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Funded PhD studentship in HCI: Designing the Teaching Experience for Spreadsheets

Applications are invited for a PhD studentship at the UCL Interaction Centre (UCLIC), funded by an EPSRC/Microsoft iCASE studentship, for up to 4 years, from October 2021. Minimum enhanced stipend of £22,109 per annum, plus fees.

Supervisors: Prof Duncan Brumby, UCLDr Advait Sarkar, Microsoft Research, and Prof Anna Cox, UCL.

Spreadsheet applications, such as Excel, are deep and feature-rich software. We want users to learn and understand spreadsheet applications to take full advantage and be empowered by them. An important technique for doing so is ‘in-app teaching’, where we introduce new features and suggest tutorials through pop-up dialogs. However, we do not fully understand the optimal timing and level of information to provide in these dialogs. Nor do we understand how these dialogs participate in the wider learning experience of the user, which may involve consulting documentation, video tutorials, training courses, and help from colleagues.

If we do it right – we create an empowering moment for the user, who learns something new and useful. If we do it wrong (e.g., wrong timing, or wrong level of detail), we create a frustrating and irrelevant distraction that results in decreased user trust and satisfaction.

This PhD would develop a theory of interruptibility and spreadsheet mastery from observational studies and experimentally test one or more design interventions that improve the timing/design of in-app teaching dialogs. Beyond the immediate application of helping us better teach users our newest and best features in spreadsheet applications, like Excel, the results may have profound implications for how we design trustworthy tutorials for all feature-rich software. See more information about the project.

Person Specification

Applicants should be interested in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), and must possess a strong Bachelor’s (1st or 2:1) or Master’s degree in a related discipline (e.g., Computer Science, HCI, Psychology). The ideal candidate for this project will be a deep analytical thinker who is also equipped with the necessary technical skills to conduct research using one or more of empirical methods (i.e., quantitative experiments conducted in the lab or the field or qualitative observational studies). Good programming skills, experience of software development of interactive applications or analytical models, and relevant previous research experience are also desirable.


To be considered for this scholarship applicants need to be meet the eligibility requirements defined by the UK Research and Innovation (please see linked document)). In particular, any applicants “classed as a home student” would be eligible for funding; applicants “classed as an International student” could be eligible for funding in exceptional circumstances (for example, if a candidate has an outstanding track record of very relevant research, including publications in top-tier venues). Please refer to the linked document for definitions of “home” and “international” student.

Application Procedure

Applicants should submit their applications via UCL Select by 5pm Monday 7 June – please notify Louise Gaynor with your application number when you apply. Applications must include:

  1. Personal statement (1 – 2 pages).
  2. Research proposal (1 – 4 pages): a summary of relevant literature to motivate a research question and a description of the type of research to be conducted (including ideas about the methodology and data analysis that could be used).
  3. Name and email contact details of two referees.
  4. Academic transcripts.
  5. CV.

Help with your proposal

Know what kind of contribution you want to make:

Use Seven Research Contributions in HCI by Jacob O. Wobbrock to help you think about what you want to do.

How should you structure your proposal?

The following advice is based on Andrew Derrington’s PIPPIN magic formula for structuring a research proposal.

  1. Briefly state the PROMISE. What will your programme of research deliver?
  2. Say why it is IMPORTANT. What gap in the literature does it address? Or which applied problem does it aim to solve?
  3. State up to 3 sub-PROBLEMS. What are the things you need to find the answer to in order to deliver on your promise?
  4. Introduce your PROJECT. Briefly say what sort of approach you will take.
  5. Next decribe how you intend to IMPLEMENT your programme of research. Which methods will you use to find the answer to your 3 sub-problems.
  6. And finally, say what will happen NEXT. What is the potential impact of your project?

Interviews will take place around 21 June 2021.

For an informal conversation about the project, please contact Prof Duncan BrumbyDr Advait Sarkar, and Prof Anna Cox. For queries regarding the application process please contact Dr Louise Gaynor.

Tips for crating 30 second videos of academic papers

In today’s lab meeting we reviewed a bunch of 30 second video previews from papers presented at previous @sig_chi conferences. Having listed what worked and what didn’t, we came up with a set of top tips. These were:

  1. Start and end with a title slide that includes the names of the authors.
  2. Think of the video as a trailer for the paper rather than something that has to cover all the content of the paper: focus on either the motivation and research question and leave the view wondering what the outcome is, or present the main/boldest/surprisin finding, or the contributions. But don’t try to do all of that in 30 seconds!
  3. Audio – choose narration with subtitles rather than only having a music backing track.
  4. Avoid just providing text on the screen and expecting the viewer to read it – not everyone can read at the same speed.
  5. Watch your speed – don’t speak too fast.
  6. Include video clips rather than only using a slide deck or still images. You can find creative commons video clips if you search for them.
  7. If your research is about an interface or system, include a videoclip of it.
  8. Get feedback on your video before publishing it
Top Tips for creators of 30 second video previews of academic papers
1.	Start and end with title and authors
2.	Think of it as a trailer: focus on either the motivation and research question and leave them wondering OR present the main/boldest/surprising finding OR the contributions.
3.	Audio – choose narration with subtitles rather than a music backing track
4.	Avoid just providing text and expecting the viewer to read it.
5.	Watch your speed – don’t speak too fast
6.	Include videoclips rather than using a slide deck or still images
7.	If your research is about an interface or system include a videoclip of that
8.	Get feedback

We shared our tips on twitter which many people seemed to appreciate. Mark Warner responded to say that I’d previously given him the advice to include a videoclip of the system he was recording when I had seen him practice a talk he was giving at CHI2019 and that he had found this useful.

From zero to submission

Over the past few days there have been a whole bunch of interesting tweets relating to tricks that help people write better.  Many of these have the #GetYourManuscriptOut hashtag that was set up by Raul Pacheco-Vega in his blogpost about the problems with finishing off papers http://www.raulpacheco.org/2014/07/getyourmanuscriptout-or-how-to-fight-procrastination-in-academic-writing-through-crowdsourcing/

I guess all this attention on academic writing is because there’s a lot of writing going on at this time of year: many PhD students are currently finishing up their theses, as are many MSc students, academics are trying to get their paper submitted and those of us working in HCI are already focused on the CHI deadline on the 22nd September.  As a result, I’ve spent most of today reading drafts and making comments on them, and pointing my students to various online resources that provide useful hints and tips about reverse-outlining http://explorationsofstyle.com/2014/06/25/reverse-outlines-from-the-archives/ and how to write good paragraphs https://medium.com/advice-and-help-in-authoring-a-phd-or-non-fiction/how-to-write-paragraphs-80781e2f3054.

So what are the secrets of writing a good paper? Rachel Cayley writes about the importance of extensive revision of a manuscript  http://explorationsofstyle.com/2014/06/11/committing-to-extensive-revision-from-the-archives/.  But how much revision is enough? How many drafts does it take to write a paper that’s good enough to be submitted?  I discussed exactly this with one of my post-docs this summer. We’d made a rather last minute decision to submit a paper to a conference and had just one week until the deadline.  In that week the paper went from verson1 to version12.  After we’d submitted she asked me “Is it normal to go through that many revisions?”  My immediate response was “Yes – of course!” but it prompted me to take a quick look through my folders to see how many revisions my papers usually go through before submission.  Very quickly it became obvious that my papers tend to go through at least 10 versions before submission, and those that get accepted have (perhaps unsurprisingly) often had even more .  It turns out that in this case 12 was enough and our paper was accepted.  Of course we hadn’t been writing it all from scratch.  We had various files which contained the method and analysis, and we’d spent many hours talking about the results.  What we did do in that week though was quickly identify a narrative for the paper, write up the story, and iterate over the details of how best to present the findings.  So, if you have done a lot of the thinking already, then in a week of concentrated effort you can iterate enough to get a paper from zero to submission.

  I was surprised today by another colleague  when I sat down to read version 1 of the paper we had decided to write for CHI2015.  The reason I was surprised is because although it was version 1 it was so polished.  It was so good it even prompted me to write to her asking how many versions it had really gone through before she sent it to me.  “Just the one” she said!  This isn’t the whole truth though as like the paper I wrote about above, we’d already done a lot of work on this one before she wrote the first word.  We had written a fantasy abstract (an abstract for a paper that you’ve not even done the research for yet) back in January, and then after doing the study, we’d written an abstract for a talk (in May), and written and given the presentation (in July and August) so actually writing the first version of the paper was easy.  The draft of the paper was started just two weeks ago with a file of notes that outline the structure of the paper, the literature that needs to be included, and the main contribution.  It took just a week to write.  My co-author wrote “I think a an awful lot of thinking has gone into this paper before I sat down to write it – we’ve spoken many times. […] So we’ve had a head start with this one and I’m glad we didn’t need 14 iterations to get it ready…”. 

  But not all papers can be written so quickly.  Another paper I’m currently working on for CHI2015 is currently on version 9.  We’ve already done a lot of iteration on it.  Version1 was created in mid June and mainly consisted of cutting and pasting text that had already been written elsewhere into the correct format.  There it sat for two weeks before more work was done on it.  Through versions 2 to 6 the story changed, the paper got chopped from full 10 page paper to a short 4 page note and then back up again to a 10 page paper.  During this process we changed our minds about exactly which studies were going to be included but by mid August we had settled on the story.  The next two weeks saw versions 7 and 8 in which we refined the write up of the details of the studies, and worked on making the story flow.  There’ll be another version or two before the deadline I’m sure.  It’s clearly taken a lot longer than a week to write this one.  A big part of that reason is because doing the writing has been part of the process of thinking about what our results mean.  (See http://explorationsofstyle.com/2014/06/04/using-writing-to-clarify-your-own-thinking-from-the-archives/ for Rachel Cayley’s blog post about using writing to clarify your thinking.)

  Having a deadline is always a good way to focus the mind and find the motivation to get something down on paper.  So with the CHI deadline now three weeks away, is there enough time to get a paper together if you haven’t already got to version 8? 

  I’ve got one that reached version 6 today but we’ve had to strip out all the text and engage in some reverse outlining to try to identify one clear narrative for the paper.  It’s been a painful day as a result but I’m still hopeful that we can craft it into a good paper before the deadline – there’s still a way to go but it seemed like we made a lot of progress today.  With 3 weeks until the deadline I think this one stands a good chance.  I’m even tempted to start another one – a paper I’ve been meaning to start for a year.  With all the thinking that’s gone into it already perhaps it would only take a week to get into shape?  The concrete deadline might be enough to make me put finger to keyboard.

  And then there’s another that we’re really excited about but we’re not even half way through the data collection!  If all goes to plan we’ll have finished running the study next week.  It’s still tempting to think we might be able to do that one too.  In my more rational moments it’s obvious that this will be hard to pull off.  We won’t be able to write a polished draft in just a week as we haven’t had the luxury of months of thinking about the results and how best to communicate them.  Nor will there be time for 10 to 12 versions of the paper to help us craft that story.  Perhaps we should line this one up for September 2015?