Category Archives: UX History

Interview with Paul Green, Part Two

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

Teaching HCI at UM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do I do that?” they ask.

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

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

The Early Days of ACM SIGCHI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Paul Green, Part One

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

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

Driving Safety Research at UMTRI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detroit’s Automotive Industry

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Stephanie Rosenbaum

Stephanie Rosenbaum has been a pillar of the user experience community in Michigan and worldwide for the past thirty years. Although she originally founded her company, TecEd, in 1967 to focus on technical documentation for computer software, in the 1980s she concluded that she could do more good by actually making the software easier to use. At that point, she began to transform TecEd into one of the earliest companies to employ the emerging user experience (UX) discipline to use in industry.

For Rosenbaum, part of learning about UX was engagement with the community of researchers and practitioners. She has been a long time attendee of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI)’s annual conference, CHI, and was a charter member of the first organization for user experience professionals, the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA, now UXPA). She is also a prolific writer and educator.

In this interview, we discussed how she entered the computing field in the 1960s, the founding of TecEd, and its transformation.

Entering the Computing Field

How did you originally enter the computing field?
There I was, a 16 year old from the New York Metropolitan area with my nose in a book all the time, and I somehow learned about a National Science Foundation-sponsored summer course. Now, we’re talking about the late 50s… it was 1957 when the Russians orbited Sputnik. That got a lot of people really nervous and they said, “Oh my God, we’re lagging behind the Russians in science education. We have to do something!”

One of the somethings that they did in 1959 was to get IBM to donate time on the IBM 650, a mainframe computer that cost $1,000 an hour to use. The 650 was in their Watson labs at Columbia University, and they got a couple of Columbia professors to donate teaching time as well.

A bunch of 16 year olds from New York and New Jersey applied to this program, and we got to spend a summer going into Columbia every day and learning how to program. We actually wired boards a little bit, and we programmed in something called FORTRANSIT, which was the predecessor to FORTRAN. That was where I first discovered that most of the kids in this course with me were brilliant, really nice people, but horrible communicators. So that sort of laid the groundwork for what I did later!

The other reason that particular program got started was because anthropologist Margaret Mead was interested in whether somebody as young as a teenager could actually learn to run these enormous, complicated things called computers.

It’s actually pretty funny, when people are now taking their 18-month-old kids and putting them in front of an iPad.  Nowadays, it’s, “Wait until 16? What’s the matter with you?” But at that time, it was unheard of that anyone without a graduate degree would be let near a computer, they were so expensive.

Founding TecEd

Were you in Michigan when you started TecEd?
I was actually in California. I was a grad student at UC (University of California) Berkeley. I started TecEd while I was getting my masters. The University of Michigan connection is a heavily personal connection in that I was an undergraduate at UM, and I met my late husband there; we were involved during our undergraduate years. We broke up and I moved to California, and then we got back together again. At that point, I had started TecEd in Berkeley and he had started an operations research consulting firm here in Ann Arbor. We decided that Vector Research had started in Ann Arbor, so it’ll stay in Ann Arbor, and TecEd can move. So I moved the headquarters to Ann Arbor.

That was pretty easy, because it was infinitesimal at that point—basically, it was just me and an occasional helper-out. Then since at that point Silicon Valley was just getting started, I moved our official California address down to Palo Alto, where we still are. But Ann Arbor has been TecEd’s headquarters since the 1970s.

It was a wonderfully wise decision, actually, because Silicon Valley is hot—it’s always been hot—but it’s also a revolving door if you’re an employer. You’re lucky if someone stays two years. Expenses are twice as high because it’s California. Especially in the usability field, Ann Arbor has turned out to be a real asset because I can say to our Silicon Valley clients, “Do you intend to sell your product or service only to Silicon Valley geeks? Or would you like to sell it to people in the heartland? If so, you should be researching with your target audiences outside of Silicon Valley,” and most of them get it. It’s been helpful, actually, to be able to say, “We can do studies with people from Detroit, and people from the suburbs, and so on.”

Also, Southeast Michigan is a wonderful environment for finding employees, and a better environment than it’s ever been. It was a little harder back when our profession was less well known, because there were fewer of us here in Michigan, but that’s getting better all the time.

Transforming TecEd

How did you get started in the user experience field?

I started TecEd as a technical communication consultancy, largely because I was involved relatively early in the computer industry—mainframes—in the early 1960s. What I observed about computing at that time was that the people who were developing the computer systems and software and applications were brilliant people—they were also really, really nice people—but they were very bad communicators. They could only explain what they were doing to other people with the same backgrounds.

That was marginally okay in 1959 to 1963, when I first got into the computer field. 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.

Interesting things happened. For example, 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.”

Various experiences like these led me to realize that no matter how good a job you did at explaining how something worked to its user community, that wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t anywhere near good enough. Because if what the user community had to experience was difficult to use and confusing—user-hostile—you could write the Encyclopedia Britannica and all you would have would be another not very usable aspect of the product.

If we thought the need for clear professional communication was desperate when I started TecEd in 1967, it was much more desperate by the mid 1980s. 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. So we started going back to school. We went to SIGCHI and what was then the Human Factors Society—now it’s the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society—meetings, and took their courses, and we read the literature. And of course at that time, in the early to mid 80s, you could read all the literature. There wasn’t that much out there in user experience. Anyone interested and motivated could reasonably read a pretty large subset of what was published in English.

We started hiring people who had Cognitive Psychology backgrounds and Human-Computer Interaction backgrounds, in addition to our existing people who had mostly communication-related backgrounds of one sort or another.

One of the challenges for our field is how many different fields it has roots in. My roots are in technical and professional communication as well as some anthropology in college, which has been a huge help, and a master’s degree in the philosophy of language which also turned out to be a huge help—although who would have predicted it! But we didn’t know that we’d be designing user interfaces where the issue was how well the language in the interface was doing its job… Maybe if my graduate philosophy degree had been in Kant, it would not have been so useful, but philosophy of language has turned out to be very useful.

Anyway, what happened was from about the mid 80s through the early to mid 90s, we pretty much reinvented ourselves. By 1989, we were sufficiently pushing the envelope in usability that I was one of the authors of the first special issue of any professional journal on usability. That was in the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) Transactions of the Professional Communication Society. I had an article on the differences between heuristic evaluation and user testing.

About that same time, or in the early 90s, Judy Ramey* started one of the first short courses that was taught anywhere about usability. For several years I guest-lectured there on participant selection and recruiting, which continues to be a hot button of ours. If you’re not doing your research on the people who are actually your target audience, you collect a whole lot of data with no idea if you can trust it.

Then, Judy Ramey and I, sometimes with a couple of other colleagues, started proposing courses at CHI. Between 1992 and 94, we taught a number of courses at CHI and I think at the Human Factors Society’s annual conference, basically on applying user data early in the design cycle—how to bring in user- centered design early in the process.

I presented at CHI just about every year. I was at both the CHI conference and the Human Factors conference the year Janice James** ran her birds of a feather session on usability—she was realizing, as a number of us in the field were, 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. So in these birds of a feather sessions at CHI and HFS Janice said, “maybe we need an organization for practitioners,” and thus UPA was born. There was a lot of interest and they got it off the ground. I was one of the charter members of UPA in 1991 and attended the very first UPA conference, and I’ve been at every UPA conference but two.

* Professor and former chair of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington.

** Principal founder of the Usability Professionals Association.

The UX Community in Southeast Michigan

How has the market for local talent changed over the years? Were you able to find usability people when you first changed the focus of TecEd?
Well, for the most part we didn’t hire usability people at first. We were mostly taking our existing people and training them. We did get one cognitive psychologist right out of grad school. At that point, in the late 80s/early 90s, there was only academic human factors and academic cognitive psychology, and also some University of Michigan School of Information stuff—so library science was the other place we got people. Even when SI was primarily a library science school, they were doing information architecture, which is a huge part of what you need to do to get better user experiences.

Marketing User Research and User Experience

Has it become easier to sell user research to companies over the last 20 years?
In some ways it’s less hard to sell because we don’t have to define every term from scratch. People have a better understanding now of what customer research is, what user research is, what user experience is. At least, people are more user-experience literate, and that’s a great help. So in that sense, things have eased. There are more places people can turn to learn about user research, to get support in it, and get help in it. That’s wonderful for the profession. However, it means we have to define our niche carefully, because we can’t compete with everybody.

Despite this, the challenges and obstacles have not really changed. When I was asked, something like 20 years ago, “Why don’t you get the projects you propose but don’t get? What are the major reasons? What are the competitors?” That’s not usually why we don’t get a project.

Usually why we don’t get a project is because first companies say, “Oh, that sounds like an awful lot of work; we can’t do it before the product launch.” That’s probably the biggest. I have a whole song and dance about how “It may be late for this release, but it’s early for the next release—do you really believe you’re never going to have another release?”

But despite all that, we still hear “That’s really expensive; that’s a lot of trouble; we’re not going to do that.”

Your major competitor is doing nothing?
The major competitor is doing nothing—not doing the research at all—and that has not changed. Then probably the next big competitor is, “Well, that seems like a really great idea, but we don’t have any budget for it. We’re going to get a programmer to test a few participants, or we’re going to get the tech writer to test a few participants.”

So another competitor is, “Yeah, it’s worth doing, but we can’t get funded to do a thorough job, so we’re just going to do something ourselves.” That’s a bit better, because if they do something themselves, that’s the first step up the ladder… They then realize how much work is involved and they may say, “I guess I didn’t really want to not do my day job for six weeks. I’m going to try harder to get funding next time.”

Competitor number three is, “We think we know enough; we don’t need to talk to our target audience. We’ve got a brilliant designer. We don’t need user data.” They don’t quite say that in as many words, though. None of those things has changed in 20 years.

TecEd continues to be an important part of the user experience community to this day. You can learn more about them at www.TecEd.com.

Rethinking the History Project

For much of this year, I’ve been working on a project to document a history of the user experience field in Michigan. It’s a subject that’s quite interesting to me, but because it’s not my day job, it’s also something that is perpetually on the back burner.

I’ve interviewed some really interesting people so far, and I’ve started to feel bad about burying the information I’ve gotten from them for months already, and potentially for years to come. Does keeping this information to myself for however many years it takes to feel “done”—to have interviewed enough people and written something satisfactory—fulfill the goal of the project?

Well, no. The goal is to make the information available. I still want to write something that stitches all this information together, but in the meantime, I’m going to start trying to whip these interviews into shape and making them available here.

If all goes well, watch this spot for more!

History Continues

My work on the history of user experience in Southeast Michigan is continuing slowly and steadily. The biggest obstacle, unsurprisingly, is that paid work always takes precedence over the history project. Not that I necessarily want to get paid for the history project. It would be super scary to actually be obligated to complete it. I have to admit, though, it would also be exhilarating to have this work be my primary job.

I’m hard pressed to identify what is most time-consuming about this work, but my best take on it, in ascending order of time-consuming-ness, is:

  • Interviewing people
  • Booking interviews with people
  • Transcribing interviews and otherwise digesting what I’ve learned
  • Assembling a narrative from all this information I’m gathering

I do think, however, that the narrative will get easier at some point. I’ve already found that to a certain extent, some of my interview subjects have shed light on episodes that I otherwise have a handle on.

I still have to push further into talking to people about the post-2005 time period. I’ve addressed it a bit, and the oddest part of trying to write about it is that I start to enter the story after 2005. I’m not sure how, exactly, to handle it. I’m also pondering the issue of whether to expand my scope beyond the rather arbitrary boundary of Southeast Michigan and just encompass Michigan and part of Ohio. I know far fewer people outside of Southeast Michigan, but places like Lansing and Grand Rapids have had an impact on events in my home region. Also: How much do I talk about non-UX things like the local Society for Technical Communications and human factors work (such as in the auto industry).

It’s hard to say how I could ever truly be done with this project. Well, obviously – history has a way of continuing to happen. Even so, it’s hard to see where I’m going to call it “finished” if I’m working at this rate. I have no plan to abandon the project yet, but even if I do at some point, I suppose a half-finished history is more helpful than no history at all.

The Political Dimension of Design

The most recent issue of Jacobin had an interesting article by Eden Mesina from Indiana University on the Cybersyn project. To put it briefly: in the days of Chile’s democratically elected socialist government in the 1970s, they built a computer system to help them manage the economy. It collected data from all over the country while trying to preserve privacy and autonomy at the local level.

There is, of course, a political dimension to research and design, and this story is a good illustration. We can design tools to enforce existing power structures, or in service of new ones. For public good or for exploitation.

Mesina makes passing reference in this article to some amount of user centered design that went into Cybersyn. Apparently the designer, Stafford Beer, worked with actual workers from factories to build this system. I would have liked to have learned more about that, but I can understand that my interest there isn’t necessarily a common one.

History Project: 1990 – 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the UX Field Grew

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

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

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

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

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

The Beginning of SIGCHI and Ann Arbor

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

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

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

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

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

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