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The Intersection of Design and Academia: A Look into Northwestern's Design Research Cluster

Interdisciplinary faculty and PhD students collaborate to push the boundaries of human computer interaction and design research.

The Design Research Cluster, jointly supported by the Center for Human-Computer Interaction and Design, Northwestern Engineering, and The Graduate School, brings together interdisciplinary faculty and PhD students from Northwestern University to advance design research.   

Focused on human-centered design, computational thinking, and a systems-oriented approach, the cluster plays a pivotal role in advancing human-computer interaction and design research. The cluster draws faculty advisors from six schools across campus with the goal of understanding and designing technology to be more efficient, effective, and engaging.  

Over the past decade, the interdisciplinary PhD program has graduated more than 50 students, drawing individuals enthusiastic about integrating product technology with theoretical inquiry. Graduates of the program have gone on to work for large tech companies such as Google, Meta, and Microsoft; start their own companies; and take faculty and postdoctoral fellowship jobs at Carnegie Mellon, John Hopkins, University of Southern Carolina, University of Michigan, and Northeastern. 

“It’s really a demonstration of the potential of bringing design research to deep academic pursuits,” said Liz Gerber, codirector of the Center for Human Computer Interaction + Design. “The cluster brings together so many different disciplines across the campus in a way that makes the academic study much richer and more applicable to the world.”  

This year's cohort of students, with a focus on AI and data science, exemplifies the cluster's commitment to innovative research. Read below to learn about this year’s Design Research Cluster PhD fellows: 


Lexie Zhao

2nd year LS; Advisers: Michael Horn and Sepehr Vakil

Fostering Agency in Participatory Design With Children about Technology 

Zhao explores the idea of fostering a more agentic environment for children to explore and design emerging augmented reality (AR) technologies with adults. Zhao focuses on how children and adults navigate power dynamics while collaborating on building AR-infused projects, iterating on the AR technology, shaping pedagogical experiences of co-designing together, and documenting the whole process. 


Monisola Jayeoba

2nd year TSB; Advisers: Maia Jacobs and Nathan Walter

Understanding Longitudinal Engagement and Sustained Use in Online Health Communities 

Because online health communities heavily depend on active participation and information sharing, there are ongoing questions about creating effective long-term strategies to maintain engagement. Jayeoba’s study suggests an all-encompassing approach to uncover the systemic barriers and challenges that hinder continuous engagement and sustained use in these online health communities. Using various methods from the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), they intend to pinpoint scalable design options that could encourage users to share more and increase overall engagement. 


Mandi Cai

2nd year TSB; Advisers: Matt Kay and Aaron Shaw

How We Learn About Data and AI in Informal Learning Spaces 

Cai is interested in data and AI literacy and is working on developing visual explanations to foster understanding and trust in statistical models, in the context of US elections. In the US, election outcomes are forecast before votes are cast, and after votes are cast on Election Day. Models are also used to project winners for races before all votes have been counted and certified. How can we better explain these models in elections coverage? 


Khushbu Kshirsagar

2nd year LS; Advisers: Mike Horn and Marcelo Worsley

Designing Curiosity Portals: For Tangible, Playful and Informal Mathematical Explorations 

Kshirsagar’s research aims to address how to conceptualize, design, and implement curiosity portals to stimulate curiosity and playful engagement, particularly in the context of mathematics and mechanical design; and to better understand the impact of these portals on users’ curiosity and learning experiences. 


Yinmiao Li

2nd year CS+LS; Advisers: Nell O'Rourke and Haoqi Zhang

Personalized Scaffolds for CS1 Students’ Metacognitive Process 

Li’s research seeks to surface the metacognitive processes of CS1 students and their underlying root causes, and to further develop scaffolds that can improve students’ self-awareness and metacognitive practice. 


Melissa Chen

2nd year CS; Advisers: Nell O'Rourke and Duri Long

Designing Scalable Interventions to Address Intro Programming Students’ Negative Self-assessments 

Chen’s research seeks to understand how to co-design interventions to change students' beliefs about their programming abilities at scale, specifically by supporting students in adopting more accurate self-assessment criteria. 


Caryn Tran

2nd year CS+LS; Advisers: Nell O'Rourke and Mike Horn

Co-Design for Authentic Learning in CS 

Tran’s research investigates the application of HCI and learning science (LS) design techniques to develop a mutually acceptable high school computer science programming environment that reconciles the conflicting needs of students wanting real programming experience and teachers preferring easy-to-teach, scaffolded tools. 

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