Interview with Lou Rosenfeld, Part One

Lou Rosenfeld is the founder of Rosenfeld Media, a co-founder of the Information Architecture Institute, and co-author of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. In this interview, we discuss Argus, a company he founded in the 90s that was a pioneer in practicing Information Architecture, how he came to be an author, and the value of professional organizations.

Argus

Argus, a design agency from the mid 90s to the early 00s, was an important part of the nascent UX community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The invention of the modern browser, the decreasing cost of personal computers, and the resulting explosive growth of the World Wide Web paved the way for Argus’ growth, as well as many other development and UX focused companies.

Argus served as the laboratory for Rosenfeld and Morville to formulate their ideas about Information Architecture, which were heavily influenced by Library and Information Science, and put them into practice.

Founding Argus

You attended the University of Michigan School of Library and Information Science. How did you move from studying library science to become a founder of Argus?
When I started library school back in 1988, we learned how to search online using commercial databases like Dialog and Lexis/Nexis. In those days, people searched $300/hour databases, and it was nerve-wracking because if you didn’t have well-formulated queries and alternate queries before you went online, you were going to cost the school a lot of money. People’s hands would shake as they did their searches. That was the environment in 88.

They told us we were at the cusp of a big information explosion. There was a lot of discussion about it, but not a lot of thought about how librarians were going to work in non-library environments.

After all, it was obvious this information explosion wasn’t only going to happen at libraries. In fact, I didn’t go to the graduate program at the University of Michigan with the idea that I’d become a traditional librarian. I just wanted to learn the skills, and while I was there I teamed up with Joe Janes* to start teaching people how to use the Internet. We decided for fun to start Argus. We taught classes on weekends in different parts of Southeast Michigan, mostly in collaboration with teachers and librarians, or with local chapters of professional associations.

We taught people how to do absolutely horrible, painful things, like use Archie, Telnet, FTP, WAIS, Veronica, and Gopher. This was a time before the web exploded where a lot of people didn’t even know what email was, but they were interested or encouraged by their employers to learn more.

I graduated in 1990, stayed in Ann Arbor, and actually went back to be a doctoral student in 1993. I continued to do the stuff with Joe Janes with Argus on the side and worked in the library as well, doing techie stuff.

Around that time the school had me, with Joe, start teaching the class on how to use the Internet. I started doing it as an independent study in 1992. Peter Morville was one of my first and best students. That’s how I got to know Peter. He said he wanted to learn the stuff, and I told him, “There’s no better way to learn than to teach, so you’re helping me teach a workshop to the public in two weeks.” Then he signed up for my course as well and eventually became a partner in the company.

* Currently a professor at the University of Washington Information School, and founding director of the Internet Public Library while a professor at the University of Michigan in the 1990s.

How did Argus move from teaching to helping people build websites?
At first, we taught people how to use the Internet, and then we moved into helping people develop and design for it—we moved from consumption to production of information on the Internet.

In 1993, we created a course that paired people to build topical guides to the Internet. For example, two of our students created a guide to personal finance. We published them in this horribly-named thing called the Clearinghouse for Subject-Oriented Internet Resource Guides. It was an early Internet directory. Instead of a set of listings in something like Yahoo! (which it predated), it pulled together people’s efforts to organize the Internet.

In fact, it was around that time that Tim Berners-Lee* emailed me and said, “Why are you doing this? We’ve already got the World Wide Web Virtual Library!” Even with more support, it was as likely to succeed as my Clearinghouse. Neither effort could really scale.

We published our students’ guides on this Gopher server. Around that time an old friend of mine, Rich Wiggins from Michigan State University, came to speak to the class. He said, “You know, you’re all using Gopher now, but in a few months I think you’re all going to be using the web.”

I remember telling him, “Why would anybody use the web? It’s all these wild hypertextual references of a very personal nature. They don’t generalize well.” I couldn’t imagine this could be any better than hierarchies and menus, which was what Gopher was.

A few months later, Mosaic came out, and I remember the moment were were all looking at it. Rich came back and showed us pictures of Kandinsky paintings from some web server. The web had been around for a year or two, but it was all text, so it wasn’t a big deal. When it became visual, it was a big deal. It was mind blowing.

We started teaching people how to create web pages. I think it was the first academic course in creating information for the Internet ever taught. I’ve asked and nobody ever said there was something before 1993. I’ll take credit for that, at least, with Joe.

* Computer scientist that invented the World Wide Web and founder and director of the World Wide Consortium.

The Growth and Evolution of Argus

I got to the point where Peter, Joe, and I—mostly Peter and I at that point—realized that Argus was going to grow, and I had to make a choice between the doctoral program and Argus. I chose to finish my PhD at some other, undetermined time, which I’m still waiting to do.

In the beginning of 1993, we started growing the company. It was an interesting time in Ann Arbor. Several companies suddenly started doing stuff for the Internet. The one that had been around the longest was Jon Zeeff’s company, Branch. The local lore is that the first ever ecommerce site was his Branch Mall*—that he built the first ecommerce engine. In 1993 or 1994, he put a florist** on the web. It was the first ever, right in Ann Arbor.

Argus partnered with three other companies: Q, a great visual design and communication firm, and two other companies that handled development and project management. We created a consortium called Allied, which allowed us to take on full service web projects. We did Detroit Edison, Consumers Energy, and a number of other fairly sizable organizations, mostly in the upper Midwest, and the biggest one—the one that broke my heart—was Borders Books and Music.

I remember telling Peter, “This is fine for now, but I want to be doing Information Architecture instead. It’s our speciality—nobody’s going to do it better than us, and nobody gets that it should be its own thing, at this point.”

I remember saying to him, “I bet you by about next year, 1997, we can get out of Allied and just do IA projects exclusively, not website projects. Everyone’s going to be doing websites and it’s going to become a commodity service.”

That turned out to be true. In 1997 we stopped doing that kind of collaboration and just started doing IA.

* Jon Zeeff was president of Branch Information Services in the 1990s and an ecommerce pioneer with his Branch Mall. “Staking a Claim on the Internet,” Inc.
** Grant’s Flowers and Greenhouses.

Where did Argus draw its team from? Did you hire UX people?

We had about 8 to 12 people at that point and everyone came from library school. We were all basically librarians taking those skills, like I’d wanted to do in 1988, and bringing them to this explosion of new digital environments, which needed the kind of expertise we had in organizing, structuring, and making information findable.

Around 1997, we met Keith Instone* from Toledo. Keith had contacted us, and he was this weird usability guy. I didn’t really know anything about usability or how it fit with what we did. We liked Keith and we knew there was enough of a connection, and we were willing to learn more.

The thing that we learned early on is that the best people to hire are not the ones that fit your idea of what’s good, but people that can bring something different and are just good people to work with. He turned us on to usability testing and we hired him and then built a model for Argus.

The model was a bunch of pods. Each one of them had library science influenced Information Architects and a project manager, and then we had specialists come from other areas instead of being in the vertical pods of IA people.

Any projects could be owned by one of our IA teams, but they could use Keith Instone to help them with usability. They could use Dennis Schleicher to help with ethnography. They could use Karl Fast to help them with markup, and so on. We eventually hired away my doctoral advisor, Amy Warner, to help with deep taxonomy. We got up to about 40 people, with no turnover. It was incredible. In the late 90s to 2000, we had zero turnover, when pretty much everyone was getting a job for a million dollars a year doing HTML.

* UX professional from Toledo, Ohio, and participant in a forthcoming interview.

The Closing of Argus

We were at our peak in late Fall of 2000. We put on our first conference—our only one: the IA Conference that Peter organized in La Hoya, California. I remember sitting in a hot tub in La Hoya in October of 2000 thinking, “Wow, life is good.” Little did I know that about a month later, the economy was going to hit us badly*.

Right around that time, corporate spending tightened. Who’s going to get cut first? Consultants. Especially ones who do stuff they don’t understand, like Information Architecture.

We were the canary in the coal mine for the economic downturn. In the space of about a month, our three biggest contracts, IBM, Morningstar, and Northwestern Mutual Life were cancelled or terminated because they suddenly lost the money—not because of us.

That was right before the holidays, and by the time January rolled around, instead of quarter million dollar projects, we were looking at twenty thousand dollar projects. We decided we would do one round of layoffs, and if we didn’t survive that, we would shut down rather than go bankrupt. In April, we just saw that we couldn’t maintain Argus, so we decided to give people severance, and close down neatly.

* The dot-com bubble was a speculative bubble from about 1997 to 2000 caused in part by the rapid growth and commercialization of the Internet. This bubble collapsed from 1999-2001, leading to the recession of the early 2000s.

A Week Off

Sorry – couldn’t think of a blog post today.
One of the things that scared me about committing to a weekly schedule on this blog is the constant need for more content. Sometimes, you just don’t have anything to write. Or, rather, there are plenty of things going on in my life that I care about and for the time being, they’re not of any real professional interest.
The boundary between my professional and personal life is a bit fuzzy. Well, a lot fuzzy. It always has been and, really, it’s what I signed up for and what I’ve actively chosen over the years. A great big downside of blending my lives is this constant need to be on, to think professional thoughts, to think big thoughts to share, and to write, write, write.
People don’t work like that. Most people, anyway. We have other interests and sometimes (maybe often) those interests come to the foreground.

More Thoughts on UX and Product Management

I came across a couple of articles recently exploring the connection between user experience and product management.

First, Phil Dahnke over at UserZoom, they talk about how UX is everyone’s responsibility, particularly product management, in Can you be a successful product manager without UX research? One paragraph in particular stands out to me:

A successful Product Manager will champion the user and strive for a shared vision amongst the UX, UI and design teams based on their customer and user research. Sometimes this means changing direction and deviating from previous plans based on user feedback. Simply relying on the UX team to know what’s best for the product users can result in efficient products users might not like.

Or, to put it another way, the concerns of a UX specialist are a subset of the product manager’s.

Here’s another article: Is UX Part of Product Management, by Adrienne at Brainmates. Rather unsurprisingly, Adrienne comes down on the side of “yes.”

These articles are in the same vein as Eric Ries’ Lean Startup, which positions product management as the key role in understanding and acting on information about users. Or, to put it another way, to do the thing that the UX field has proposed as its main value proposition.

It’s food for thought about what sort of career trajectory you should take if you’re in UX and very interested in taking on more responsibility for building products.

Interview with Dr. Marilyn Tremaine, Part Two

Part two of a two part interview with Dr. Marilyn Tremaine.

The Early Years of ACM SIGCHI

Greg was lobbying very hard for me to be president of SIGCHI. I said no because I was a junior faculty member. Greg was very gracious about it, but he asked me because he didn’t want Lorraine Borman to be president, because Lorraine is a pain in the butt. She’s also aggressive, incredibly aggressive, and I don’t think I could have done what she did with ACM. A lot of credit goes to her for SIGCHI’s foundation.

You have to understand that Computer Science, at that time, looked askance at Human-Computer Interaction. “That’s not us, we don’t do that, that’s not Computer Science.” Computer science was theoretical. You did math. They were completely put out by HCI. Having someone like Lorraine around was a good thing. I became the first secretary for SIGCHI.

We published the SIGCHI Bulletin. The first issues came out immediately afterward. We started publishing the Bulletin four times a year, and I put good research papers in it, because I wanted to support the society so much. We had our first conference in Boston in 1983. Lorraine Borman co-chaired it with Raoul Smith. A lot of people came, and a lot of very important people in the field came. Then SIGCHI had another conference in San Francisco in 1985, and Lorraine co-chaired it with Austin Henderson*. We decided at that point to have a conference every year. I chaired the 1986 conference with Raoul Smith.

* Austin Henderson was a researcher at Xerox PARC and has been an active member of ACM SIGCHI.

The University of Michigan

Could you tell me about your work at the University of Michigan?
I started at the University of Michigan in 1979. I was hired in the Business School to do HCI research in the Information Systems department.

The best thing that ever happened was that suddenly I got this call from Gary Olson** and he said, “There’s this woman at Bell Labs, and she’s applying for a job. She used to work in Psychology at the University of Michigan. Is there a job in IS at the Business School?” And then he told me her name.

Now, her name wasn’t Judy Olson*** at the time. Judy wasn’t known so much in HCI at that point; she was known for her Cognitive Psychology work. I went to my department chair and I lobbied very hard to hire her, and she got hired. Together with Gary, we started the first class in HCI at the University of Michigan, which had graduate students from the Business School, Psychology, and Computer Science. I think this was in 1981.

** Currently a professor at the University of California at Irvine, Gary Olson is a researcher in human-computer interaction and computer-supported cooperative work.

*** Also currently a professor at the University of California at Irvine and researcher in human-computer interaction and computer-supported cooperative work.

Ann Arbor Softworks

I left Michigan before I got tenure. I wasn’t even up for tenure. I took a leave of absence for half a year because I wanted to try out some of my ideas in a company. I became head of research and development for a small startup company in Ann Arbor, and they let me use all of the processes that answered the questions of “How do you actually go about building a good user interface? What are the steps that you take before you design your interface, during the process of development, and after it’s built?” It was all of these young guys working in one room on software for users of personal computers.

What was the name of this startup?
It was Ann Arbor Softworks. We built one of the first banking interfaces. We built a combined spreadsheet, word processor, and database software package****, and all of it ran on the Apple and on the Commodore 65. I did things like run focus groups, and usability studies on the software. I also did this for a software package that was being developed at the University of Michigan, but I was not able to get involved as much because the university doesn’t have the same “I want to make money” focus that companies do but just wanted to get the software done as fast as possible. I then wrote a paper about it that got published in Communications of the ACM, which was about how software development processes could be changed to include Human-Computer Interaction techniques, and it was quite a successful paper. I felt very good about it.

**** Ann Arbor Softworks produced FullWrite, an early “What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) word processor that competed with the software Apple bundled with its computers. Ashton-Tate purchased Ann Arbor Softworks in 1988, just before FullWrite’s release.

Being a Woman in the HCI Field

Could you talk to me about your experience of being a woman in the Computer Science and Human-Computer Interaction field?
Let me suggest that you do something interesting. Why don’t you go look up all of the CHI fellows, and count the percentage that are female and the percentage that are male? That will be very disturbing for you. I brought that up to the people that were in charge of selecting CHI Fellows, and at the time I did it, the CHI Fellows were only 7% women. And, boy, did that blacklist me. I was part of the initial set of women that organized this group called MatriarCHI. It was called CHI-Woman initially, but then Bonnie John† came up with “MatriarCHI,” and we had to change our name right then and there.

What MatriarCHI does is have the Women’s Breakfast. It’s called the Women’s Breakfast because the focus is on women in science. If you’re a student, you’re going to get faced with the issues that women get faced with in academia or companies, and you can come and talk to some of the more senior women about it. It’s completely open to men, which I think is a very important part of this, and guys do come and talk about the issues, too.

We talk about issues like “What do I do if a harassment issue comes up,” “How do I handle child care,” and “How do I handle unfair pay problems?” One of the changes that it has really had an impact on women in research is suppose you go work as a post doc or as an intern. You no longer get sexual overtures. You can zap the person for doing that. But in the past you probably lost your job or got written very bad evaluations if you didn’t comply. So that’s gone.

As far as making it, well, I would go through and look at all the people that get the honors, and so on. Women do significant work in HCI, but they don’t have the aggressiveness and some of the other traits that push them forward. They have a different kind of personal presentation, and that keeps them from being successful. I don’t say it’s a male perception. If you’re a group of guys, and you feel more comfortable with guys, you’re going to select somebody you’re comfortable with and give them an award. You’re not going to go through a list of people, you’re going to pick people who come to mind. That kind of thing continues to happen.

† Director of Computation and Innovation at The Cooper Union and a founding member of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

Marilyn Tremaine is currently retired, but continues to do research on topics including tools to improve people’s spatial abilities.

Interview with Dr. Marilyn Tremaine, Part One

Dr. Marilyn Tremaine, former Research Professor at Rutgers University and recipient of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction’s (SIGCHI) CHI Lifetime Service Award in 2005, is an important figure in the founding of ACM SIGCHI. She helped organize one of the first Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) conferences in America in 1981 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she was a professor at the time. Later, she co-chaired the 1986 CHI conference, served in various positions on the SIGCHI board over the years, including vice-president of communications and president. In addition to her work with SIGCHI, Tremaine has done extensive research in human-computer interaction (HCI) on topics such as incorporation of HCI into software development processes, collaborative software, stroke rehabilitation, global software teams and educational games that improve STEM discipline skills.

In the following interview, she discusses how she entered the nascent human-computer interaction field and the founding of ACM SIGCHI.

Entering the HCI Field

How did you learn about the human-computer interaction field?
In 1974, I wanted to go to graduate school and was looking for HCI. It didn’t have a name, but I wanted to study how to make interfaces better for people.

I was a project manager—I had moved up in the computing world—working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. I was running very large projects and developing software for the US government.

I had two problems with my career. The first one was that I was female, and it’s hard to say what it was like in 1974 being female in a science field. There weren’t other women—there were women at the National Lab, but they were secretaries and staff members. They were not scientists. Second, I was also at a level where I was the only one without a Ph.D., so I decided to get a Ph.D.

I built interfaces for people in government to use. My biggest project was building the system that managed the U.S. Navy’s recruit education system. I wrote the database system and then wrote all the interface software so people could manage their courses. We constantly had people entering data, and I would go up to the Naval center and talk to some of the people in Mare Island. They were obviously women, and they were actually quite smart, and they were crying. They were crying because they couldn’t use my software.

I hired somebody with a degree in English to help write manuals. I asked a whole bunch of people to help, and then I decided the only way I was going to solve the problem was by going back to school and studying and figuring out how to solve it myself.

The Annenberg School of Communication had a program in Humans Interacting with Computing—it was called the HI-C program—and I applied there. So I actually went into a program in 1975 that had just started, and which was interested in improving computers for people. So there was a program even back then—pretty amazing stuff, huh?

Xerox PARC

We had a faculty member at Annenberg who was hired from Yale named Jim Carlisle. He was a real gung-ho person, and he brought in speakers for the HI-C program. One of the speakers was from Silicon Valley, because things were starting to happen out in Silicon Valley then. He brought in this young man named Stu Card*. Stu hadn’t finished his degree yet—he was a Ph.D. student at Carnegie-Mellon—and Stu gave a talk about the Cognitive Psychology they were doing at Xerox PARC**.

Now note, I’m transferring all the way over from hardcore Computer Science into Sociology, and it is a big step for me. Then this guy comes in and starts talking about Cognitive Psychology, and I just went, “Ka-bing, that’s it, that’s what I want to do. That’s where we’re going to solve those interface problems.”

I asked him, at the end of his talk, “Do you ever take visitors?” He said yes, and so I called him up on Friday and asked, “Can I come and see you on Monday?”

I drove all the way from Los Angeles to Palo Alto and visited Stu Card and Tom Moran*** for the day. I met everybody in the lab, and they showed me all the things they were doing. I asked all sorts of questions. Then I asked, “Do you ever take summer interns?” and Tom gave me an application form. By that summer, after my first year of graduate school, I was working at Xerox PARC!

What was I working on? I was working on cut and paste, and doing all sorts of studies with people using text editors. They were building Bravo, and Bravo became Microsoft Word, eventually.

I was a weird girl going around Stanford collecting things from people’s wastebaskets. I went to different departments and asked them if they had manuscripts they had retyped, and if I could see the editing marks on the manuscripts. I brought back all this data because we didn’t know how people edited. This research was all new. It was great fun.

The key people in the department were Tom Moran and Stuart Card, and the person in charge of the whole project was Alan Newell from Carnegie-Mellon. He’s an extraordinarily famous computer scientist. Stu said to me, “Why don’t you ask him if you can go to Carnegie-Mellon?”

I did, and he said, “Sure!”

I went back to the University of Southern California and asked if I could go to Carnegie-Mellon for the rest of my graduate degree. They asked what I wanted to do there. I had a few people on my committee that were pretty savvy—one in Computer Science, and one in Psychology, and the one in Psychology said, “Oh my God, you’re getting to go to Carnegie-Mellon? That’s incredible!” and the computer scientist said “Oh wow, you’re working with Alan Newell!”
So the people in the School of Communication let me go, and I went to Carnegie-Mellon. I did my thesis there and stayed there for two years. My thesis was “Why People Get Lost Using Computer Systems”.

* Stuart Card was a Senior Research Fellow at Xerox PARC and is a pioneer in human-computer interaction, recognized with numerous awards in the field.

** Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (now simply known as PARC) is the place where many common software design patterns and pieces of computer hardware were invented.

*** Thomas Moran is a Distinguished Engineer at the IBM Almaden Research Center. He is a pioneer in HCI and coauthored The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction with Stuart Card and Allen Newell.

The Formation of ACM SIGCHI

If you want to develop the field of Human-Computer Interaction—it is essential to have a professional society. That was very clear.

Interest in HCI was beginning to happen across the country. After I transferred to Carnegie-Mellon, I went over to the UK specifically because there was more going on with the British Computer Society than was happening in the US. I went to places like Sheffield, Cambridge, and Edinburgh, and I gave talks as a graduate student. I’m sure the comment about me when I gave the talk in Edinburgh was, “I’m sure she was talking about something interesting but I couldn’t hear it,” because I had such a bad cold. But I was very focused on making this a field and absolutely sure that a professional society was necessary.

Greg Marks**** was in charge of SIGSOC (Special Interest Group on Social and Behavioral Computing). What that meant is that they were focusing on getting software that handled statistics developed and available in all the universities. This may seem kind of dumb now, but nobody had such tools in the 70s, and if you wanted to do an analysis of variance, you had to write your own program. Then, there was a major company—two eventually—that started producing the software, and so users formed SIGSOC to manage the sharing and specification of the stat packages they wanted.

By 1980 or so, SIGSOC didn’t need to exist anymore. Every academic computing center had such packages and the packages themselves provided substantial support for researchers. Lorraine Borman† was at a small university in Chicago and had become involved with SIGSOC. Because SIGSOC was dying, she worked with ACM, trying to get SIGSOC converted to what would later be named SIGCHI.

In the meantime, Greg introduced her to me, and we decided that we were going to have a conference in Ann Arbor. I think that was either Greg’s or Lorraine’s idea. I was in my first year as a junior faculty member, when you’re not sure if you’re going to get tenure or not. We held a conference on “Easier and More Productive Use of Computing.”

Lorraine came to Ann Arbor to discuss the running of the conference, and I said to her and Greg, “Have you invited so and so? And don’t forget so and so!” They asked, “You know all these people?” I told them yes, and they should come.”

In 1980, we held this conference on “Easier and more Productive Use of Computing,” and either Lorraine Borman or Greg Marks, or both of them, were in charge of it. I got Tom Malone‡ to come, I got Stu Card and Tom Moran to come. Ben Shneiderman# was there, plus a whole bunch of other interested people. It wasn’t a big conference, but its size led to lots of discussion about the problems and needs of HCI. Meanwhile, Lorraine was still working with ACM to get us approved to become SIGCHI.

At the same time, there was a whole bunch of stuff happening in Maryland because of the U.S. government. Ben Shneiderman was a significant part of that. He organized a group called the Software Psychology Society, a group with no president, no secretary, no rules and, no dues. They just met. Anybody who wanted to attend could come.

They decided to hold a conference in 1982, and they advertised it to everybody they knew, just like I had done for the Ann Arbor one. By that time, Lorraine and Greg, together, had gotten the approval to change the society to be one that supported the Human-Computer Interaction discipline.

There were a thousand people that came to the 1982 conference from all over the world. It was amazing! The organizers were blown away. They had expected maybe 200 people, max, to come. We had this meeting about what was to become SIGCHI and the hotel hadn’t taken the bed out of the room, so people were sitting on the bed and sitting on the floor. That was the first SIGCHI meeting, and at that meeting, we voted on what we should call the society. We came up with “SIGCHI” because “SIGCHI” sounded easier to pronounce than “SIGHCI.” The name change was approved later in 1982, and SIGCHI became an official SIG.

**** Information technology researcher at the University of Michigan.

† First president of ACM SIGCHI.

‡ Thomas Malone is a professor at MIT, who started his career as a research scientist at Xerox PARC.

# Professor of computer science at the University of Maryland Human-Computer Interaction Lab and author of Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction.

Will There Be UX Professionals in the Future?

I’ve been pondering lately where there will even be formal UX roles in 10, 20, or 30 years’ time.

Certainly, I don’t think the concepts of caring about users and designing based on researching those users will go away. And I certainly hope I’m not jobless and starving in a few decades.

It feels like we’re in the middle of a race to see who can own UX the most. Everyone wants to talk about the user experience (to the point where that term has even displaced the more accurate “user interface” in a lot of cases). Developers build user experiences, quality assurance people assure the quality of the user experience, product managers want to swallow the UX skillset whole and incorporate it into their own jobs.

Meanwhile, there’s a constant drumbeat of “you don’t need UX specialists.” All you need to do is read this list of 5 tips on how to conduct interviews, and you’re instantly an expert on user research! What kind of fool worries about getting bad data from bad research? Any research is, after all, better than none. (Protip: No, it isn’t)

All that said, though, I do want everyone to think about how their work affects users. Disseminating these skills is going to make life better for everyone. And when we live in a world where practically everybody has had at least a class on UX and concerned with getting real data about users… what do we need specialists for?

I suppose we’d need specialists for highly specialized problems. In those cases, though, I can’t imagine we’d see the kind of “UX Unicorn” model, where we pretend that a UX expert can also be an expert at visual design and coding. High specialized problems will probably need people that can solve tricky research problems, or who spend all their time thinking about complex design problems. How many specialists could the world possibly need, though?

I’m less worried than curious. I suspect a lot of UX people will end up migrating to product management.

Interview with Paul Green, Part Two

In this second half of my interview with Paul Green, we discuss teaching Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Michigan and the history of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI).

Teaching HCI at UM

When did you become interested in User Experience?
I got into it pretty much as I was finishing my PhD, and immediately thereafter. The reason was that I was looking ahead and I knew the future was cars would be connected to computing and complicated interfaces.

The first report I wrote here was a pretty straightforward topic: an assessment on stalk controls—those things that stick out of the steering column, like turn signals and windshield wipers. I said, “That’s not the future. The future is that we’re going to have touch screens in cars.” So I wrote, “Here’s a hierarchical menu system inside a car that does all this stuff.”

I remember the report was funded by the then-Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association (it’s gone through a bunch of iterations and it’s now the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers). It’s the car-makers. They said to me, “Take this out—no one would ever do touchscreens. No, it’s sticks.”

But that got me, in 1982, to teach a Human-Computer Interaction course, because I knew I needed to know that material. That material would be important for motor vehicles. I read the literature, taught classes on it, and basically learned what was out there so I could do research that related to that topic.

If you look at cars right now, what have they got in them? They’re all computer systems, and people complain about the user interface.

I’m still doing work on that topic, like predicting how long it will take people to do basic things. Then, there’s the basic stuff we’ve done for years, that we’ve written standards on, and that we’re still doing.

Probably by next year we’ll have some much better data for predictions. That is, we’ll be able to predict how long it will take people to do things as well as an experiment can. So, if you compare the correlation between experimental data and the predictions in any experiment, the predictions will be as good as data, which means there will essentially be no unexplained variance. It’s part of this push to make interface analysis much more like other aspects of engineering.

Is that portable beyond touchscreen in a car? Such as for mobile phones?
I’d say that there are certain unique things about thumbing where the time data are going to be different, but the analysis procedures are going to be the same. Basically, it’s like the keystroke level model, but adapted for automotive interfaces.

You taught an HCI class is in the Industrial and Operations Engineering Program?
Yes. I still teach it—it’s still going on.

Has interest grown in your class over the years?
I’d say it’s stabilized, because now there’s SI (University of Michigan School of Information).

Also, I look for a particular kind of student. That’s often not your typical engineering student, because with engineering students, everything is taken as plug and chug. “Show me the equation, and I’ll plug it in and get the correct answer.”

As we know in the real world, especially for interface design, that’s just not what’s important. We’ve got to teach them how to do keystroke level modeling—GOMS—calculation procedures, but the first problem usually is “what’s the problem?” It’s not a problem where you know how to calculate the answer.

Furthermore, the answer to the problem doesn’t exist in a single chapter in a textbook. You use lots of ideas and methods. You figure out how to solve this problem, see what the issue is, go get a bunch of people, have them try it, learn how to process their feedback, and then offer a suggestion for a design fix. They’re used to situations where they’re told what the problem is and they solve it. Well, the first part is to figure out what it is.

Let me give you a concrete example. The next assignment they’re going to do in class is that I’m going to talk to them about the literature of how to assess a display, how to measure lighting characteristics, the different ways to determine legibility, etc, and how people have done assessments of them. I’ll talk about some journal articles where people measure them, about reading tasks, and the percent that they read correctly. Now the charge to them is “Go find a computer display you’ve experienced that’s not legible. Conduct an experiment, make some change to the display somehow, figure out how to do it, and then conduct an experiment to show that it’s better. And write a recommendation.”

They ask, “How do I find legibility problems?” Well, go experience them!

To them that’s hard because I didn’t tell them what the problem is. They have to go find the problems. I say, “Well, think about your day, and as you go through the day, every time you encounter a computer display, is it hard to read? What was difficult about it?”

“How do I do that?” they ask.

So they’re not used to that kind of open ended task where you have to think about it. They ask, “What experimental procedure should I use?” I’ve told them what the literature is, and given them some sense of how different procedures are applicable in different contexts. They need to look at the context and think about what makes sense, what’s feasible, what’s going to be compelling evidence, and then consider that they can’t rewrite the software. They’re going to have to think of some way to fake it. They’re not used to not being told exactly what to do.

It’s the kind of thing you experience all the time—you can’t do this, you don’t have a tool for that. Well, what other ways can you come up with an answer? What does the literature say? Well, there’s more literature than you can ever read. How do you find the key things that are appropriate? They’re just not used to that open ended-ness. But if they don’t know how to handle that open ended-ness, they’re going to be completely unprepared for industry.

The Early Days of ACM SIGCHI

What can you tell me about local figures in the HCI field?
I can think of one person in particular. A guy named Greg Marks*. I’ve known Greg for years—I knew him when I was a student here, and Greg is still active as a professional. Years and years ago, he was head of an ACM group called SIGSOC (Special Interact Group on Social Aspects of Computing). That group was active here on campus, and so there was a point in time when Greg was wondering, “As computing changes, what should our future be?” Some of what Greg did eventually morphed into SIGCHI, which is not well known.

The first real CHI meeting was in ’82, and what happened was that the Washington ACM chapter had a chapter meeting**, and they invited Al Chapanis as the speaker. Chapanis had been the president of the HFES (Human Factors and Ergonomics Society), and he was really well known to Human Factors people. He was doing a lot of the early work on communication and related topics, as they pertain to computer systems. As I recall, the original plan was to have a chapter meeting, and they thought 200 people would show up. Instead, they invited Chapanis, and he connected with the Human Factors community, and something like 600 people showed up to this chapter meeting.

After the chapter meeting, people said, “Oh, I think we’ve discovered something. A connection between the ACM people and the Human Factors people. What should we make of this?” There was a meeting afterwards, and I was involved, and Bob Williges*** was involved. Williges was a senior Human Factors person and I’m not sure if he had been HFES president or was president later, or executive council, but he was that kind of person. There was a lot of discussion about continuing this meeting in a collaborative manner, but what happened was that ACM had the resources, and they ran with it, and formed SIGCHI****.

Now, what happened is the false rumor in the Human Factors community that we had the opportunity to dominate in Human-Computer Interaction and we blew it. The answer is, “No.” ACM had the resources, and they ran with it. We didn’t have them. It’s not that we lost anything, and CHI’s done very well.

* Information technology researcher at the University of Michigan, and involved in planning one of the first conferences focused on Human-Computer Interaction, which took place in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

** Specifically, the Software Psychology Society held a conference in Gaithersburg, Maryland. At that time, it was clear that the ACM SIG board would approve SIGSOC renaming itself SIGCHI, and the Gaithersburg conference was one of the first gatherings for the emerging human-computer interaction community.

*** Professor Emeritus of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech.

**** Greg Marks was involved in discussions to change SIGSOC to an organization focused on Human-Computer Interaction around 1980. As the Gaithersburg conference was planned, it looked like ACM would approve the change to SIGCHI, and it was at this conference that attendees settled on the name “SIGCHI.” ACM subsequently approved the repurposing of the special interest group.

The Future of the Field
What do you see in the future of Human Factors as a field, both locally and internationally?
In terms of the field, it’s pretty clear that medical issues is the future. That’s the growth area, and I don’t know what else is going to grow, but people are getting older. Medical expenses are becoming a greater proportion of everybody’s income, and there are just a lot of Human Factors problems in medicine that need to be resolved. There’s this tremendous opportunity out there.

Locally, it’s really hard to predict what the scene is going to be, because there are so many independent pieces. There’s no organization, there’s no place, there’s nothing that serves as a sort of central rallying point. Okay, there are medical people doing Human Factors at the hospital, and there’s a Human Factors community, but it’s really a student community. There’s not a community of professionals in the normal sense.

Then there are the UXPA and CHI groups. There are all these people doing related things, but there’s no central unit that everybody belongs to. Quite frankly, it’s very difficult for those kinds of organizations to function anymore. Look at HFES. A lot of our local chapters are very weak. The only things that succeed are the student chapters.

It’s all because people are just busy. A lot of what used to happen was at local events, but now people say, “I don’t have the time to drive there, so I’ll just email somebody.” A lot of the face to face connections have fallen. But it’s true of many organizations and not just HFES. It’s just too difficult now, because the workload has increased and because the society has changed, and that’s unfortunate.

The other thing is that a lot of people that are younger don’t understand the value of the face to face connections that we used to have. They have to get pushed very hard to start to build them, and once they start to build them, they say, “Okay, I get it. I can’t just email somebody. I’ve got to go talk to them, and not just on the phone. I’ve got to talk face to face.”

Paul Green continues to teach and do research at the University of Michigan.

Interview with Paul Green, Part One

Paul Green is a professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Institute (UMTRI). He conducts research in Human Factors and Ergonomics, one of the fields that Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) draws upon. Over the years, he has partnered with the local chapters of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI) and the User Experience Professionals’ Association (UPA; now known as the User Experience Professionals’ Association) to help organize meetings and act as a bridge to the student chapter of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES).

In this first half of the interview, we discussed his work at UMTRI and the Detroit auto industry.

Driving Safety Research at UMTRI

What kind of research do you do at UMTRI?
We’re doing research on driver interfaces, on topics related to distraction, workload, warnings, menu systems, touch screens, how people deal with the stuff inside the car, how they drive, and how outside the car affects them. We do studies in simulators and on the road.

How long have you been doing this?
I’ve been here since 1979, and I’ve been doing the same stuff the whole time. I mean, the names have changed and the emphasis has changed, but it’s still been this kind of work.

How would you characterize the kinds of things that have changed?
Well, technology has changed and the simulators are better, but the same basic questions that we’ve been trying to answer haven’t been answered very well. We’re doing our best, but people have been thinking about driver workload for years, and then distractions became important. People wrote design guidelines. And now people say, “We should have automated vehicles.” All right, but what’s the workload when it’s being manually driven, and what’s the workload when it’s automatically driven? So the same questions are there, it’s just the way we ask for money is different.

What do you mean by simulators?
We have driving simulators for researcher to use—we have one downstairs. The one downstairs is a full size car, in a big room with all kinds of stuff, and then we have some lower fidelity simulators over in Engineering which are cheaper to run, so a lot of times we’ll use that as opposed to the big fancy one. Also, there are fewer issues about scheduling; I can change things and I don’t have to ask anybody for permission.

Then, finally, we have some simulators that students can borrow. This is unique to University of Michigan. We found some simulator software on the web called OpenDS (Open Driving Simulator) built by the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence. OpenDS is okay, but it’s supported. It’s not some student’s dissertation, where once they’re finished, it dies. The code is open source. I also went out and bought several Logitec G27 game controllers.

The equipment’s at the library, so when students in my class in Automotive Manufacturing want to do a driving simulation study, they go to the library and borrow the equipment. The library treats it like a reserved book—you can borrow it for a few hours. You download the software and the documentation, figure out what to do, and run your own driving simulator study. It’s been remarkably successful.

Students have struggled with the documentation, but at any other university, it’s like “Oh, we have to go to the lab and go find a graduate student, and then you can’t use a thumb drive because it’ll poison the hardware, and what if you break something? And who’s going to come in to oversee them?” It becomes an administrative nightmare. This way it’s “Here’s the software, you do what you want with it. Go find your own computer—you’ve got one that’s probably fast enough. Here’s the hardware. We’ve made it so it’s going to be hard to break it. Plug it in. Do what you want to do.”

We’re probably one of the few universities in the world that use this library mechanism, and it kind of opens things up for students because up until now the only universities that could do driving research were the ones with a lot of money—that could spend 50 to 100 thousand dollars to buy a driving simulator, or where the students spent the first year of their dissertation writing some code, and they came out with something that was really clunky and wasn’t very good. This equipment overcomes that problem.

Detroit’s Automotive Industry

Did you have a previous act before 1979?
No, I got my PhD from here and looked around for jobs, and came to UMTRI. I had very minimal contact with UMTRI—then called HSRI (Highway Safety Research Institute)—when I was a graduate student, both in Engineering and Psychology. After I was here for a while, they asked, “Oh, do you want to teach?” and I said okay. It’s unusual—usually people go away after graduating. I didn’t, but it’s enough of a shift that it was an intellectual broadening.

But if you want to do motor vehicle work, it’s really good to be in the Detroit area.

How much have you interacted with the auto companies over the years?
Most of my money comes from the auto companies, so I interact with them a lot. It depends on the company, but recently we’ve gotten funding from Hyundai and from Nissan, so I’ve interacted the most with them, and from the others, it’s been a much lower level of interaction because with them there’s no funding. Professionally, I’m on a bunch of SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) committees. I participate in all those activities. There are technical committees, writing standards—it takes a lot of time.

Are you aware of Human Factors professionals working at the auto companies?
I know many of them through SAE, and they know me because of what I’ve done.

Have auto companies always had these people in house since you’ve been on the scene?
Yes, and I’d say, over the last 10 years, those groups have grown considerably. After Chrysler came out of those bad times, the human interface group at Chrysler grew tremendously, and there’s been growth at Ford and at GM, and now we’re seeing it at Hyundai and Nissan. All the groups have grown.

Happy Thanksgiving 2015!

In the USA, it’s Thanksgiving Day. And although I try to write these posts weeks in advance, I thought I’d take this opportunity to give myself a break. That this break is on September 27th is immaterial.