Category Archives: UX History

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.

STC/SM

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.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/1988/05/31/science/personal-computers-even-pc-s-join-in-year-of-the-mac.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FullWrite_Professional
http://www.nytimes.com/1992/02/12/business/company-news-software-lawsuit-is-thrown-out.html

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.

ACM SIGSOC becomes ACM SIGCHI

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.


[1] http://old.sigchi.org/bulletin/1996.1/borman.html
[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].”


[1] http://www.umich.edu/~hfes/Webpages/index.html
[2] http://www.sae.org/membership/sections/list/
[3] http://www.sae.org/events/
[4] http://www.umtri.umich.edu/who-we-are
[5] http://www.patientsafety.va.gov/about/organization.asp

Interview with Dan Klyn, Part Two

Richard Saul Wurman and Information Architecture

Richard Saul Wurman coined the term “information architecture” in the mid 70s in reference to the design of information, and information science influenced the research on computer interfaces at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center through the mid 80s. After a quiet period for the field, information architecture experienced a resurgence in the mid 90s, with the growth of the World Wide Web. Rosenfeld and Morville’s book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, developed the ideas of information architecture and brought mainstream attention to it.

In this part, Dan Klyn discusses how he became interested in Richard Saul Wurman’s work on information architecture.

Tell me more about how you transitioned into information architecture and your interest in drawing on architecture and Richard Saul Wurman’s work.
When I met Peter Morville, I gravitated more to him as a mentor. The way I approach being a mentee is that I find somebody I want to be like, and do everything that they do. What does Morville do? He teaches, does consulting, and writes books and talks at conferences. I was going to do all those things.

I came back to Wayne State’s library program as an alumnus and said, “What if I offered a course on information architecture? You know it was invented by librarians in Ann Arbor and I know these guys.” I started teaching it for four hours on Sunday afternoons. I taught it from the Polar Bear book, exactly the way that Morville taught it at the University of Michigan, which is pretty much chapter by chapter, and by having the students do a strategy report.

What’s funny is that it was so boring, the way he taught it. He would admit it was the worst. I subbed for him a couple of times at University of Michigan School of Information and the students liked me, and with the combination of his independent consulting business getting really busy and seeing that I really loved teaching this stuff, he resigned from teaching it.

He wrote to the dean, Olivia Frost, “I’m too busy to teach anymore, but Dan subbed for me and did a really great job. You should hire him.” So they did.

I was the dog who had chased the car and caught it—I didn’t know what to do. I had taught this a couple of times and it was fairly boring. I was in the gap between the second and third editions of the Polar Bear book. Folksonomies and tagging were starting to become a thing. Increasingly I felt the Polar Bear stuff was getting kind of old. That was part of the impetus to learn more about architecture.

To my limited knowledge, nobody in the field was addressing the architecture part, but I was wrong.

My first IA Summit[1] was 2009. Chris Farnum, who worked at Argus, introduced me to Andrea Resmini[2] and Jorge Arango[3]. I didn’t talk to Chris for the rest of the Summit. I just glommed onto Resmini and Arango like a barnacle. I’m sure they found it highly annoying, but I was just delighted because my sense was that we had the information part covered but there was so much more to do in the direction of architecture. These people who were trained as architects were so much further ahead of us. They knew Andrew Hinton[4], who has been talking and thinking about architecture since the founding of the IA Institute[5]. That’s when it all started happening for me.

Then Jesse James Garrett[6] spoke at the IA Summit and blew it all up, and that was great. He said there’s no such thing as information architects—that there are only user experience designers. Having begged my boss for the budget to go, being stoked about information architecture as a thing, and to have the culmination of that be, “Hey, this thing that you think is really important is so not the thing”—that was a formative experience for me. I am certain that I wouldn’t have ended up starting a company nor would I have gone as deeply into the Wurman direction had information architecture as a concept not been threatened with non-existence by Jesse.

I’ve had the chance to talk with him specifically about it a number of times, and it’s precisely what he hoped to do. There is a tradition in architecture of provocation as a mode of discourse that I was unaware of. I defy you to find someone who loves and is more knowledgable about information architecture than Jesse James Garrett. His introductions to both editions of Christina Wodtke’s Blueprints for the Web is some of the best writing on “What is Information Architecture.”

At the time I didn’t know any of this. I was a sincerely mortified. He started out by saying, “I realize that it’s an honor to give the closing plenary at this event, and the last thing I would do is subject you to a product demo” which is then, I felt, exactly what he proceeded to do.

He rightly identified information architecture and interaction design as being in a sort of struggle of where when one rises, the other is down. Then, the president of the premiere user experience design consulting company, Adaptive Path, proposed a total reframing of the field to demote these constructs and presented this new superset, and there was nobody selling a higher bill rate nor with a higher likelihood of getting the work than Jesse James Garrett and Adaptive Path.

At the time, it seemed like an incredibly shrewd and crude way of recalibrating the community of practice to better align with what a consulting business was doing in the world. While that may be part of the truth of what he was doing, he’s always talked about it with me as a fear of stagnation in a field that he loved. He saw a way to reframe the discussion.

His reframing act in that speech was an act of information architecture. If I was not as threatened by disruption, I maybe could have enjoyed how brilliant the performance art was there, where he was using the thing that he’s saying is no longer a thing to create different kinds of meaning for other concepts that are relevant. I only saw it as a threat.

I behaved like you do when you’re under threat, which is fight or flight, and I geared up for a fight. “Information architect” was important to my identity at that point. I thought, “I’m going to go talk to your dad—I’m going to go dig into Wurman, who clearly is a bigger gun than Garrett, and we’ll talk about some things.”

Jesse and his then wife had a small child the next year, and after 2009 he really didn’t travel for conferences or anything for the next couple of years. This was unfortunate because I had a role in bringing Wurman to the IA Summit in 2010, and specifically hoped to see him to go beat up Jesse James Garrett. Of course Wurman didn’t care, but he showed up. There was no collision of the ideas or vindication, but life goes on.

The young volunteer who was responsible for organizing Mr Wurman’s birthday party at that summit in 2010 was Abby Covert. Were it not for Jesse blowing up my world, making me mad, making me call Wurman, and making it necessary for his birthday to be observed at the event where the throwdown was supposed to happen, I wouldn’t have met Abby, and without that, I’m not sure what I would do.

We decided together explicitly that this is really important to us and that we were going to work together to make sure that information architecture would continue to be a thing—that it wouldn’t be completely eclipsed, completely subsumed, into user experience.

It’s not that we don’t like user experience. The experience of users is everything that happens on the basis of the work that we do. We had the sense that we had to fight for, argue for, and make really clear examples of the value of information architecture as part of user experience design.

I think a lot of that struggle between IA and UX was because the first generation of information architects really didn’t have the architecture piece. It was just an analogy and a metaphor, and focusing on the architecture part has been the cornerstone of what Abby and I and a few others have specifically been trying to do in the field.

There’s a lot to do, still, but we’ve been fairly pleased with the results so far. I think the world is conspiring on our behalf also. For example, when Apple launches a new music service, Trent Reznor says there needs to be one place for music online—there’s the adoption of “place” as the way of saying “what are these services.”

I also think it’s just the fullness of time. In 1998, to say that this is architecture and these are places made of information that have to be good for people—that you can take the heuristics for what made physical environments good for people and just apply them directly to digital wasn’t something you could do in 1998. It would only be an analogy.

I remember what those digital places were like and you would have to be predisposed to seeing everything in terms of architecture, everything in terms of space. Today I think if you told civilians, “It’s a place that’s made of information where your life happens, and a lot of the reasons why this physical building is worth keeping up could be used to govern what we do in digital,” they’d say, “Yeah, of course.”


[1] An annual conference focused on information architecture that started in 2000.
[2] Information architect and active member of the IA community, and co-author of Pervasive Information Architecture.
[3] Also an information architect and active member of the IA community, and a co-author of the fourth edition of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.
[4] Another information architect and active member of the IA community, and author of Understanding Context.
[5] An organization founded in 2002 to advance the field of information architecture.
[6] Information architect, author of The Elements of User Experience, and co-founder of Adaptive Path.

Interview with Dan Klyn, Part One

Dan Klyn is a leader in the information architecture community, with a strong interest in drawing more directly on architecture and the work of Richard Saul Wurman to inform IA. He is the co-founder of The Understanding Group, a consulting firm focused on information architecture.

In this part, we focus on how he entered the information architecture field. In part two, Dan Klyn how he became interested in Richard Saul Wurman’s work in information architecture.

Entering the Information Architecture Field

This is a broad question, but how did you get into information architecture?
I was in the Library and Information Science program at Wayne State University in 1998. The difference between job and career opportunities for librarians and for people who knew how to work on the World Wide Web was vast, and even though I started with good intentions to work in a library—I wanted to be a descriptive bibliographer—I knew how to make web pages and I had a knack for organization. It was easy to get into what became UX, if you had a Library and Information Science degree, and knew stuff about websites.

How specifically did you learn that this was a job that one could do—that librarian skills were applicable to working on websites?
I didn’t know that for sure. I got a job as the webmaster of Wayne County while I was at graduate school because I’d taught myself HTML. I was using the web solely as a way to publish my academic work and to connect with other people.

When I graduated in 1998, I went to work at AllMusic.com. Michael Earlywine, who invented AllMusic.com, the All Music Guide, was seeking people with the combination of library degree and ability to understand the functional design of websites. He called it a Functional Designer. He saw my role as the “what” before the “how.” I was there for two years and I became really good at the job, which was information architecture, but I didn’t know the name for it.

AllMusic.com was trying to build an online music magazine where you could just click on the name of a song and have it deliver an instantaneous high fidelity playback of music. It was too early for its time, though. I was responsible for the functional parts of the design but had also been given more and more leeway into visual design.

In 2000, I got a job at Q, which is a design firm that’s still in Ann Arbor. Q hired me because I could do a Photoshop layout that could be rendered across web browsers, to the pixel. At the time this was highly valued because they wanted the design to be right and browsers couldn’t render fonts, or lots of other things, but I could trick the browsers into doing them.

They were pioneers of selling design consultant services for the World Wide Web. Q had a partnership with two other firms in town. Many of the earliest commercial websites were put up by a triumvirate of Q, for visual design, Argus for information architecture, and Interconnect for the technology platform.

I didn’t know anything about these areas. I just interjected myself into the technology people’s space, and the information architecture space, because I knew about the aesthetic, spatial design stuff. Not through any training—just because I have a knack for it. I could do it all and they used these other partners less and less, especially on the smaller stuff which would be a pain in the neck for the other partners.

I’d certainly never thought of architecture as was I was doing. I had no sense that what I was doing, or that the value that I was bringing, had to do with architecture.

I also didn’t think that it was design—I didn’t have any training or a degree, so I wasn’t comfortable calling myself a designer, and I had not yet heard of information architecture.

Then, in early Spring of 2000—one of the first days the tables were out on the sidewalks—I went to a meeting on Main Street in Ann Arbor to talk about a project for Consumers Energy. On the other side of the table from me were Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld*.

That was the first time I’d heard the words “information architecture.” Prior to that, we just referred to their company, Argus. The concept of information architecture wasn’t really necessary or relevant, somehow, to situating me in a company that has a partnership with them.

I looked at the designer I was with, then looked at Peter and Lou, and I thought “I’m on the wrong side of the table.” These guys made a whole business—they had 40 people working for them—doing the thing that I’m good at and love. I could see pretty clearly at that point that I was doing a baby version of what they had already created a consulting business around.

That was when I knew that information architecture was a thing.

Unlike me, Peter and Lou were working more as librarians and taxonomists—organizers of things. They weren’t talking about space as a three dimensional place where geometry is employed toward meaning, or anything like that. “Architecture” was only metaphorical at that point.

The more I investigated it and poked at it, the more it made sense to me why they called it architecture, because they, like me, didn’t want to be called “designers.” They didn’t think that the visual is part of what they did. information architects, in their work, didn’t have purview over the visual dimension or how space is configured. I think back then they would say information architecture is more about the semantic. Though their answer may be different now, they always held the architecture part uncomfortably.


* Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld were founders of Argus, and agency focused on Information Architecture, and authors of the book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.

Interview with Keith Instone

Keith Instone is a User Experience professional living in Toledo, Ohio. Since the late 90s, he has been active in Michigan’s UX community and in the UX and Information Architecture communities at large. More recently, he became the Experience Architect in Residence for Michigan State University’s new Experience Architecture program.

Argus

Argus was a design agency from the mid 90s to the early 00s, and was an important part of the nascent UX community in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

How did you come to work at Argus?

While I was at Bowling Green State University, I read some of Peter and Lou’s articles[1]. I liked their articles, and read their book, and saw that they were in Ann Arbor. I met with them for the first time over lunch at their favorite Mediterranean restaurant. That eventually lead to working with them.

For a year or so I did my own consulting and stayed in touch. I didn’t see them at MOCHI[2] meetings—they didn’t really go as often as I did. Later, at some point as Argus was growing, they said, “We’re a bunch of librarians and it’s time to branch out and hire some not-librarians who didn’t graduate from the University of Michigan (UM),” and so then I was on their list.

When I was at Argus, I agreed to give a talk at MOCHI on web navigation. By the time I gave my talk, I was no longer working there and the company was shutting down. That may have been where some people learned about the end of Argus.

We did a talk at OCLC[3] in March 2001, which was our last official presentation as Argus. We went down to Columbus and on the drive home we got a message that we were closing in two weeks.

MOCHI and UXNet

Professional organizations have historically been a valuable resource for professional development and networking. The User Experience field has had the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Human-Computer Interaction (SIGCHI) since the early 80s, the User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA) since the early 90s, and the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) since the early 00s. Over the years, people from Michigan have been active in these organizations. In this section, we look at a few of these intersections.

You were involved with MOCHI when it was active in the late 90s and early 00s. How did you get involved?
Back then, I was doing research in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, and the professor I was working with Laura Leventhal. She was my mentor, and she had connections to the University of Michigan, because that’s where she got her degree. We sort of knew the folks that were getting into HCI there, and at some point they said “We want to start a local chapter of ACM SIGCHI.” CHI had established itself as the primary organization at the time.

There was an organizational meeting at the Ehrlicher Room at the University of Michigan School of Information, and so we went up and asked, “If you’re going to do a local chapter, we’d like to be included. We don’t think that we’d ever be big enough to have our own local chapter.” They agreed, so as they were coming up with the name, the “O” in “MOCHI” was “Ohio”—at least in one version of the story. In another version, the “MO” was from “MO-town,” so I am sure some people did not think Ohio was part of the scope.

At one point, the chapter was supposed to be for Michigan and Ohio. Over the years we never really realized that. We never had anything in Ohio for people from Michigan to come down and do.

In those early years, it was the UM professors that invited, for example, their colleague from Colorado to teach a class during the day and give a talk at a MOCHI meeting in the evening. It was based on how they wanted to reach out to their students and what their research interests were. We would come up to Michigan for those because that’s the only thing happening. Otherwise, it would be once a year that you went to the international conference.

At some point, something changed. I think somebody else was in charge, and they started doing things that were not based on an NSF grant where they could fly people in. Events weren’t as often, and there were more local speakers. I can’t remember the particular year it changed, but over time, MOCHI changed from that research focus into more like a regular local chapter with a mishmash schedule because the people running it were busy.

I started to pay more attention to MOCHI because I started working at Argus in 1999. I would be in Ann Arbor during the day, so if there was a MOCHI event, then I would just come home late from work. After 2000, when I was working at IBM, that was still the closest community for me to stay connected to.

Tell me about UXNet, which I understand was an umbrella organization to bring together other UX groups.
We tried to do a couple of things at different layers. One was at the organization layer itself. We hosted an event at the CHI conference. We got people to spend time with each other. It was still contentious for CHI and UPA[4] people to hang out because it was after the breakup where the UPA formed.

We also had this local chapter program where we had local ambassadors who were trying to form connections. There were three flavors.

We had local ambassadors from a place like Michigan that had lots of groups already—they had a UPA chapter, STC[5] chapters, and a CHI chapter. Somebody would step up and connect them together. Then, if one of them brought in a big name speaker, the other groups could help promote it. Or, once a year they’d get together and have beer so you could meet a broader section of folks.

Other folks would step up to be ambassadors because they were in a really small region like the Toledo area, where if you picked one organization, there’d only be two people in your group. With this broader umbrella, you’d get two people from each group and then you’d have twelve people.

Then, there were other people in big cities like St Louis where they had enough people form a critical mass but they didn’t want to pick one organization. To be a legal organization, you’d have to pick one, but they didn’t want to alienate members of any particular group. They did more informal things. They wanted to form a UX community without forcing that decision of which group to join.

How did you get involved in UXNet?
That was probably just hanging out with Lou Rosenfeld. He was one of the other instigators behind it. We saw the trend of Information Architecture getting an identity, and the trend of having to pick UPA or SIGCHI. We thought UX was going to take over as the key term, but if we could speed it up by increasing collaboration, that was enough. Longer term, we had other grand visions of a forging shared services model, like getting the magazine from SIGCHI if you were a UPA member, for example.

At one of the Internet User Experience[6] conferences at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, we got a couple of hundred dollars from UXNet to buy the food for a UXNet meeting at the conference. We brought in some technical folks that were in the area who need to be part of the UX team, even though they want to hang out with other software developers most of the time. We also had the technical communicators, and some of the researchers at UM that weren’t hanging out with practitioners anymore. We took the big UXNet model and made it happen one evening in Ann Arbor.

We disbanded UXNet, mostly because the folks that had volunteered for it were all really busy. We just didn’t have time to devote to UXNet. We’d have a meeting and at the next meeting, no one would have made progress on anything. For a year we stayed together anyway, but eventually the folks who were in charge didn’t have any more time. We asked for people to take over and nobody did.

A lot of our grand plans were happening anyway. The groups that wanted to work together did. We provided some value at the time, we didn’t want to exist just because we did in the past. That’s a hard thing for a lot of professional organizations. Sometimes, the best thing to do is let the group die.


[1] Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld wrote Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, the book that brought Information Architecture to a wider audience. Prior to this, Rosenfeld wrote the “Web Architect” column for the magazine Web Review, among other publications.
[2] Michigan-Ohio CHI was the local chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Human-Computer Interaction (SIGCHI).
[3] The Online Computer Library Center is an organization that helps libraries catalog materials.
[4] The Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) renamed itself the User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA) in 2013.
[5] Society for Technical Communication.
[6] Internet User Experience may be the first regular annual conference to take place in the Midwest, starting in 2005 and taking place in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Interview with Lou Rosenfeld, Part Two

In part two of our interview, we discuss Argus’ project with Borders Books and Music and the book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.

Borders Books and Music

Borders Book Shop was founded in 1971 in Ann Arbor. By the end of the 90s, Borders had hundreds of superstores around the world. Although they launched a website in the 90s, in 2001, they began a relationship with Amazon to sell products through Amazon’s website. Although Borders ultimately ended that relationship in 2008, by then it was losing money every year, and Borders closed in 2011.

Argus’ project to build an ecommerce website for Borders represents a large missed opportunity for Borders.

Tell me more about the Borders project.
The sad thing was this: We were brought in by good people at Borders, and the engagement was to do two things: Build their first website, which we did, and build their first web store, which we did not.

Borders started in Ann Arbor. Store number one was literally the only store for years. They started really expanding in the late 80s and early 90s. They had this great reputation—a great company with lots of money. In 1995, the year Amazon launched, and we actually gave Borders a plan for a web store that out-Amazoned Amazon in many respects.

Unlike Amazon, Borders had the infrastructure to do all the distribution. They were already doing it. At that time, they were opening one of their superstores every three days at a cost of around two million dollars per store.

They wouldn’t open a web store because the web was this weird thing that they didn’t understand. I look back on it and I can think of fifty things I could have done differently, but the truth of the matter is that they sacrificed the project because nobody really got it. It was just a horribly political situation, and eventually we quit. Eventually, Borders became a tab on Amazon.

You know, the sad thing is that I remember being at a talk in Ann Arbor in the late 90s, where the CEO at the time, Bob DiRomualdo, had given a talk. There was a Q&A section at the end and someone said, “Mr DiRomualdo, Borders’ market cap is getting beat to hell because you guys haven’t jumped on the Internet.”

His answer was, “The Internet’s like CB radio—it’s a fad.” CB radio was a fad in the summer of 1976. This was the late 90s. I think the Internet had kind of proven itself to not be a fad by then.

Information Architecture and the Polar Bear Book

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web was first published in 1998. Although the term “Information Architecture” had been coined in the 70s and practiced in the years since, the growth of the World Wide Web made this discipline highly relevant. Rosenfeld and Morville’s book on Information Architecture was the first book to bring IA to a wide audience.

Was there a point where the “light bulb” went off on the concept of Information Architecture?
We were steeped in the idea that librarians were important. I took it seriously, because it was in line with what I was thinking, which was that there was information that needs to be organized and easier to use and find. For me it was just an obvious thing, but no one seemed to be focused on that.

I didn’t say, “Let’s go invent a new discipline,” or something like that. It was more of a combination of how things unfold naturally, plus naivety. When you’re naive and on the young side, you’re not important enough for people to tell you no. Nobody takes notice until suddenly it’s something. So you can just go under the radar, and with the Internet, especially when it was new, you could just do anything. It was the Wild West. All kinds of interesting failures as well as successes can happen in a setting like that.

For me, there wasn’t a single light bulb. I felt like we were on to something with the class I taught with Joe Janes as a doctoral student. That class was a huge success. Our students would spend twenty hours a week on just the one class for only two credits, working in pairs on these subject guides.

We were all pulling together the different skills we had learned in library science over the couple of years of graduate school, and applying them in a setting where we actually created a product that people used. This was radical.

I mentioned the pair that created the guide to personal finance. I knew we were onto something when one of them, Abbot Chambers, got hired by what was called the Global Network Navigator*, which was a kind of web service started by O’Reilly. Our student was hired to run the personal finance center for them based on his work from our class.

While he was still with O’Reilly, this student hooked me up with Dale Dougherty**, who wanted to set up a new magazine called Web Review. They wanted me to write a column and we came up with the name “Web Architect.”

I was a regular columnist for Web Review magazine, and Peter and other people working at Argus eventually became contributors to “Web Architect” as well. Then O’Reilly said, “We’d be interested in doing a book on this.”

I remembered that Richard Saul Wurman had this term “Information Architecture,” which was probably better because we didn’t want to be so tied to the format of the web. We called the book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web instead of “Web Architecture” for that reason.

We felt like Wurman IA was brilliant, but it didn’t really address multidimensional information spaces. Instead, it focused on two dimensional information spaces—printed pages, and so forth. In hindsight, I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, but I’m not sure it’s entirely wrong either.

I had actually gotten a contract with Wiley to write a book in 1994 or 1995, and I couldn’t do it. It was just too soon. Then Peter and I wrote it for O’Reilly, and it came out in 1998. It was good timing. People had done enough web stuff at that point that they were realizing it’s not just writing HTML; it’s not just creating good graphics; there’s actually this sort of connective tissue that makes things hang together in a way that worked, and that was Information Architecture.

The book gave them a language and a common vocabulary and concepts. People could have conversations about organizing information and making it findable, even if they came from different backgrounds. Suddenly, a developer and a graphic designer could have a conversation that was productive about this topic, because I think the book gave enough of a common starting point.

The first edition came out in 1998, and we are now doing the fourth edition which will come out this summer. It’s sold something like 200,000 copies, which is insane.

* Launched by O’Reilly Media in 1993, this was the first commercial web publication.
** Vice president at O’Reilly Media at the time.

The Information Architecture Institute

The Information Architecture Institute is a professional organization for Information Architects, founded in 2002.

Changing gears, let’s talk about the IA Institute. What is the value of professional organizations like the IA Institute?
Christina Wodtke* and I thought up the IA Institute in Baltimore at the third IA Summit**. We wanted to create some sort of community infrastructure for IA people, and we got a whole group together at Asilomar in California for our retreat. We co-founded this thing called the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture, which eventually became the IA Institute.

In hindsight, I feel the problem is that most professional associations have zero value because they’re using an early 20th century business model to get people to work together as a discipline. I don’t think we’re that kind of discipline. In fact, I’m not even sure IA is a discipline.

I’ve been a pain for every IA Institute leader ever since because I’ve told them, “Don’t be a professional association. Don’t use that old business model. Be something else. I don’t know what it should be, but don’t try to become a member organization that charges dues and is constantly fighting for the $40 a year from people who are not engaged because they think they should get something for their money instead.”

I think Abby Covert*** is going to save it because she’s a special, unique person that can motivate people to get involved and do things. I still don’t know if the business model is going to work because you need some money, and I don’t think the money in contemporary communities comes from members. I think it comes from sponsors, from events, and other things, but that’s okay. You can’t just look at it in terms of money. You have to look at it in terms of energy, involvement, and engagement.

World IA Day**** is great. Revenue is up and there are more activities in general that the IA Institute is doing, but having tried for many years to help lift the IA Institute, and later on the User Experience Network† based on the backs of volunteers, I am highly pessimistic that you can only go with the volunteer driven path. I just don’t think it’s viable.

* Author of Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web (2003).
** An annual Information Architecture conference founded in 2000 by Lou Rosenfeld, Vic Rosenberg of the University of Michigan School of Information, Gary Marchionini of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, through the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T).
*** President of the IA Institute and author of How to Make Sense of Any Mess (2014).
**** An annual celebration of Information Architecture in February consisting of local events around the world.
† From 2001 to 2010, UXnet was an “umbrella” organization that tried to form bridges between professional organizations in the UX community. This topic is covered in the forthcoming interview with Keith Instone.

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.

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.