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

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

HCI at the University of Michigan in the 1980s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Michigan Before the UX Explosion

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

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

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/1988/05/31/science/personal-computers-even-pc-s-join-in-year-of-the-mac.html