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

PhD Studentship in HCI at the UCL Interaction Centre

Designing the Teaching Experience for Spreadsheets

University College London

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, UCL, Dr 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.

Interviews will take place around 21 June 2021.

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