MSc and PhD research projects

My research is in the area of Information Interaction (how people interact with digital information environments such as websites, search engines, digital libraries, social media tools etc.). I am interested in understanding how people find digital information (either by seeking it by searching/browsing for it or encountering it serendipitously). I am also interested in understanding what people do with this information after they find it - how they work with and create value from it. All the projects I supervise will involve using this understanding to inform the design and evaluation of new and existing digital information environments - either directly, or by giving rise to design/evaluation guidelines.

I am particularly interested in projects that involve in-depth, rigorous qualitative research and would be happy to discuss tailoring any of my proposed projects below to your interest and strengths. You are also very welcome to propose your own related project.


Information seeking

  • Finding information too late: Understanding unknown unknowns (or "I wish i had known about this earlier"). Interviewing and observing users about when they found out about the existence of useful or critical information after they had finished their information acquisition (i.e. when it was too late), strategies they employ to avoid this and speculation about how digital information environments can be designed to help other users avoid this.
  • Curiosity-driven information-seeking: Understanding the role that curiosity plays in exploratory information-seeking and how current digital information environments stimulate curiosity. The findings from this study could feed into design suggestions for how future digital information environments can better support and nurture curiosity during the information-seeking process.
  • Finding information with dyslexia: People with dyslexia often report that they have difficulties finding and working with digital information. Existing assistive technologies such as screen readers and dictation tools can support people with dyslexia in reading and writing tasks. Mind-mapping tools can support them in organising and making sense of information they have found. But can digital information environments better support users with dyslexia in finding information? What difficulties do people with dyslexia face when searching and browsing for information? How can we design new and improve existing digital information environments to help them overcome these difficulties? Do people with dyslexia put any strategies in place to reduce or mitigate their information-seeking difficulties? If so, can we learn from those strategies to inform the design of new and improvement of existing digital information environments? This project area intersects my research interests and those of Andy MacFarlane.
  • Following my nose: Understanding and designing to maximise 'information scent.' An observation study focusing on what makes links in Websites and search engines (and summary descriptions such as result snippets) provide users with confidence that clicking will take them to interesting content. Leading to design suggestions for how we can maximise information scent in particular contexts (e.g. Web search, online news, ecommerce); what constitutes information scent for different types of content, in different information-seeking content? It may also be possible to develop and evaluate a method for rating information scent (not simply based on how 'strong' or 'weak' the perceived scent is, but also based on attributes of what makes this sent strong or weak).
  • Information underload: Information overload has been widely examined in the context of keeping up with a barrage of emails. But there has been less focus on the information overload that can arise when actively seeking information on the Web. How do people avoid information overload when seeking lots of (or complex) information on the Web? Do they put any strategies in place to remain 'underloaded?' Can new types of digital information tools be designed to support their strategies? Or existing tools improved to better support their strategies? Or perhaps we can design or make design suggestions for a digital tool that helps minimise opportunity for information overload during active information-seeking, or mitigates its effects?
  • Information capture on the move: We often capture information while we're on the move; we might take a quick photograph of a book someone recommends so we can buy or borrow it later, or a photo of some presentation slides we want to follow up on. This is often information captured not when actively seeking information, but in the midst of other activities. Can we better understand the types and purpose of information captured on the move, along with the motivations of those who capture it? What are the motivating factors and barriers associated with making use of this information? What are the implications for the design of mobile and Web-based digital information tools?
  • Too many tabs: When looking for or encountering information, use of browser tabs is common - e.g. to flag a new search avenue to pursue or a Web page or document to view later. But what motivates users to create new browser tabs during information-seeking and encountering, or to close a tab they created earlier? What activities do they use these tabs to support and how well do they support these activities? What are implications for the design of future Web browsers and for digital information tools in general? Depending on its scope and focus, this study may involve informal discussion with Carol Butler - a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student at City and the British Library.
  • Information addition: We consciously consume lots of digital information daily; from podcasts and blog posts, to Websites and social media feeds. Although these information streams can help keep us educated and informed, there is a danger of consuming 'too much information'; more information than we can consume efficiently and effecively. But while we're aware of this danger, that doesn't seem to stop us constantly checking our status updates and e-mails. What are the addictive properties of information consumption? What motivates people to consume more information than is healthy for them? What strategies do others put in place to avoid information additiction? And what are the implications for the design of digital information tools?
  • More than a barrier - in collaboration with Cubic Transportation Systems (designers of the Oyster kiosks), this project would involve the user-centred design and evaluation of digital displays on London Transport ticket barriers (gates). What information would be most useful to users? How can we best harness their current journey details and journey history to provide them with useful information? How do we balance providing passengers with useful information while maintaining throughput? This project would feed in findings from user research into the prototyping of an Axure RP prototype, and an in the wild' evaluation on real ticket barriers. Interested students should have strong Axure RP wireframing skills.
  • Gender differences in information-seeking and encountering - differences have been identified in how men and women undertake computer programming tasks (see the paper by Burnett, Stumph and myself on the GenderMag method). There have also been some reported differences in how men and women approach looking for information. However, there has been extremely limited empirical research into the potential differences in their information-seeking behaviour. To my knowledge, there has been no research on gender differences in information encountering behaviour. This study could involve think-aloud observations and/or search log analysis to understand gender differences in information-seeking behaviour. A study on gender differences in information encountering behaviour could involve a diary study or interview approach. This project would be supervised by me, with limited informal support from Simone Stumpf, or by Simone with limited informal support from me.
  • Seeking in the supermarket: mobile Websites and apps such as mySupermarket make it possible to compare prices and find additional information about products in a supermarket (e.g. groceries) while shopping. But how do people look for information to support their physical shopping experience? What difficulties do they face? And what are the implications for the design of mobile digital information tools? This 'in the wild' study in the supermarket could involve shadowing people 'shopping out loud' in a real supermarket (possibly adopting or adapting the approach from Kalnikaitė, Bird & Rogers, 2013 - Decision-making in the aisles). This project would be supervised by me, with limited informal support from Jon Bird.
  • Novel HCI evaluation methods for information interaction - developing and evaluating a novel HCI evaluation method (either a user or expert method) for evaluating digital information tools. The exact nature of the method is up to you, but it could focus on evaluating support for various important cognitive, affective and/or behavioural aspects of information interaction from the literature. See my papers on developing and evaluating the 'information behaviour' methods for an example of when I have done this before. This project intersects my research interests and those of Stephanie Wilson.
  • Dark sharing: Google Scholar, among other digital information aggregators, provides easy access to the full-text of scholarly publications. Often this is to uncopyrighted, feely-available versions (e.g. author pre-prints or post-prints). But sometimes it is to copyrighted 'dark' versions of the paper, from elsewhere on the Web. This study would investigate scholar's awareness of and attitudes towards 'dark sharing' on the Web, and potentially understanding their 'dark sharing' behaviour and implications for the design of digital information tools. This project might be supervised by me, with informal input from Ernesto Priego, or by Ernesto with informal input from me.
  • Keeping track across devices: How do people keep track of what they read on the Web across devices? What are the implication for the design of improved cross-channel and omni-channel reading experiences? This project might be supervised by me, with informal input from Ernesto Priego, or by Ernesto with informal input from me.
  • Designing digital libraries for discovery and discoverability: Digital Libraries (such as ACM, Emerald and ScienceDirect) have become relatively sophisticated at supporting information-seeking, but despite being the conduits to much serendipitous information discovery, are not traditionally designed to create as much opportunity for information encountering as they could. This project would involve the design and evaluation of novel digital library interfaces aimed at supporting discovery and discoverability. This project would suit a student with strong programming skills, who can create a working digital library collection and interface using open tools such as Greenstone. This project will be supervised by me, with informal input from Ernesto Priego.


Information encountering

  • Discovered along the way - in collaboration with Cubic Transportation Systems (designers of the Oyster kiosks), this project would investigate how mobile public transport apps can better support the User Experience through support for information discovery. Would it be useful and valuable to tell users who have a delayed train where to grab a good coffee or snack? To inform them of more efficient routes for their regular journeys? Of the nearest ATM? This project would feed findings from interviews with users into the design and user-centred evaluation of a prototype mobile app. The app will be evaluated both in terms of usability, and serendipity - how well it supports the discovery of useful and valuable information. Interested students should have strong Axure RP wireframing skills.
  • Browsing bookselves, surfing the Web: Physical libraries are particularly conducive for exploration; books are often organised in ways that facilitates exploration through browsing and instances of 'serendipity on the shelves' are commonplace. But what motivates exploration in physical libraries and other reading environments (e.g. bookshops)? And what lessons can we learn for the design of digital information tools?
  • 'I'm feeling serendipitous': Investigating serendipity in search. Can we do better than Google's 'I'm feeling lucky' to encourage people to come across useful information unexpectedly? A lab-based experiment that will compare 'I'm feeling lucky' (where the top Google-ranked page for a given query is displayed) with a novel way of (hopefully) bringing back search results that users might consider to be unexpected, useful and therefore serendipitous.
  • Information capture: Understanding how people capture, re-find and make use of information that they have encountered (rather than actively sought) and either propose design suggestions for or design a prototype digital tool to help with an aspect of capturing, re-finding and/or use.
  • Not-so-sweet serendipity: We often come across potentially useful information unexpectedly (without necessarily looking for it) and this can propel us in new and exciting directions, surprising and delighting us along the way. But sometimes it doesn't; sometimes encountering information rather than actively seeking it can be a distraction that costs us time rather than saving it. In her MSc dissertation, Shermaine Waugh found there is a tension between information-seeking and encountering which, on one hand entices people towards the relatively high-risk, high-reward activity of exploring new information avenues discovered serendipitously and, on the other, draws them back towards the relative safety of goal-directed information-seeking. Can we understand this tension, or other aspects of the 'dark side' of serendipity in more detail? And can we design or make design suggestions for a digital tool that helps people waste less time pursuing 'dead ends'?
  • Map of discovery. Stories can be powerful ways of engaging an audience and with technology. Can we design and evaluate a map-based digital tool that allows users to share their 'serendipity stories' related to a place they stumbled upon, read other peoples' stories and choose where to visit based on the stories they have read? Think Findery, but solely to document serendipitous discoveries of places. Might this tool encourage users to re-visit places they shared stories about? Or encourage users to visit places featured in other peoples' stories?
  • Happenstance in health information acqusition: undertanding the role of information encountering in health-related information-acqusition. This interview-based study would examine the role and importance of this form of information aquisition among groups of healthcare professionals (e.g. nurses, midwives). This project would be supervised by me, but with limited informal support from Dympna O'Sullivan. We may be able to provide some access to healthcare professionals, but having some contacts of your own would be beneficial for this project.
  • Image-based information-seeking: understanding the information-seeking process and approach of information-seeking for healthcare professionals that need to find information related to images (e.g. radiographers). How do they create search queries based on what they see in an image? What information-seeking strategies do they employ? What difficulties do they face? What are the implications for the design of specialist information-seeking tools for these professionals? This project would be supervised by me, but with limited informal support from Dympna O'Sullivan. We may be able to provide some access to healthcare professionals, but having some contacts of your own would be beneficial for this project.

Information use
  • From information to ideas - better understanding when information sparks new ideas or changes perspectives and what people do next to turn this 'idea spark' into something tangable. Can digital information tools better support the nurturing (as opposed to the direct generation) of new ideas? If so, how might they do this?
  • Find it, use it, store (don't lose) it: Designing to provide holistic support for finding and using digital information. Understanding how people in 2 contrasting disciplines make use of the digital information they find. Designing or making design suggestions for how digital information environments might be improved to move beyond supporting information-seeking - to supporting people in making good use of the information they have found.
  • Integrated information interaction: design and user evaluation of an 'integrated' digital information tool that supports dynamic and seamless movement in an information space - allowing users to switch at will between methods of seeking (e.g. directed/undirected search or browse) and encountering (through same approaches, plus machine and/or peer recommendations). Could also integrate functionality to support Personal Information Management/information use. This work would be underpinned by information-seeking and interaction theory.
  • Keeping track across devices: How do people keep track of what they read on the Web across devices? What are the implication for the design of improved cross-channel and omni-channel reading experiences? This project might be supervised by me, with informal input from Ernesto Priego, or by Ernesto with informal input from me. Relevant papers include several by George Buchanan on mobile reading.


Serendipity
  • DataVis for serendipitous information discovery: The design of novel visualization tools that support the discovery of previously unknown connections (e.g. people, places that the user might want to speak to/visit that they might not otherwise have thought of). This can be followed by a user-centred evaluation, focusing on the usability and usefulness of the tool, as well as the potential unexpected and useful connections it facilitated. Possible application domains include personal connections between people (e.g. using Facebook data), professional connections between people (e.g. using LinkedIn data, publications data), nearby places of interest (e.g. usingTripadvisor data, Airbnb data), cultural events of interest (e.g. using timeout.com data), and movies and music collections (e.g., using imdb data). Projects in this area would be supervised by Charles Perin, with (limited) serendipity-related input from me.
  • Seeking serendipity in big data: We are in new world of what Daniel Rasmus calls the 'serendipity economy,' with technology connecting people and data, releasing their spontaneity and driving innovation. How might we harness the power of big data for creating opportunities for serendipity? Can we design novel tools or methods to achieve this? How?
  • Big data, great connections: Big data can not only help us discover historical patterns, but also help us make future predictions. It can do this by linking seeminly unrelated data sets and discovering connections that provide us with deep insight (see Coplin, 2014 - The Rise of the Humans). Do existing big data systems create opportunities for serendipity and, if so, how? And how can we harness the power of these systems to uncover unexpected and useful patterns in data?
  • Serendipity shopper: The user-centred design and evaluation of a mobile app that allows people to create opportunities for serendipity in physical shopping environments. For example, the app might allow them to scan product barcodes when out shopping and suggests other related items (e.g. based on Amazon's 'people who bought this item also bought this/ended up buying this.'
  • Serendipity and the city: How do people discover interesting new places they were not previously aware of in a city they live in, work in or have visited? And how can we design map-based technologies (such as Google maps) that can better support people in discovering interesting new places?
  • Stimulating serendipity: Designing and evaluating an app aimed at encouraging behaviour that may create opportunities for serendipity (e.g. being open to new experiences, stimulating curiority). This project may draw some ideas from the situationist art movement and could involve some input from Peter Mandeno from Dotworks.


General HCI
  • Biometric travel: In collaboration with Cubic Transportation Systems, this project would investigate how biometric 'travel tokens' can improve the user experience of passengers. Would users prefer to have a centralised account where they assign various tokens from contactless cards to their palm vein pattern, all linked to the same account? Would users prefer to share an account such as family accounts? Allowing users to use themselves as a travel token, meaning no need to have a physical ticket present; is this something the public transport user of the future wants? Would users be confident in providing biometric data for more seamless travel? What are the trade-offs? This project would feed findings from interviews with users into the design and user-centred evaluation of a concept demonstrator 'biometric gate'. The data captured would be vital for designing communication elements such as 'feedback' and how that should be relayed to users, as well as privacy elements in  public areas. No doubt that this will be different for various demographics. Interested students should have a vested interest in new and emerging technologies, experience in highlighting different personas and the ability to collect useful data from a concept that many users may not have ever heard about or experienced.