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.