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

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

Human-Computer Interaction Emerges as a Discipline

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

From Mainframes to Minicomputers

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

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


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

They were focusing on getting software that handled statistics developed and available in all the universities. This may seem kind of dumb now, but nobody had such tools in the 70s, and if you wanted to an analysis of variance, you had to write your own program. Then, there was a major company—two eventually—that started producing the software, and so users formed SIGSOC to manage the sharing and specification of the stat packages they wanted.

By 1980 or so, SIGSOC didn’t need to exist anymore. Every academic computing center had such packages and the packages themselves provided substantial support for researchers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They invited Al Chapanis as the speaker. Chapanis had been the president of the HFES, and he was really well known to human factors people. He was doing a lot of the early work on communication and related topics, as they pertain to computer systems. As I recall, the original plan was to have a chapter meeting, and they thought 200 people would show up. Instead, they invited Chapanis, and he connected with the Human Factors community, and something like 600 people showed up…

People said, “Oh, I think we’ve discovered something. A connection between the ACM people and the Human Factors people. What should we make of this?” There was a meeting afterwards, and… there was a lot of discussion about continuing this meeting in a collaborative manner, but what happened was that ACM had the resources, and they ran with it, and formed SIGCHI.

Tremaine says of this conference:

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

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

[1] http://old.sigchi.org/bulletin/1996.1/borman.html
[2] SIGSOC Bulletin, January 1982, 13, 2-3, Proceedings Editor: L. Borman