Spotlight on Faculty: Randolph Bias
Associate Professor in the School of Information
Information is valuable only if humans can gain access to it. In order for all of the research generated at a university to have any impact on the world, people need to be able to find it, perceive it, and make sense of it. Dr. Randolph Bias, Associate Professor at the School of Information at The University of Texas, works to make information accessible.
While Bias’s colleagues and graduate students study preservation, archives, libraries, categorizing and indexing information, Bias studies usability in human-computer interaction. Usability translates into helping make human-computer interfaces (Web sites or user interfaces) easy to use for human users. The fact that perhaps 99% of all information is now digitized has drastically changed the way people can use and process knowledge, and this is why usability and human-computer interface design have a natural home in the School of Information. Usability professionals make themselves experts in knowledge about how humans process information, and about how to test human subjects. Software companies hire usability professionals for these skills and for their deep systemic awareness of the importance of individual difference. Bias says:
“Some software developers—God bless them—think that because they are human beings they can depend on their own intuitions as to whether a new software user interface can be used. They reason that if they can use it, then it must be good. Usability professionals work with the designers at each stage, striving to understand who the target audience is, and then working with representative users to refine the software.”
After completing his PhD in cognitive psychology, Bias worked for 20 years in industry. He worked at Bell Labs, IBM, and BMC Software, and as a consultant, before having the opportunity to come back to academia in 2003.
“I’ve always been interested in research,” says Bias. “In the 20 years I was in industry I was always seen as the research-y guy. Now in academia, I’m seen as the applied guy. I just think I’m helping build the bridge between research and practice, and now I’m working on it from the other shore.”
At the School of Information, Bias enjoys working with “digital professionals of all ilk,” especially graduate students. His students have benefited from having him as a mentor, and this year they voted for him to receive the Texas Exes’ Teaching Award. Bias admires the leading edge human information processing research done by many of his students. One such is Hans Huang, a third-year doctoral student employing functional MRI (fMRI), working with Dr. David Schnyer at the UT Image Research Center. Huang and Bias are working together to study the phonological patterns of word recognition, a project that they hope will generate more knowledge about the psychological processes in reading.
The incredible breadth of applications for information processing is what makes this field, and the School of Information itself, so useful. The School of Information has no undergraduate program (though they now offer a minor), and so it attracts students from English, Psychology, Library Studies, and countless other fields—a model that is nothing if not interdisciplinary. All different disciplines feed into, and benefit from the knowledge of, information processing.
With the proliferation of information development, the true challenge is finding the right information at the right time. The 21st century researcher struggles with the problem of not knowing where to find the needle in the haystack of so much existing information, and once having found it, how to keep track of all of the hay.
Computers of course help make the “keeping track” possible. Computer scientists talk of “pipes” through which information flows. Bias asserts that we humans are the “skinny pipe”. Information flows practically instantly from computer to computer, bottlenecking mostly when humans are involved. We are the slow link. Tools such as software agents can help users find the right information, and find it more quickly, but the skinny human pipe must, at the end, distill all information into a form that can be used and communicated.
By Elisabeth McKetta, December 2007
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