From Adobe Readability Research Intern
to Assistant Professor
Shaun Wallace is a computer scientist passionate about making tech more human. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and has been part of the Readability community since his internship with Adobe Research in 2019. After seeing the potential for personalized reading formats to significantly improve reading experiences for individuals, Adobe created partnerships with academic institutions, championed a global interdisciplinary research community, and inspired a new field of Readability Research. As an Adobe Research intern, Shaun was the original architect of the Virtual Readability Lab, an online tool designed to assess the impact of different fonts on reading speed. Shaun presented his readability research findings at VSS 2020, 2021, 2022, and CHI 2020, and the longer version of the work was published at TOCHI and presented at CHI 2022.
Readability Matters got the chance to catch up with Shaun to hear about his new role at the University of Rhode Island, his lab and his current work.
Readability Matters (RM): It is great to see you, Shaun; we are excited to hear about your new position at URI and your plan to continue your work in the readability field. Tell us about your new faculty position at URI.
Shaun Wallace (SW): I am very excited to stay local and come back to my alma mater as a faculty member. Becoming a faculty member at URI was one of my goals when I started my PhD. During my interview, there was a lot of interest from other faculty, specifically about readability. There are many faculty whose expertise will help us to explore readability at URI. For example, applying advanced statistical methods and algorithms, working with AI/ML, and engaging with specific underserved populations. I am very fortunate to have such great colleagues. It is only my first semester, but the students have been amazing; I am really excited to build my new lab, the Human-Centered Experiential Technologies (HAX) lab.
RM: Can you tell us about your research goals and how your background influences your work?
SW: We aim to build systems to augment human information interactions. My primary background is building research systems as products that everyday people engage with over time. Specifically, we envision our research will develop highly adaptable – versatile, and customizable – readability systems that can serve a wide range of readers, including adults, K-12 students, and individuals who may encounter reading challenges. We envision these systems as being readily accessible to the general public so that anyone, the average person on the internet, can freely interact with the systems to learn more about themselves and enhance their readability outcomes. The new readability systems we are building are flexible enough for interdisciplinary domain experts to launch research experiments tailored to their unique research purposes quickly. I am excited to grow the lab by bringing in diverse undergraduate and graduate students from URI who are interested in systems and HCI.
RM: What’s the process for involving different domain experts in your research?
SW: Collaborations are essential, and I strive to find experts who can complement my own skills. Whether it’s working with someone who excels in eye tracking, natural language processing, or any related field, the key is to form productive collaborations that lead to a more comprehensive and effective system. Engaging the public is also vital, and in my past research, I achieved this by implementing user-centered design principles. By understanding the needs and desires of the communities these systems serve, we’ve been able to gradually introduce features and designs that motivate people to interact with the systems continuously. For one project during my PhD at Brown, we created a ranking system for computer science departments using publicly available data to promote transparency. Similar to Wikipedia, the goal was to make the data transparent and accessible to everyone, aligning with the idea of open and accessible information.
RM: What is the long-term vision for readability systems?
SW: Our long-term goal is to create systems that adapt to people’s changing needs as they age and engage with various types of content. People’s reading needs and preferences evolve over time, so we aim to provide pertinent and adaptable tools that individuals can revisit throughout their lives.
RM: As you know, many of us are reading all day but not reading long-form text. Are your systems applicable beyond traditional text?
SW: Our systems work to address different communities’ unique reading needs. Whether it’s reading text, spreadsheets, tables, or code, we recognize that individuals may have different reading experiences and difficulties. We can better understand their needs and build relevant tools by engaging with these communities.
RM: How does the idea of a flexible and sustainable system factor into your research?
SW: The goal is to create a system that can adapt and expand easily. We want students and other contributors to be able to build upon our work, making it an ecosystem where the final parts of a project can be collaboratively completed, resulting in faster progress and broader contributions. I feel this is how we ultimately can affect change faster and help everyday people.
RM: What advice do you have for students and aspiring researchers?
SW: My advice is to be open to collaboration and be quick to adapt. Building strong partnerships and staying flexible in your research approach can lead to faster progress and more impactful results.
About Shaun Wallace, PhD: Shaun Wallace is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Rhode Island (URI). He leads the Human-Centered Experiential Technologies lab (HAX). His research starts with Human-Computer Interaction and combines it with Systems, Data Science, Human-Centered AI, and Social Computing. He builds public research systems as products to personalize and augment human information interactions. His research has been supported by Adobe, Google, UCF, NASA, and The Readability Consortium. Shaun received his PhD in Computer Science from Brown University, advised by Jeff Huang at the Brown HCI Group. He received his master’s degree from the University of Limerick in Music Technology. He received his undergraduate degree in Management Science and Information Systems from the University of Rhode Island in Management Science and Information Systems. Before joining URI, he worked in industry for over 15 years from junior to lead roles, developing full-stack web applications, distributed systems, and data services.
His teaching interests range from high-level systems courses to human-centered research courses. He enjoys spending time with his family, a good story, sports, computed-based music, and exploring Rhode Island in his spare time.
About the Human-Centered Experiential Technologies (HAX) Lab: The HAX Lab follows a user-centered design process to create and maintain public research systems to augment human information interactions. They are human-computer interaction system researchers applying methods from social computing and human-centered AI to create high-quality data and personalized solutions. They continuously improve real-world systems to attract, motivate, and support everyday users in the wild.