History Project: 1990 – 2005

After conducted several interviews for my history project, I decided to focus for the time being on (roughly) 1990-2005. The more I learned, the more interesting this time period looked from the perspective of the professionalization of user experience.

To start with the obvious: There was no “user experience” field in 1990. That didn’t come until much later. At the start of the 90s, there was an academic field called human-computer interaction, made out of computer science and cognitive psychology. There were some practicing professionals, and they stayed in the orbit of the academics and took what knowledge they could glean from them.

During the 90s, the world wide web as we know it took off, starting with the invention of the Mosaic web browser in 1993. In the next few years, web design became a profession and exploded, figuratively speaking. In this context, Southeast Michigan saw the founding of some historically important design agencies, and the invention of librarian-style information architecture. Meanwhile, more and more people came into the growing usability profession by way of other fields like technical communication, visual design, and more.

The growing community of practitioners wanted ways to develop their skills, so we saw the founding of MOCHI at the newly re-organized University of Michigan School of Information. However, this organization had an academic focus, leading a few years later to the founding of the local chapter of the UPA (an echo of what happened at the national/international level, where the UPA was founded to serve the needs of new set of professionals).

So, yeah. An interesting time period. Before 1990, there were people in Southeast Michigan involved in the academic HCI scene and, of course, people working in human factors (although they seemed to not have formed a strong community). After 2005, the number of UX professionals kept growing, and the ways those people learned and formed communities changed a lot, getting away from the model of having few, large, centralized organizations. Those are time periods I want to dig into further, but for the time being, I want to flesh out my knowledge of those 15 years.

The Refrigerator that Made No Sense

As time goes by, I get more and more interested in how to design for entire experiences beyond a computer screen. A place like Disney World, for example, invests a lot of time and energy to ensure that little is left to chance in the experience of visiting their theme park. Similarly, architecture is fascinating to me because our buildings are, in a way, a huge interface for us to interact with.

Recently, I stayed at a motel. It was run down and kind of terrifying, like an ecommerce site that didn’t quite work right and looked like it was 10 years old. It offered a lot of amenities, but those amenities weren’t quite right. My favorite were the refrigerator and microwave. Having these things in a hotel room is awesome. You get to bring food with you on the road, save it, save your leftovers, eat them later. It’s great for thrift and for not wasting food.

Both of these devices were plugged into an outlet controlled by the lightswitch. That is, when you enter the room and turn on the light, the refrigerator comes on and the microwave starts beeping because it wants you to set the time. So, you get a great choice if you want to keep that refrigerator running: You can sleep with the light on, or you can get a ladder and unscrew the light bulb in the light, or you can push around the refrigerator and plug it in somewhere else. All of these choices are great.

I’m sure the logic behind this decision was to save power. If no one is in the room, why run those appliances? But it lead to this weird problem as a user of the room.

Spotify Updates, Queue Still Weird

Recently, Spotify released a new version of their OS X desktop app. It is prettier than the last version, but in ways that I have a hard time articulating. I think that they went over the fine details and made things like contextual menus look better, as far as font as spacing goes.

If it had just been a facelift, I could have gotten on board with it, but, wow, this is a company that is aggressively testing how far a valuable service will get you.

Their queue functionality has long been problematic, due to a model that baldly makes no sense. You can click “play” on the first track of an album to queue up the whole album. If you then pick another album and “queue” it, it will insert every track of that album after the currently playing song, thus splitting up whatever album you happened to be listening to. You also can’t remove items from your queue once they’re there, without clicking “play” on another whole song. This instantly clears out your queue. This is less user-unfriendliness and more like outright belligerence toward users.

Meanwhile, they hid the queue; instead of putting it in the nav menu on the left, it’s buried in the bottom of the screen as an inscrutable icon. Very close to the volume bar, which has lost its affordance and instead just looks like a decorative horizontal bar until you hover over it. (Although, truth be told, I’m curious how far context and relying upon an idiom that users may have actually learned will work out for this particular design choice).

Fundamentally, it just doesn’t feel like Spotify gets the concept of albums. Not just with regard to queues – managing albums is atrocious if you want to collect a large set, and the way that singles – actual, single songs rather than EPs – are treated as independent albums is bizarre. It’s clear that they weren’t thinking about how to handle albums until the beginning of 2014.

UX in the Mid-90s: Selling People on UX

The mid 90s (say, 1992-1996 or so) sound like a very interesting time for user experience. My history project has given me the opportunity to talk about this time period – a time period where I was not, let’s say, particularly concerned with UX, web design, or even the Internet, for the most part.

It was during this time period that the modern web browser was invented. Whereas before you connected to servers and downloaded documents, Mosaic, this first browser did, well, pretty much what you would expect a browser to do. Except that it was the first one to do so. Suddenly you could pull up web pages full of text and pictures and follow links to other web pages.

During these years, businesses started hopping on the Internet, more as a matter of prestige rather than a practical need to do any business online. Individual people became interested in building their own websites, and came to the conclusion that they could make some money doing this for other people.

Some of those people that enjoyed building websites are people that I’ve been interviewing. They started web design businesses along with a whole bunch of other people – by the time you got to 1995 and 1996, there was an explosion of web design firms.

Back then, the idea of user experience hadn’t penetrated as widely as it has today. Nowadays, UX is widely known as a critical component of a successful business, such that there’s supposedly a huge demand for UX professionals. Twenty years ago, it was necessary to sell potential clients on the idea of UX, as something that would make a website more successful than a pretty but unusable one, for example. It’s like UX was just one of multiple areas that a web design firm could specialize in.

But maybe that’s the way it’s always been, even today. It sure sounds like everybody is on board with the idea that UX is critical to a successful website, but it’s also an all-too-easy concern to jettison the moment a project runs into trouble.

How the UX Field Grew

I think that the expansion in the user experience field followed the growth and spread of computers. This may not be news to other people, and isn’t really a big surprise to me, but until I started the history project, I didn’t think quite so explicitly about the timeline.

UX’s roots go back far, but the human-computer interaction field, probably the start of usability or user experience proper, takes shape around the late 1970s and early 1980s. This field is, for the most part, filled with academics. One of the drivers of this growth is the spread of mainframes and then minicomputers away from academia and out into the business world, where suddenly these complicated machines had to be used by non-scientists. People in computing and psychology noticed suspected that these machines could be designed in a user-centered way, and thus human-computer interaction started to coalesce.

The field stayed mostly academic for much of its first decade. However, going into the late 80s and early 90s, microcomputers (AKA personal computers) came on the scene in a serious way and spread computing even further into the world. There were more and more practitioners working outside of academia to make computers easier to use, and while they took what knowledge they could from the academic CHI conference and from academic papers, there was a movement to start a professional organization that catered to practitioners.

Thus, UPA was born in the 90s, and, in time, other organizations related to user experience.

I still struggle with a good explanation for why a group like the UXPA struggles for membership nowadays. Perhaps it’s the result of our field’s success—with so many practitioners, there are so many opportunities to learn and to network with other practitioners, that there is a necessary fragmentation of professional organizations.

Launchpad

822AC9AD-DD61-4F3A-AF99-9536802B1C3CA couple of times a week on the MacBook Pro (or Apple keyboard), I accidentally hit F4, come face to face with the incomprehensible screen full of unorganized icons, and back out quickly.

As I researched this post, I learned that this feature is called Launchpad and that it has something to do with the (anticipated?) convergence of desktop and mobile operating system experiences. I guess when you combine Launchpad with the Dock is OSX, it’s kind of like the way iOS organizes apps.

But, wow, when you first encounter Launchpad in an uncurated stated, it is an incomprehensible jumble. I guess it’s organized according to the order in which things were installed. How is it useful in a world where people tuck everything they need into the dock? It’s not like the average person uses that many different applications.

As part of my research, I settled down and tried to organize Launchpad, which was a nightmare of awkwardly holding down a button on my keyboard and moving icons around. Icons that didn’t want to move between the multiple screens of Launchpad. And sometimes I just had to touch the Option key once, and sometimes I had to hold it down. By the way, some icons are deletable, and most are not, which meant that I just kept shoving applications I barely use into one big folder.

I suppose that means I’m using Launchpad the wrong way – after all, it’s clearly meant to be a place where you keep every single program on your computer. In the end, I used the first screen to hold icons for all the applications I actually use on a regular basis, and left everything as a jumble in the next 3 screens.

It’s not like I’m going to start using Launchpad, anyway. I use Quicksilver and just type what I want (if it isn’t already open).

The Beginning of SIGCHI and Ann Arbor

One story I’ve heard while talking to Professor Paul Green at the University of Michigan is about the formation of ACM SIGCHI. I knew that this is a venerable organization, but I didn’t know exactly when it started. Paul spoke about his recollection of events from 35 years ago, so an article written by Lorraine Borman, one of the founders of SIGCHI, helped pin down the dates.

Apparently, back in 1978, ACM SIGSOC (Social and Behavioral Computing) had a conference in the Washington, DC. According to Paul, they invited Al Chapanis as the speaker, who had the been the president of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) and was well known for his work in human factors and computer systems. In Borman’s article, she writes that “SIGSOC presented what may have been the first ACM panel presentation on the user interface at the ACM Conference… ‘People-oriented Systems: When and How?’” which Borman chaired.

ACM SIGSOC had planned for 200 people to show up at their conference, but instead something like 600 people showed up, including many human factors folks. After this meeting, some of the folks involved in it—specifically, the University of Michigan’s Greg Marks and Lorraine Borman—thought that they were on to something. They saw a connection between the computing people and the human factors people, so a group of people from the meeting, including Paul Green, met to talk about ways to continue the collaboration.

Thus, ACM SIGCHI was born, because ACM had the resources and the drive to pick up this new idea and run with it. Apparently, there is a story that HFES dropped the ball, so to speak, on bringing in the computing realm together with human factors, but it was more a matter that ACM had resources at the time and HFES did not.

It would be another four years before SIGSOC became SIGCHI in 1982. During this period of change, SIGSOC had a “very successful conference in May 1981 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which had as its focus Human Interaction and the User Interface.”

I had no idea that the University of Michigan played such a role in the forming of ACM SIGCHI.

Attending ALA Midwinter 2015

I recently attended the ALA Midwinter 2015 conference in Chicago (http://alamw15.ala.org/). My work at ITHAKA is a great fusion of my two professional interests: UX and libraries, and this was my first chance to attend a conference for librarians.

It was quite a different experience from the UX conferences I’d been to. It seems like there are at least two kinds of UX conferences: The pure-training kind, where the program consists of sessions where you can learn about stuff. The other kind offers professional development, but also opportunities to further the agenda of the organization. Think UXPA – in addition to listening to talks about UX, you can also meet with other leaders (at the chapter or international level) to talk about the profession.

The ALA is huge, and there seem to be a ton of opportunities for librarians to get involved with the ALA. Much of the sessions were committees and interest groups getting together to talk about whatever they were interested in. That seemed to be the focus – in contrast, UX programs seem to be oriented around the speakers themselves. You pick and choose sessions based on who’s speaking and what they’re speaking about.

The sheer volume of sessions on the program was overwhelming. For any timeslot, there could be dozens, and the timeslots all overlapped with each other. On top of that, you might have to go to an entirely different hotel to get to a session you wanted to attend.

I’m glad I went, though. It was fantastic to immerse myself in the world that librarians live in. There are plenty of folks in that world interested in user experience, so I got to talk shop a few times while I was at the conference.

A Discontinuous Experience with Outlook

Sometimes (maybe often?) I wish that my desktop wasn’t treated as a completely separate platform from the iOS I use on my phone (and occasionally on an iPad).

As I continue to find better ways to deal with email, I recently tried out Microsoft’s Outlook, which they recently acquired from another company and rebranded as theirs. It does some good work – it has the ability to hide messages until you want them back, but it seems to cooperate with the labeling system I put in place for my email. It also has a nice distinction between “important” emails and “not so important emails”.

The problem actually comes in when I want to use this Outlook on my laptop. It turns out Microsoft’s Outlook for the web is actually just their free email service, corresponding to Google’s Gmail and Yahoo!’s Yahoo! Mail. It doesn’t even seem to work the same as the iOS app.

What the heck, Microsoft? You snared me with this clever little app, and then when I try to continue the experience on my laptop, you try to get me to use the latest version of Hotmail. We live in a world where people move across devices. Your product lineup needs to recognize that.

Argus and Information Architecture

Information architecture was invented twice, and one of those times, it happened in Ann Arbor. Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, two librarians in Ann Arbor, began to think about the problem of organizing information on the Internet during the 1990s and ultimately wrote the seminal “Polar Bear Book,” Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. Then they started a consulting agency called Argus.

Argus is one of those places in our local professional history that acts as a nexus point. Various members of our community worked there. Argus famously (or, at least, it should be famous) worked for Borders, the now-closed Ann Arbor-based book store. In the days before the Amazon of today, Borders wanted to figure out what to do with the Internet. Argus proposed an online presence where users could buy books online. Borders turned down this idea of, basically, doing what Amazon ended up doing.

Amazon went on to be very successful. Borders entered a slow decline, eventually closing down and taking with it a local institution, a “third place” where people could mingle in their community, and a source of jobs.

Argus closed earlier in the wake of the 2001 bursting of the dot com bubble. It is nevertheless an interesting episode in our local history.