John M. Carroll


Over time, the scope of my work and my interests is increasing. This is due to working in a rapidly developing area with exciting people! Nevertheless, there persistent themes, issues, and values that I orient to in all of my work. I am interested in how user interfaces and interactive systems are designed, what is designed and how it serves a person’s immediate tasks, and how through time designs and people co-evolve and adjust, eventually articulating new design needs and opportunities.

I am especially interested in methods and theory, including scenario-based methods for design and development, minimalist techniques for making information engaging and efficient, computer support for collaborative problem-solving and learning, community informatics, social impacts of computing, social sources of creativity. However, these special interests do not provide much of a filter, since they pretty much pervade every project in human-computer interaction.

My style of research combines social/cognitive analysis and empirical studies with prototyping, mock-ups and software development. Not everybody in my group has this full spectrum of skills and interests, but we learn and practice working together, and trying to make a diverse whole greater than the sum of the parts. This approach is essential to HCI, in my view. Thus, my group is interested in how people solve problems, how they learn and make sense with others, and in critical social-cognitive concomitants such as trust and social capital, sense of community, and collective efficacy. But we are also interested in better methods and techniques, better designs, and better computational tool support for such human activity. That’s what HCI is.

Our group pursues a broad approach to social and cognitive analysis, that is, through laboratory analysis and fieldwork, through session logging, performance criteria, surveys, interviews, and ethnography. We also take a broad approach to technology investigations, focusing on real/realistic problem domains, and as much as possible working directly with domain experts. We favor participatory action research (PAR) and participatory design research. We like to get into interesting social contexts, understanding practices, problems and possibilities, and then build things, evaluate them, and build them some more. Effective HCI demands this, but it’s also what makes HCI so exciting.

All of my projects have many opportunities for undergraduate and graduate research students. I have organized the list below into three categories (1) currently funded or proposed, very busy projects, (2) recently funded,somewhat busy projects that I could easily be convinced to seek more students and funding for, (3) abiding interests that I will never stop pursuing. There is also a fourth category – projects that students drag me into. I cannot advertise this since I don’t know what new ideas will populate it in the future.

Please come and see me about research projects.

Current and very busy projects

Supporting Community with Technology

This project is developing model civic engagement programs that utilize location-aware services and applications made possible by Web 2.0. Community networking is as old as the Internet and has risen from its ashes several times already. Web 2.0 is enabling the current resurrection. We are working with a wide range of community groups, local foundations and governments, businesses and citizens. We are investigating technologies for placed-based interactions, aggregating local Internet feeds, local photo commenting, time banking and others.

This project can spawn (and is) an almost unlimited number of projects: Local history and “green” tours of place-indexed information, large screen systems that aggregate twitter-like messages into collective discussion blogs, support for “volunteering on the fly” to enable non-profit organizations like the United Way, and so forth. Recent interests of this project include developing support for mobile timebanking and other peer-to-peer currency and exchange paradigms, characterizing and supporting communities as innovation incubators, and working with municipal government to better support local public deliberation.

For background, check my papers on community informatics since 1995, on mobile interactions since 2007, and deliberation since 2012. This project has been supported by Intel Corporation and the National Science Foundation.

Coproduction, Context Aware Timebanking

The timebanking thread of our community informatics work has spun off many further issues in co-production and the nature of effective social services, alternate and complementary currencies, motivating and regulating exercise and health interactions, etc etc. The biggest effort is a collaboration with CMU and PARC to support context awareness in timebanking enabling closer situational coordination in those exchanges.

For background, check papers on coproduction, timebanking and currency since 2013. Supported by National Science Foundation.

Collaborative Sensemaking

This project focuses on design and development of software components to support a variety of synchronous and asynchronous collaborative planning and problem solving activities, including the computational infrastructure to support secure replication and persistence of shared data, as well as client-side components that support communication, authoring, and monitoring tasks.

I am investigating and developing tools to diagnose and to teach collaborative self-regulation skills, so as to allow teams to actually collaborate, and not merely divide up their work to minimize overheads of coordination. I am also investigating and creating tools to support activity awareness in collaborative interaction: how teammates build common group into shared practice to generate and enhance identity and social capital. After all, to collaborate effectively one needs to be aware of a lot more than where one’s partner is pointing a cursor. One needs to know what partners know that might be relevant, what partners value, what they like to do, what they do well, what they want to do now or soon, and what criteria they might use to evaluate joint outcomes. All of this evolves continually.

The current focus of this project is an extremely complex lab experiment in which teams of three students solve an information analysis problem involving a conspiracy to steal laptops on campus. We are studying teams performing this with standard tools and materials, but also with a software tool we are developing with a set of coordinating visualization tools.

For background, check my papers on activity awareness, team coordination, collaborative visualization since 2001. This work has been supported by the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation.

Educational Technology

This is a somewhat bland sounding topic. The specific focus changes over time. Lately I have been interested in dialectic and debate as learning activities, and the co-construction of knowledge by students, and also in large scale online learning (MOOCs – massive open online courses).

For background, especially check my papers on learning and education from recent years, also my 2014 book on this. This work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, and by internal Penn State grants..

Virtual Organizations as Socio-technical Systems

There is a lot of work on the obstacles that people must overcome in computer-mediated collaborative work. As Judy and Gary Olson famously put it, “distance matters”. Many online collaborations are less than effective; many online organizations fail. However, there are examples of online organizations that are productive and effective, in some cases over long periods of time. We have formed a partnership with Mozilla, Python, and Tapped-In – three long-lived and highly successful virtual organizations – to investigate how they manage to be so good. We are analyzing their work activities from interaction logs and interviewing key members. Most recently this work has focused on curation projects in GitHub.

This project was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Recent projects that still reflect things I am interest in and which students could easily convince me to pay more attention to


We have been investigating forums and chats as supplementary channels for discussion and interaction among students in our classes for several years. We have had success with chats that are displayed on large public displays in classrooms, as a sort of backchannel to the spoken class discussion, and with forums that use anchoring (displayed documents to present content and keep discussion postings on topic). We are now integrating our two systems – AnchoredForum and ClassCommons (chat) into a full-service 24×7 class learning conversation.

We has been supported by the National Science Foundation. We recently submitted a new proposal to the National Science Foundation.

Computational Thinking

With Professor Rosson, I am interested in exploring the nature of computational thinking (roughly speaking an analogy to “mathematical thinking”, but it’s still debatable if it exists, what it is like, what it explains, or how it can help interest or teach students about computing and information). What is not debatable is that computing and information science have a lot of problems attracting and retaining students, so at the least “computational thinking” is the name for a kind of thought we have not yet learned how to teach. This project involves developing innovative materials and techniques to better support learning to design, create, and analyze software.

wConnect: A Developmental Community for Women in Computing

With Professor Rosson, I am directing a project in which high school girls, undergraduate women, and female computing professionals work together on meaningful, professional-development projects in computing. Our objective is to motivate and retain women in computing – at all levels of professional development, and to create a model “attractor” project to bring more women into computing.

This project was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Interdisciplinary Assessment of the Use and Impacts of Community Networks

This project focuses on the development of new evaluation methods and combinations of methods to measure the use and impact of computing and communications infrastructures. The project employs a variety of methods including community surveys, detailed interviews, session logging, a participatory evaluation forum, and a variety of psychological scales. It addresses a variety of key issues about communities and community networks:

  • Who participates in community networks?
  • What are the networks used for?
  • How are local business activities and opportunities changed, and how direct a cause is the network?
  • In what ways does access to local government information, or to public decision-making change?
  • What are the consequences for community life, and for community health and well-being?
  • How is participation in community life greater or more diverse?
  • Do people feel safer in a community networking context than in the general Internet context?
  • Do they feel their personal data is safer?
  • Can a community network enhance self-perceptions of collective self-efficacy in the community?
  • Does the social capital of a community increase as a consequence of networking?
  • And what are the causes and effects of unequal participation throughout the community?

Currently, this work is focusing on understanding how community groups establish sustainable organizational learning strategies for information technology skills, and how they might be supported to do this even more effectively.

For background, check papers on community networking from 2003-2008. This project was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Building and Assessing a Library of Usability Case Studies to Support HCI Education and Collaborative Case-based learning

Professor Rosson and I published an undergraduate textbook for human-computer interaction UsabilityEngineering: Scenario-Based Development of Human-Computer Interaction. Unlike previous approaches, our book make extensive use of case studies. Indeed, about half of the book involves an extensive case illustrating usability engineering techniques.

This project involves developing the infrastructure and content for a Web library of case studies, drawn from a wide range of development contexts ( We are developing further cases and authoring capabilities so that cases can be contributed and annotated by remote users, and on better understanding the cognition of case-based learning in order to develop better tools and techniques for assessing outcomes of using the cases. We are integrating our case-based instructional approaches and materials for use in collaborative learning, both face to face team work in the classroom and asynchronous collaboration supported by collaborative editors and chat tools.

Check, and many papers on this, such as Carroll, J.M. & Rosson, M.B. 2005. A Case Library for Teaching Usability Engineering: Design Rationale, Development, and Classroom Experience. ACM Journal of Educational Resources in Computing, 5(1), Article 3, 1-22. This project was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Abiding interests that I will probably never stop pursuing, and that I find ways to incorporate into just about everything I do

Scenario-Based Design

The key idea in scenario-based design (SBD) is that scenarios should be and can be a primary working design representation. SBD has become pervasive in HCI design but many issues remain to be addressed: What are effective tools to support SBD? How should we teach SBD?

For background, check my books (especially 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2008) and many papers on SBD.

Minimalist Information

I have a long-term interest in designing information and user interfaces that are efficient in the sense that they present only what is needed and allow human intelligence to actively elaborate. Although computer science has a tradition of avoiding documentation and design, these are important and interesting aspects of any software or systems project. The Web presents a huge set of cases where information and interfaces are distractingly bloated, and resultingly inefficient for users. (Minimalism as one of the top 50 learning theories!)

For background, check my books from the 1990s; there was a paper in 2015, also about 100 other papers from the past 30 years.

Activity Awareness in Computer-Supported Collaboration

People working collaboratively must establish and maintain awareness of one another’s intentions, actions, and results. Understanding the role of awareness in computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW) and developing effective software tools to support awareness are keys to the future success of CSCW systems. A key scientific objective is to investigate and develop the notion of activity awareness, the awareness of project work that supports group performance in complex and long-term tasks. Activity awareness builds upon prior research on social awareness (of the presence of one’s collaborators) and action awareness (of what collaborators are doing or what they have recently done). Currently, we are focusing on developing and evaluating a suite of awareness tools to support coordinated planning, action, and outcome analysis in collaborative planning.

Design Patterns as a language for HCI Theory

Many people in software engineering have tried to describe design patterns — standard solutions to standard problems — as a way to capture generalizations, facilitate reuse practices and improve software quality. Recently this idea has been extended to user interface software and design.

For background, check
Carroll, J.M. & Farooq, U. 2007. Patterns as a paradigm for theory in community-based learning. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning. 2(1), 41-59.


    I am a faculty member in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology studying HCI and Collaboration