Game Changers: How UMD HCIL Researchers Continue to Shape the Future of Human-Computer Interaction

Laurie Robinson - May 2, 2023

The country’s oldest HCI lab, co-led by the UMD INFO College, celebrates 40 years of advancing the field.

A photo of a person building and looking closely at a small robot.

(Photo by Craig Taylor)

Clicking on a hyperlink in a news story, using the touchscreen in a kiosk or on your phone, tagging your friends in a photo you post on Instagram—all of this technology that is woven into our everyday lives was created by researchers at the University of Maryland’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL).

The HCIL was founded 40 years ago by Ben Shneiderman, professor emeritus at the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS), when his interest in conducting psychological studies of programmers as they wrote, modified, or debugged programs caught the attention of CMNS Professor Azriel Rosenfeld. Rosenfeld was in the process of establishing the multidisciplinary Center for Automation Research (CfAR) and wanted Shneiderman to establish the HCIL within it, making it the first lab of its kind in the country.

Gaining acceptance and credibility during those early years was challenging, as the value of psychological studies analyzing the behavior of programmers and database systems users was not yet widely recognized. The term human-computer interaction (HCI) was just gaining acceptance, so the HCIL was appreciated as a leader in prioritizing the human factor. Over time, the HCIL underwent several organizational changes and eventually became a joint venture between the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS) and the College of Information Studies (INFO).

Advancing Accessible Technologies

Over the last forty years, the HCIL has been instrumental in advancing accessible technology design for a wide range of users, from breakthroughs in data visualization for blind users to a web tool that interacts with Google Street View to map out inaccessible sidewalks in major cities.

Imagine navigating city streets in a wheelchair, but instead of smooth sidewalks, you’re met with uneven pavements, blocked walkways, and poor visibility at crossings. This is the reality for many individuals with disabilities, who face significant accessibility barriers in urban environments. However, Project Sidewalk—which was led by former CMNS Assistant Professor and HCIL member Jon Froehlich— changed the game, empowering communities to map and improve their cities’ accessibility since it was launched in 2012.

Project Sidewalk is an easy-to-use, interactive platform that encourages users to virtually map out their cities. By accessing the platform’s map, participants can highlight problem areas in urban environments that make it difficult for people with disabilities to get around. They can mark locations where sidewalks are too narrow or obstructed, crossings are too short, and facilities like curb cuts and wheelchair ramps are missing or not up to standard. The platform also employs a machine learning algorithm that swiftly identifies accessible and inaccessible features based on street-level imagery. This technology speeds up data collection, enabling a more comprehensive and accurate perspective on accessibility issues.

INFO Assistant Professor Amanda Lazar’s work leveraging technologies to support older adults is another example of accessible design. Older adults are rarely included in the design of everyday devices, and adoption and acceptance can be low. Lazar and her team aimed to identify older adults’ underlying perception of everyday technologies through conducting tech support sessions where individuals brought their questions to be answered. The team then co-created resources to support the use of new, makerspace technologies for older retirees.

A Spirit of Collaboration

The HCIL’s prolific research output is made possible by the collaboration among its members. “People work hard to help each other. We have an explicit style of cooperativeness,” says Shneiderman. Before major conference deadlines, lab members participate in paper clinics where they share draft research papers in order to get feedback on what they can improve. “People believe that helping each other helps the group.”

The annual HCIL Symposium is another avenue for collaboration. Each year, the symposium enables HCIL faculty, staff, and students to present their work to researchers, academics, industry professionals, government workers, and students. It features keynote speakers, presentations, demos, and posters that explore the latest advances in the design, development, and evaluation of interactive systems, interfaces, and technologies. It is a time for the lab members to learn about each other’s work, gather feedback from attendees, and celebrate their collective efforts.

Beyond research, the lab has always focused on community building through formal and informal channels. The lab hosts social events, including a recent trip to the College Park aviation museum, as well as mechanisms for all members, whether long-time faculty or brand-new students, to play a role in deciding the lab’s direction.

Looking Toward the Future

The HCIL has been a pioneer in the field of HCI for the past 40 years. Its research has contributed significantly to the development of user-centered design, data visualization, and accessibility technologies. Its legacy goes beyond the lab’s physical walls and extends to the countless professionals who have been trained and the millions of individuals who have benefited from the lab’s user-centered approach.

As a leader in the field, the HCIL will continue to address the systemic challenges in the design and implementation of new technologies that reshape our lives. Recently, several HCIL members wrote about the need for an increased focus on sustainability in HCI. The internet and cloud services, which are pervasive in our lives, require large data centers to operate. These data centers consume vast amounts of energy, primarily derived from non-renewable sources. “Climate change is something technology contributes to,” says INFO Associate Professor Jessica Vitak, current director of the HCIL. “How do we ensure we’re still able to advance the field while minimizing the environmental harm associated with the work we’re doing?” Addressing sustainability issues might mean “rethinking the technology we will build and incorporating environmental assessments into the decision-making about how and what to build.”

During a lab retreat in January, two dozen members discussed where the lab is headed in the decades to come, ways to better connect with and give back to the local community, and how to continue to impact HCI research. “We’ve accomplished so much in the last 40 years,” Vitak said to fellow HCIL members. “We want to continue to make an impact, but also use our vast knowledge and expertise to provide a welcoming and supportive environment as we train the next generation of HCI researchers.”

As the HCIL looks toward the future, one thing will remain constant—its research will continue to be interdisciplinary, collaborative, and far-reaching. “The HCIL embraces a wide variety of research and researchers who are interested in the interaction between people and technology. We learn from each other, and our biggest strength is our diversity and interdisciplinarity,” says Vitak.