Introducing “Sparks of Innovation” Redux!


Photo by Fachy Marín on Unsplash.

Increasing our impact by communicating our findings to a popular audience.

As the oldest human-computer interaction (HCI) laboratory in North America (founded in 1983), the HCIL at University of Maryland has a long and rich history of transforming the experience people have with new technologies. One way we do this is in communicating our research to the rest of the world. Now we are taking another step by introducing “Sparks of Innovation: Stories from the HCIL”, a Medium publication for sharing our work with a general and popular audience.

Be it touchscreens or treemaps, inclusive design or usable security, the faculty, staff, and students at the HCIL believe it is critical to understand how the needs and dreams of people can be reflected in our future technologies. To this end, the HCIL develops advanced user interfaces and design methodology. Our primary activities include collaborative research, contributions to the scientific literature, and the sponsorship of open houses, workshops, and symposia.

In 1993, ten years after its founding and more than 25 years ago, the HCIL published a book titled “Sparks of Innovation in Human-Computer Interaction” edited by Ben Shneiderman, the founding director (website). In the introduction, Ben writes about the “Maryland Spirit”, which he captures in seven succinct points:

  1. Choose a good driving problem;
  2. Become immersed in related work;
  3. Clarify short-term and long-term goals;
  4. Balance individual and group interests;
  5. Work hard;
  6. Communicate with internal and external stakeholders; and
  7. Get past failures. Celebrate success!

These points hold as true today as they did 25 years ago. However, in appropriating the “Sparks of Innovation” name from that 1993 volume, we are adding an eighth point to the Maryland Way that was only implicit in the original text: “(8) Transfer results to a general audience.”

But how?

Scientific articles are the coin of the realm for academics, such as the faculty, staff, and students in the HCIL, but such articles are not particularly accessible to the general public. While there is no doubt that our work is important — after all, people in the HCIL invented the hyperlink, touchscreen, and treemap, among many other things! — the format of the typical scientific article is heavy with jargon, mired in methodology, and weighed down with formalism.

In this Medium publication, the ambition is that our faculty, staff, and students will write short (800 words or so) popular science blog posts on their scientific articles. We will also write short posts about events, news items, trip reports, and reviews of books written by HCIL members. The goal is for the content here to be approachable and interesting. Explaining your work to a popular audience is part of any researcher’s job (after all, it is now part of the Maryland Way), so this is also a great learning opportunity for our students.

We are excited about this new endeavor and are eager to hear your feedback. Please get in touch and let us know how we are doing!



Niklas Elmqvist
Sparks of Innovation: Stories from the HCIL

Professor in visualization and human-computer interaction at Aarhus University in Aarhus, Denmark.