Human-computer-interaction researcher builds tools to lower the barriers to learning new technologies

September 03, 2021

By Andrew Ringer

Innovations in computing are continually adding new functionalities, faster processing speeds and other capabilities to our devices. If these new capabilities are not designed to be user-friendly, however, it is difficult for people to learn and embrace these new technologies. For this reason, human-computer-interaction (HCI) researcher and computing science professor Parmit Chilana investigates how people learn to use feature-rich complex applications and builds tools that empower people to better interact with new technologies.

This week, Chilana was named the inaugural Ebco Eppich Research Chair in SFU’s School of Computing Science. 

“This chair position will enable Dr. Chilana to further promote SFU’s excellence in the HCI research area, recruit new students, develop new programs and courses in HCI, and participate in equity and diversity initiatives at SFU,” says Mohamed Hefeeda, Director of the School of Computing Science.

“I am particularly excited about focusing on my research and making sure that we put HCI on the map for SFU and Canada,” says Chilana.

Chilana has also received multiple best paper recognitions at top HCI venues and recently received the NSERC Discovery Accelerator award, which recognizes top research programs in Canada across all areas of sciences and engineering.

Chilana’s interdisciplinary research in HCI draws upon methods from computer science, information science, psychology and learning sciences. Most of her research is grounded in empirical studies that shed light on the challenges that people face in using and learning a range of complex technologies. Accordingly, she invents new user-centred solutions to help people learn and embrace new functionalities more easily. Chilana is also passionate about getting research prototypes into the hands of target end users to further learn from their experiences.

“Keeping humans in the loop right from the beginning, focusing on their needs and what kinds of tasks they are trying to accomplish as we innovate on technology is very important,” says Chilana.

Her dissertation work at the University of Washington, titled LemonAid, was designed to provide a space for users to help each other within the application by adding an in-context crowdsourced Q & A widget. As an alternative to expensive technical support, this research is a valuable asset to both developers and end users and has been commercialized by Chilana’s co-founded start-up AnswerDash, which was recently acquired by a larger US-based company.

This “harnessing the wisdom of the crowds”, as Chilana puts it, is a common theme throughout her research on fostering software learnability. For example, she is currently working with her PhD student Laton Vermette to take this one step further through the Customizer system. This tool runs atop learning management systems, such as Canvas, allowing instructors to discover, experiment and import feature-specific shared customizations from other instructors to improve the setup of their courses. By facilitating the sharing of course settings during a time when online learning is prevalent, this research could greatly improve both the instructor and student experience. This work is a joint collaboration with computing science professor Joanna McGrenere at UBC and received an Honourable Mention Award at ACM Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) 2020.

Chilana currently co-directs the Interactive Experiences Lab with fellow SFU computing science professor Sheelagh Carpendale, where an interdisciplinary, human-centered approach is used to empower people when tackling technology and data challenges. This approach is especially important when looking at the diverse populations that use computer science technologies.

“In my research on software learnability, I especially make an effort to reach out to those populations that are as different from us computer scientists as possible,” says Chilana.

Beyond just using computer science to design technologies with diversity in mind, Chilana hopes to use her leadership role to encourage diversity within computer science itself, where women and minority groups have historically been underrepresented.

Going forward, Chilana is particularly keen on democratizing access to creating new interactive experiences using emerging technologies such as machine learning and AR/VR.

“I imagine a world where we can use a human-centred approach to teach anyone in the world to learn programming and empower them to create their own technology solutions,” says Chilana.