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Exploring Human-robot Futures Through Participatory Design

About the Project

Applications are invited for a PhD studentship as part of the Wellcome-Trust funded Imagining Technologies for Disability Futures Project (itDf; This fully funded studentship, beginning in April 2021, will be based at the University of Sheffield in the Department of Computer Science and Sheffield Robotics.

The itDf project is an interdisciplinary research project involving researchers from literary studies, cultural studies, engineering, computer science, robotics, product design and philosophy. The project spans the Universities of Leeds, Exeter, Sheffield and Dundee. itDf explores how we imagine future encounters between disability and technology. The main aims of the project are to investigate the ideas of body and personhood that are arising through contemporary developments in assistive technology design and production, for example: prosthetic limbs, care robots, telepresence robots, assistive communication devices.

The PhD studentship will be part of Work Package 3 “Exploring human-robot futures through participatory design” of the itDf project.

Participatory design—designing “with” rather than “for” users —is a relatively new approach in robotics that seeks to place users at the centre of the technology development process. The technological complexity of robots creates a challenge for a participatory design approach that we will address by bringing existing prototype systems into the design process. The use of prototypes invokes imagined and experiential understandings of what robots can or might do and helps to compensate for the lack of prior direct experience with robots. In this project we will work specifically in the areas of companion robots (such as pet-like companions) and telepresence robotics, and with either children or older adults with long-term conditions. Work with children will be in partnership with the Sheffield Children’s Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and with Carnegie Mellon University in the US. Work with older adults will be with the Centre for Assistive Technologies and Connected Healthcare and with Kyutech University, Japan.

The overall aim of this PhD will be to develop new participatory design methodologies for assistive and companion robotics and to evaluate them with potential robot users and their carers. As part of the wider project, on the role of culture and imagination in shaping people’s aspirations, there will be a particular emphasis on how people imagine the role of technology in their own futures.

The student will be based in Sheffield Robotics, which has a thriving postgraduate community. They will also be part of a cohort of PhD students on the itDf project (the other PhDs will be based at Leeds, Exeter, and Dundee) and will benefit from regular engagement with this cohort. Ample training and career development opportunities will be available through the University of Sheffield and the Wellcome Trust. 

Candidates should have a good undergraduate or masters qualification in a relevant discipline, such as Design, Computing, Psychology, Medical Humanities, Social or Health Sciences. Experience in programming/robotics/making would be valuable, though not essential, however, the candidate should expect to gain some skills in these technologies as part of the PhD programme. Previous experience of working in education or care settings would be valuable.

●     BA/BSc or equivalent in a relevant discipline

●     Desirable: MA/MSc in a relevant discipline

●     Excellent communication skills, including a high standard of written and spoken English

●     Experience working with technologies and ability to write or modify short computer programmes

●     Willingness to be part of an interdisciplinary team and to engage intellectually with other disciplinary approaches and concerns

●     Willingness to travel (when/if this becomes possible) to attend itDf meetings and events, and to work with overseas partners in North America and Japan.

If English is not your first language, you must have an IELTS score of 6.5 overall, with no less than 6.0 in each component.


To apply for the studentship, applicants need to apply directly to the University of Sheffield using the online application system. Please name Professor Tony Prescott as your proposed supervisor.

Complete an application for admission to the standard Computer Science PhD programme

Applications should include a research proposal, CV, transcripts and two references.

The research proposal (up to 3 A4 pages, including references) should outline your reasons for applying for this scholarship and how you would approach the researching, including details of your skills and experience in the research area.

Funding Notes

The studentship is for 3 years full-time and will cover University tuition fee at the home rate, with a tax-free stipend at the standard UK Research Council Rate (currently £15,285 for 2020-21). There are also funds available to cover appropriate travel costs to attend project events and meetings, in agreement with your supervisor.