to be accessible, and for technology-mediated services to be accessible, is clearer than ever.

CREATE stands for the Center for Research and Education on Accessible Technology and Experiences. It has a two-pronged mission. One is to make technology accessible, and the other is to make the world accessible through technology. We have in the center projects that focus on either of these two prongs. Technology itself must be accessible because of what it can provide to us, but really what we’re after is making the world more accessible through technology. We see this mission applying to technology for people with disabilities, and to all people, because everyone benefits from more accessible and usable technology.

Q: How will the CREATE center achieve that?

A: The center has three primary activities that it will engage in. As a research center, it’s no surprise that research is one of those activities. We also have education and translation efforts, which I’m really excited about. We’ve designed the center around these three activities because all three work together to create the greatest possible impact. Research will enable us to work on cutting-edge problems, the hard problems of accessible technology design and engineering. We’ve been doing that and we’re good at that. Now we can take on bigger and more ambitious projects by coming together in the center.

Education is about training the next generation of designers, engineers, scientists and business professionals to have awareness of accessibility and take on accessibility as a priority within their organizations. We want to make sure students have the skills to tackle accessibility problems and the wherewithal to prioritize accessibility in their projects. Education is really about the talent pipeline – about training people with the right skills and priorities to make the next generation of technology products and services accessible.

Translation, the third activity, is about taking our cutting-edge research breakthroughs into the world. We have a lot of breakthroughs in our research – we develop techniques, devices and systems that improve accessibility, but then where do they go from there? Unfortunately, many companies don’t prioritize accessibility as much as they should. Starting startups around accessible technology has historically been difficult, as investors don’t always see a large market for these solutions. Our translation activity will focus on moving our research results into the world using various avenues. It’s going to look different for each project. Certain vehicles include startups, nonprofits, open-sourcing, licensing, and working with partner organizations of all kinds.

Q: Will having the center change the direction of your research?

A: My own research has been very collaborative over the years, as is typical in my field of human-computer interaction. I’ve focused a lot on accessible input and interaction techniques for all kinds of computers – desktops, laptops, tabletops, tablets, smartphones, and smart watches. I’ve focused on creating more accessible mouse pointing, more accessible text entry, more accessible touch, and more accessible gesture input. The reason for this focus is that these input capabilities are really fundamental to any successful interaction with computers.

"When we make things more accessible, we make them more usable for everyone."

These days, an exciting new avenue for input and interaction research is the widespread use of deep learning, and that allows us to create what we might call “intelligent input and interaction techniques.” The design of input and interaction techniques in the past has been about giving users the right kinds of control and feedback, and making interaction efficient and reliable. With “intelligence” added in, we’re combining HCI with AI, and we can now distribute some of the workload to the machine.

An example of intelligent interaction is my recent work with Mingrui Ray Zhang, who is my Ph.D. student in the iSchool. We looked at how to make text entry on touch devices easier by allowing the user to correct errors without ever having to move the little text cursor around or do a lot of tedious fine positioning of the text cursor. With our invention, called the “Magic Key,” the user can just type a word to replace a mistake made previously in their text, and then they can hit the Magic Key and our system figures out where to apply that correction, and it just replaces the error word with the new word. This kind of marrying of user interaction and machine intelligence opens a lot of new avenues for intelligent input interaction techniques, and I think there’s great potential for accessibility solutions that combine HCI and AI in these ways.

Q: One aspect of the center is to support “moonshot” projects. Any particular moonshot projects you’re excited about?

A: My Ability-Based Design philosophy, which I’ve developed with many collaborators over the last dozen years or so, is that we should seek to have technology better support people’s abilities, rather than making people contort themselves to what we call the “ability assumptions” of the technology. When a technology is designed, whether it’s explicitly or implicitly, designers can’t help but create certain ability assumptions in that technology design. If they’re designing a touch screen and they expect you to be able to extend your finger and place it on the screen accurately and hold it for just a moment and lift from the same point, all of those actions are ability assumptions that deserve to be questioned, because not everyone can do those things, and not just because they might have a disability, but because they might be in a situation that prohibits them from being able to interact that way.

When we make things more accessible, we make them more usable for everyone. Ability-Based Design really is about putting the user first and their abilities in the center and then having technology do the work to better understand and match those abilities. That can be achieved through adaptation, with technology automatically adapting itself to match the user’s abilities, or it can be done through providing technology that has a wide range of user-customizable settings and options.

"CREATE and things like it are what happen when you get passionate people together, united across campus boundaries to pursue a common mission and make technology more accessible for all people."

One moonshot that, for me, falls under this Ability-Based Design perspective is the “personalization of everything.” The idea is that a one-size-fits-all approach to technology design, especially for people with disabilities, usually is not very effective. If we can instead have technology match specific people’s abilities and preferences and desires, then we can provide them with a better experience. The problem is, not everyone can have a personal designer. You can’t have everyone getting bespoke technology like you would a custom-made suit. How nice that would be, but the world doesn’t have enough designers for that – it doesn’t scale.

But one approach is to make technology that is better personalized to people. Imagine every interface you encounter knows your ability profile because it’s your own device, or maybe if it’s a public terminal in a library, you give it consent to download your abilities from your phone and it passes over Bluetooth to the machine or maybe comes from a cloud service. When systems can know what I’m able to do and what I prefer to do, then they can tailor how they look and what they require of me to interact with them.

Q: How does it feel to take on something this ambitious?

A: In some ways, co-founding something is a very familiar feeling! I co-founded a startup in 2012 with Amy Ko called AnswerDash based on our work with Parmit Chilana, who was our doctoral co-advisee at the time and is now a professor at Simon Fraser University. Being CEO of a venture-backed startup gave me a pretty good taste of leadership and the demands of leadership, especially when you have people whose paychecks depend on you doing the right things.

Since I’ve been at the UW, I also co-founded the DUB group (design: use: build:), which is a consortium of professors, students and industry professionals working in human-computer interaction and design. What started as a small group of faculty and students now has over 250 people each year at its annual retreat, and has brought UW recognition as one of the top HCI and design universities in the world. Out of DUB I also co-founded the Master of Human-Computer Interaction + Design degree (MHCI+D), the first degree at UW co-owned by four different departments (the iSchool, CSE, HCDE, and Design).

I think that these experiences of founding mission-driven organizations has helped me prepare myself for co-founding CREATE. I’m also a full professor and have been for a few years now, and I think full professors need to do big things. We’re not meant to be full professors who just rest on our laurels. We should use our job security and the fact that we can take risks to do big things. Becoming a full professor gives me a chance to step back and say, “I’ve got this tremendous privilege and position, and I’ve had a lot of support and help along the way to get here, so now what am I going to do with it to make the world a better place?” If the CREATE initiative can support faculty and students toward making the world more accessible and making technology more accessible, then I think that’s a pretty good use of a full professor’s time.

None of these things I’ve co-founded happen in a vacuum or through any one individual’s efforts. These things are what happen when you bring passionate, driven, well-trained, high-quality faculty together, who themselves came from Ph.D. programs or previous faculty jobs where they saw faculty doing big things, and then they come together at the UW and they do big things. They see what’s possible and they want to be part of that. It’s a combination of ambition and believing in yourself, teamwork, and training. Doing world-class research and being surrounded by world-class researchers opens many doors. It gives us credibility that the UW and its people are worthy of investment. CREATE and things like it are what happen when you get passionate people together, united across campus boundaries to pursue a common mission and make technology more accessible for all people.