University of Wisconsin–Madison

New Faculty Profile: Adam Rule

Assistant Professor Adam Rule’s human-computer interaction research strives to make it possible for everyone, not just data scientists, to tell compelling stories with data. We asked him to share his background and describe why he is excited to be part of the UW-Madison community.

Hometown: Midland, Michigan

Educational background: BS in Industrial Engineering, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; MS in Human-Centered Design & Engineering, University of Washington Seattle; PhD in Cognitive Science, University of California San Diego

What is your field of research, and how did you get into it?

I study human-computer interaction, meaning how we can design computing systems to better fit human needs, values, and desires. More specifically, I study how people tell stories with documents that mix text and data. Right now, I am looking at how clinicians write progress notes (i.e., notes that summarize patient visits) using templates that simultaneously insert patient data and descriptive text. I have also looked at how data scientists use computational notebooks (e.g., Jupyter Notebooks) to organize, share, and explain their analyses.

I got hooked on human-computer interaction after taking a class on human-centered design as an undergrad. In the class, we spent time with the shop mechanics on campus (e.g., the people who make all the fancy equipment needed to run precise scientific experiments) and learned the process of identifying their needs for better design. I enjoyed the process so much that I went on for a MS in human-centered design. After completing my master’s degree, I considered going into industry to work as a UX Researcher, making websites and digital products easier to use, but I had too many questions I still wanted to answer, so I entered a PhD program. I’ve been doing academic research ever since!

What attracted you to UW-Madison?:

It’s a world-class university in a vibrant town. What’s more, there is a lot happening on campus in the areas of computing (the new School of Computer, Data, and Information Sciences), human-computer interaction (five new iSchool faculty and a new MS in Information), and health informatics (EPIC, the market leader in electronic health records, is just down the road).

What was your first visit to campus like?:

It was the first day above 50 degrees in months, so campus was buzzing with everyone out in t-shirts soaking up the sun. Then it started snowing.

Favorite place on campus?:

So far, Muir Woods. I love having a deeply wooded space right next to the water on campus.

This is a unique point in time, as we’re returning after more than a year of pandemic. What do you most look forward to?:

Interacting with students and collaborators face-to-face. It has been amazing to see how much work and learning can happen remotely, but as a classic paper in human-computer interaction argues, Distance Matters.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.:

Absolutely! Computers have worked their way into every nook and cranny of our lives. There are few places, even Up North, where you could go to get away from their influence—and even then, you’d probably have a cell phone in your pocket! Data are also becoming increasingly important in how we interact and make decisions, individually and collectively. But data don’t speak for themselves and are full of quirks and biases.They need to be explained and we humans are much better at thinking in terms of stories than raw data anyway. One overarching aim of my research is to help make it possible for everyone, not just data scientists, to tell compelling stories with data.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties, now that we can attend them again?:

Doctor’s notes in the United States are 4x longer than those in other countries and doctors here spend as much if not more time documenting patient care than they do interacting with patients. We are still figuring out why this is the case, but it’s likely a mix of tools (e.g., it is easy to write really long notes with note templates) and policy (the US had some very prescriptive regulations about what clinicians need to document, though this is changing)

But really, the smartest people in the room are often those who listen first and speak later. Ask people good questions and enjoy their stories. The heart of being a human-centered designer is learning how to listen, observe, and empathize with other people.

What are your hobbies or other interests?

Being outdoors! I enjoy hiking, biking, climbing and surfing (though I am still a novice at most of these activities). I am looking forward to trying new activities in Madison and between kayaking, sailing, skating, and cross-country skiing, there are so many options to choose from.