Students in the HCII Ph.D. program choose an area of emphasis to focus their studies. We've included examples below, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. In fact, students often propose new emphasis areas that target their own interests.

In addition, in any emphasis area, students may choose to carry out research by developing innovative systems (a technical approach), by studying human behavior with technology (a behavioral approach), by imagining a future preferred state (a design approach), or through a combination of any of these approaches.


Critical and cultural approaches in HCI 

How can we ensure that our collective practice as HCI researchers and practitioners does more good than harm in the world? How might we target our efforts most effectively towards dismantling existing systems of oppression in society? Steering the trajectory of HCI research in positive directions requires critically reflecting upon and interrogating the assumptions underlying our work, and understanding our own embeddedness within complex networks of power. Drawing upon interpretative social sciences, critical and cultural theory, and decades of critical work in HCI and critical computing, researchers in this area integrate a range of approaches including discourse analysis, artifact analysis, social critique, critical design, speculative futuring, and more.


Design as a mode of inquiry produces new knowledge that complements scientific, engineering, and humanistic inquiry. The HCI Institute has deep expertise in understanding and advancing how design produces knowledge. Research in this area often takes a constructive approach, envisioning and prototyping many possible futures as a way to gain a deeper understanding of what emerging technology should do. Many projects address persistent, messy social problems, where designers engage with a wide set of people and utilize problem framing and reframing to improve the current state. In addition, design research explores how to improve the methods and processes used by professional designers in response to new technologies and new design responsibilities.

Design researchers apply a design lens to both envision, build, and advance towards preferred futures that are better for all — futures that increasingly include and privilege those that have traditionally been pushed to the margins during the creation of new digital systems and services.

Students in this emphasis may choose from a variety of design studio courses within the HCII to improve their design skills and process. Students will also complement their design course by taking courses in our other depth areas.

Fairness, Accountability, Transparency, and Ethics (FATE) in Sociotechnical Systems

How can we design sociotechnical systems that support social and legal notions of fairness, justice, accountability, transparency, ethicality, and related concepts? Furthermore, how can we effectively characterize and study such concepts in real world contexts? To address these questions, researchers in this area integrate methods and perspectives across a wide range of areas, including HCI, statistics, law, social sciences, AI, machine learning, the humanities, policy, and more. Some FATE research focuses primarily on algorithm or model-level questions, for example by developing methods to ensure that machine learning systems satisfy certain social or legal desiderata. Other FATE research explores how human-computer interfaces and associated organizational processes can be designed to promote better alignment between sociotechnical system design and relevant societal values. 

Games and Play 

Fun! Joy! Pleasure! In this research area, we bridge design and technical innovation to create novel playful experiences, and we study the impact of games and play on players. One major research area is transformational games, which are games that change how players think, feel, and behave. These games include educational games (e.g. Decimal Point, which teaches decimal math to middle school students) and games for health (e.g. Bloomwood Stories, which supports health self-efficacy for marginalized populations). We also aim to tackle complex challenges through games, such as facilitating conversations about sensitive topics, supporting player action on climate change, and creating counterspaces for BIWOC in STEM. A second research area looks at how novel technologies can generate new game-related experiences. For example, our Polyphonic project demonstrates how game streaming platforms like can serve as crowdsourcing platforms, while our V-light toolkit allows the creation of real-time synchronous AR games that leverage the power of edge computing. In addition to our research achievements, we regularly win game design awards for our creative work.

Students in this emphasis area may collaborate with the Entertainment Technology Center, Carnegie Mellon’s professional game development program, as well as with faculty working on games and play across the university. Relevant available classes span the design, development, and psychology of games; specialized classes on game-related topics such as VR games or game streaming are periodically available based on student interest and faculty availability. Additionally, interested students will have many opportunities to work in game design and development, both as part of their coursework and as part of their research program.


HCI and Policy

How people adopt, use, abuse, and abandon technology resides at the intersection of a technical system’s design, people’s practices that emerge around the system, and the policies that anticipate and govern the appropriate use of the system. Increasingly, HCI must address all three simultaneously in order to invent and effectively situate new technology. This new area of HCI concern has researchers working on policy making and policy implementation at institutional, enterprise, municipal, regional, national, and international levels. Research in this area includes generating data and insights meant to influence policymakers, prototyping new ways of simultaneously inventing new tech and policy together, and exploring how proposed policy or technology changes might shape people’s behaviors.


Human-AI Interaction

How people live, work, and collaborate with “smart” technology is an increasingly important research question. Current HCI methods and practices do not meet the needs and challenges of this in consistent and dynamic technology. How should effort, responsibility, and authority be effectively and ethically divided between people and machines; when should systems initiate action and automate work; how might users detect and overcome machine errors all remain open research questions. From social media bots that detect bullying and block accounts to agents in homes that must negotiate interpersonal relationships and social hierarchies, the increasing use of data, analytics, and AI are forcing a reunderstanding of HCI and the disciplines needed to tackle these new challenges


Learning Sciences and Learning Technologies

Many HCII faculty do cutting edge research on how people learn and how to improve human learning through novel techniques and technologies. Along with scientific advances, we are committed to iterative design and engineering of applications, products, and solutions that are making a lasting impact on students around the world from elementary to graduate level education. Examples include mobile apps to aid learning in Africa, AI-infused mixed reality for elementary students and museum visitors to learn science by doing science, college

course innovations from highly effective interactive online courses through smart-glasses to aid teachers to sensor-enabled classrooms, digital learning games for middle school students, support for learning during collaborative software development, and the first wide-spread intelligent tutors in K12 education through an HCII spin-off formed in 1998.

We have also developed new tools and infrastructure to aid others in science and engineering: language technologies for learning, authoring tools to develop intelligent tutoring systems, infrastructure for sharing educational technology datasets and workflow learning analytic routines. More general contributions to learning science and engineering include: the knowledge-learning-instruction framework, a framework for adaptive learning technology, how machine can optimize learning, how learning engineering enhances machine learning, an analysis of the complexity of instructional design, and many others.  We have developed training for learning engineering and design including the first professional master program producing the learning engineers of the future and online learning engineering competency courses that anyone can take.


Social Computing 

The HCII faculty have a long history of innovative research in computer-supported cooperative work, computer-mediated communication, and the social impact of technology. They successfully model interaction patterns in a variety of online communities—from cancer support groups to Wikipedia—and apply theories from the social sciences to understand and improve social computing systems, as well as develop innovative new social computing systems that enable new capabilities and sociotechnical architectures.

Current research topics include, but are not limited to: the social impact of computing, computer-mediated communication and collaboration, virtual teams and team building, crowdsourcing, distributed sensemaking, and the social processes of design.

Students in this emphasis area may choose to take courses in a variety of departments across campus as part of their course requirements, including the Language Technologies Institute, the Machine Learning Department, the Organizational Behavior group within the Tepper School of Business, the Department of Social and Decision Sciences, the Department of Psychology, and the Heinz College.


Technical HCI

Computer technology has continued to expand and improve at a blistering pace. Our long-standing research emphasis in technical HCI has sought to bring the tremendous potential that these advances offer to bear for the good of users. This work has had a diverse set of themes including an emphasis on tool building, the exploitation of specific areas of technical advance (such as development of new input sensing, applications of machine learning to HCI problems, crowdsourcing techniques, and new fabrication techniques, to name a few), and applications of new technology to specific application domains (such as assistive technology, context-aware interfaces, sustainability, end-user programming, social computing, and security, to name a few).

A wide range of courses in departments within the School of Computer Science and elsewhere can be used as a part of this emphasis. These courses should each have a technical focus, and a student's work must contain a substantive implementation experience in one or more of these courses.