Monthly Archives: September 2016

History of UX in Michigan: Chapter 1: Before UX, Part 3

The third in a series of posts on the history of the user experience field in Michigan. This part concludes the first chapter.

HCI at the University of Michigan in the 1980s

In the years preceding the growth of the user experience profession, the University of Michigan was home to faculty that focused on HCI-related topics. Marilyn Mantei (later Marilyn Tremaine), professor at the University of Michigan Business School at the time, was instrumental to the establishment of SIGCHI, and served as vice president of communications, finance, and conference planning and, later, president. The University of Michigan also had faculty interested in this field that would go on to join the University of Michigan School of Information when it formed in the late 90s, including Judy Olsen and Gary Olsen, two prominent figures in the HCI world.

According to Tremaine, “Suddenly I got this call from Gary Olsen 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 and now she’s coming back and she’s apply for a job. Is there a job in IAS at the Business School?’” This woman, Judy Wrightman, returned to the University of Michigan and went on to marry Gary Olsen.

Together, Marilyn Tremaine, Judy Olsen, and Gary Olsen taught the first HCI class at the University of Michigan. This class drew graduate students from the Business School and from the Psychology and Computer Science Departments.

HCI in the Professional Sphere in the 1980s and early 1990s

It was unusual, in the 80s and early 90s, for people to apply HCI to practical problems outside of academia.

One of those places was an Ann Arbor company called Ann Arbor Softworks, best known for the word processing application FullWrite. Marilyn Tremaine took a sabbatical from the University of Michigan to become their head of research and development, applying the methods she helped pioneer. “I did things like run focus groups, and then usability studies on the software,” Tremaine says.

FullWrite was a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) word processor that competed with the software Apple bundled with its computers, MacWrite. Unfortunately, the software was plagued with missed release dates, with January 1987 being the first of them. Just before its January 1988 release, Ashton-Tate purchased Ann Arbor Softworks and released the software in April of that year[1].

TecEd was another early pioneer in professional HCI, also known at the time as usability. Stephanie Rosenbaum founded TecEd in 1967 as a technical documentation consultancy focusing on computers. According to Rosenbaum:

Once computing started moving from mainframes into minicomputers, at the same time it was moving into industry. People were starting to use computers for things other than major engineering applications, where the only users were PhD engineers. So all of a sudden there was a growing community of people who needed to know what to do, and the only people who knew what to do were horrible at explaining it. So, having seen this from both sides, I said, “We need a service,” and the service is to be a translator from engineering-ese to human being-ese. We started writing help systems and user guides and instructional materials.

By the late 80s, it was clear to Rosenbaum that she could have a greater impact on the usability of computer software through actually improving the user interfaces rather than simply writing documentation on how to use them. One of the examples she relates is:

We were writing a user guide for one of the first personal computer accounting systems for an Atari computer. We started writing how to execute the various commands, and as we documented them, we realized there was a huge inconsistency. Atari had two separate design and development teams. and the result was that half the commands in this product took effect the moment you finished typing the command and the other half required you to enter a carriage return. We started writing it down, and we said, “Wait a minute,” and we went back to our contact and we said, “It behaves like this.”
Atari said, “It doesn’t! It couldn’t possibly!” But we had documented exactly what the software did. And no one should have an instruction manual that says, “For these 20 commands enter a carriage return, and for these 20 commands, don’t bother.”

According to Rosenbaum, “we realized we needed to take a step up the food chain and make sure that the products, systems, and eventually websites and apps were themselves usable.” TecEd reinvented itself in the mid 80s through early 90s. She and members of her team studied the body of HCI literature, learning how to apply this academic material to studying user behavior on behalf of clients. It is interesting to note that at this time, it was feasible to actually read the entire body of literature on HCI. TecEd also began to hire people with backgrounds in cognitive psychology and HCI.

Rosenbaum began to attend the SIGCHI and HFES conferences every year, but found “that CHI and what was then HFS were highly academic conferences. It wasn’t that practitioners couldn’t benefit from them, but you had to fill in a lot of gaps between somebody giving a paper on something from their PhD thesis and something that you could actually apply to make a product better.” She was not the only practitioner to feel this way, and the Usability Professionals’ Association was founded in 1991 by practitioners that wanted an organization that focused on their needs. Rosenbaum was one of the charter members of this new organization, although it would be another decade before Michigan would see its own UPA chapter.


It is also worth noting that during the 80s and early 90s, there was already an organization in Michigan that had an interest in user experience topics. The Society for Technical Communication is a decades-old professional organization for technical communicators such as people that write software manuals. Michigan has long had two chapters of this organization, West Michigan Shores – Society for Technical Communication (WMS-STC) and the Southeastern Michigan Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (STC/SM). One of STC’s special interest groups, like ACM, is Usability and User Experience. Over the years, STC/SM has had meetings that touched on UX-related topics, and went on to collaborate with the local chapter of the Usability Professionals’ Association (now User Experience Professionals’ Association) in organizing events.

Michigan Before the UX Explosion

In the early 90s, there was already a small UX community in Michigan. This community was centered in Ann Arbor, where the University of Michigan and one of TecEd’s headquarters are located. Beside this cluster of people engaged with the then-emerging field of HCI, there were also human factors researchers and professionals and technical communicators interested in usability.
The UX community would expand considerably starting in the mid-90s. The trend toward cheaper and more powerful computers had already spurred the creation of the HCI field. As this trend continued and combined with the birth of the world wide web, there was explosive growth in the number of practitioners.

The community created by these professionals was shaped in its early days by the prominence of the University of Michigan and, later, by the automotive industry. The following chapters will discuss this evolution.


History of UX in Michigan: Chapter 1: Before UX, Part 2

The second part of an ongoing series on the history of the user experience field in Michigan. In these early sections, we look at how the UX field came into being.

Human-Computer Interaction Emerges as a Discipline

Human-computer interaction (HCI) emerged as an academic discipline in the late 1970s at a time when the use of computers expanded beyond a few specialists and hobbyists to an increasing number of mainstream users. This field grew from the fields of cognitive psychology and human factors. In time, HCI would become one of the influences feeding into the user experience field. The growth of HCI is intertwined with the creation of the organization Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI).

From Mainframes to Minicomputers

A full history of the computer is beyond the scope of this piece. For our purpose, we can start with the dawn of digital computing in the first half of the 20th century. These early devices were large, entirely mechanical, and could only be reprogrammed by changing the wiring in the device. Computers advanced during World War II, becoming faster and electronic because of the addition of vacuum tubes, and by the end of the war there were considerably more computers and computer scientists in the world.

Transistors replaced vacuum tubes in the 1950s, making computers smaller, more reliable, and commercially available, fueling a spread in computers beyond academia. Minicomputers first came out in the 60s and were relatively widespread in the 70s. At this point, the number of people using computers grew considerably in both workplace and even personal settings, leading to considerable growth in the number of usability problems.


The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Social and Behavioral Computing (SIGSOC) formed in 1969 to focus on the use of computers in the social sciences[1]. As Marilyn Tremaine, one of the people involved in the transition from SIGSOC to SIGCHI and a professor at the University of Michigan at the time, says:

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 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

In the late 70s, interest in SIGSOC decreased and its members began to focus more on professional organizations in their own disciplines.

However, SIGSOC would get a new lease on life as it refocused on the nascent field of human-computer interaction. Lorraine Borman, another figure in the early years of ACM SIGCHI, writes in her article “SIGCHI: The Early Years”:

However, during this same period of time, a growing number of people became concerned about the human interaction of computer systems. The need for “people-oriented” systems, which reflected the needs and behavioral characteristics of the user population, became a matter of major interest to the computing profession. People working in this area spoke about the “user interface”, the “human factors and ergonomics” of systems.

In 1978, SIGSOC’s Chair, Greg Marks of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, and the editor of the SIGSOC Bulletin, Lorraine Borman, began to redefine the purpose of the group. According to Borman, “SIGSOC presented what may have been the first ACM panel presentation on the user interface at the ACM Conference in Washington, D.C. in December, 1978.” This panel was called “People-oriented Systems: When and How?”. It was in 1978 that Borman began to lobby ACM to allow SIGSOC to redefine its scope from the narrow focus on statistical software to human-computer interaction.

After a few years of this lobbying, Marks and Borman had the idea of organizing a conference in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan, titled “Easier and More Productive Use of Computing Systems.” With the help of Marilyn Tremaine, who was instrumental in enticing leading figures in the HCI field to attend, they put on this conference in May 1981. It focused on “Human Interaction and the User Interface[2].”

According to Borman, this successful conference “drew people together from various places and diverse backgrounds: practitioners met with users, designers met with theorists.” However, Borman blames the inaccurate name of the organization, SIGSOC, for their lack of visibility and membership. “Our argument was that, with a name change, our membership would grow and we would be providing an organization for people working in the area of the human interface who then did not have a forum within the ACM structure.”

In early 1982, it looked increasingly likely that the ACM SIG board would approve SIGSOC’s change of scope. In March 1982, the Software Psychology Society, an informal organization in the Washington DC area, decided to hold a conference in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Much like the organizers of the Ann Arbor conference, the Gaithersburg conference organizers reached out to the members of the community that they were connected to, and they had about a thousand people show up—far more than anticipated.

Paul Green, researcher at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, states that Al Chapanis, a pioneer in human factors and a speaker at the Gaithersburg conference, brought an unexpected number of people from the human factors community to the conference and spread the idea of a connection between human factors and computing:

They invited Al Chapanis as the speaker. Chapanis had been the president of the HFES, 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…

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… 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.

Tremaine says of this conference:

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.”

Finally, in Spring 1982, after the Gaithersburg conference, the ACM SIG board held a vote and SIGSOC officially became SIGCHI. SIGCHI became the seed for the HCI community, which grew in the 80s and early 90s before the emergence of the internet in the mid-90s rapidly accelerated the HCI field and changed its direction.

[2] SIGSOC Bulletin, January 1982, 13, 2-3, Proceedings Editor: L. Borman

History of UX in Michigan: Chapter 1: Before UX, Part 1

The first part of an ongoing series about the history of the user experience field in Michigan. In these early sections, we set the stage by examining the pre-history of UX.

The Michigan user experience professional community has grown significantly in the past 20 years—particularly the last 10—but it has roots that are older.

Due largely to the automotive industry, this region has a relatively long history of researchers and professionals in human factors, one of UX’s ancestors. Today there is little interaction between human factors and the UX communities. However, as the UX’s academic ancestor, human-computer interaction discipline (HCI), emerged in the late 70s and early 80s, there was more interaction between these communities.

Some of the faculty at the University of Michigan were also involved in establishing the HCI field. Although the university has always been more focused on the national and international HCI community, it went on to provide a valuable foothold for the early days of the professional community.

The user experience field formed as a response to technological change—by the explosion in the number of personal computers combined with the dawn of the modern internet. This was true in Michigan, and the UX community was shaped by the social conditions of active academic communities and local industries. This chapter looks at the landscape of Michigan before the growth of UX in the mid-90s.

Human Factors and Ergonomics

Long before the growth of the user experience field and continuing to this day, Michigan has been home to several human factors and ergonomics professionals, focused mainly on the automotive industry. These professionals have academic counterparts working at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), and together they have a community in the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES). Despite both fields being concerned with humans’ interaction with technology, there has never been close ties between human factors and UX in Michigan.

The field of human factors and ergonomics has roots in the 19th century (although the idea of designing tools according to ergonomic principles is ancient). Frederick Winslow Taylor was an early pioneer in human factors in ergonomics. His “scientific management” method sought to extend control over workers’ bodies in order to extract more labor from them by quantifying and optimizing their work. “Scientific management” closely analyzed workers’ movements to determine the optimal set of movements and configuration of tools. The quantification of human behavior went on to become an important aspect of creating a scientific discipline around designing for human capabilities.

The human factors disciplined emerged during World War II in response to the invention of complex machines, such as a new generation of aircraft. At this point, the concept of measuring human capabilities moved away from the explicit exploitative goal of “scientific management” to attempting to make machines that accommodated human capabilities. Designing airplane cockpits that acknowledged the limits of physical and cognitive abilities was an urgent safety matter.

In the decades after World War II, human factors and ergonomics research expanded beyond aviation, such as into the automotive industry, and flourished.

Human Factors and Ergonomics in Michigan

Metro Detroit is home to the the companies that have historically dominated the American automotive industry. Human factors and ergonomics plays an important role in interior design for automobiles, and as a result Michigan has been home to a still-growing community of human factors specialists.

Although there is a professional organization for these professionals, the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) has never had an active chapter in Southeast Michigan. However, the University of Michigan is home to a long-standing student chapter[1]. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) also has a local chapter[2] and this international organization holds large events in Michigan on a regular basis[3].

The University of Michigan is home to several human factors researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), which was founded in 1965 to research motor vehicle safety[4]. One of UMTRI’s sources of funding is auto companies that commission research.

There are other pockets of human factors engineering throughout Michigan. Beside UMTRI, the University of Michigan is also the home of the Center for Ergonomics, founded in 1959 to conduct ergonomics research. Another is at the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) National Center for Patient Safety, which has one of its two locations at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System. The National Center for Patient Safety “was established in 1999 to lead the VA’s patient safety efforts and to develop and nurture a culture of safety throughout the Veterans Health Administration[5].”