Been away, haven’t had time to post. Today I came across Deborah Mayhew’s piece on ‘UXers – Who Are We Anyway?’, arguing against the UX Unicorn. But her background reminded me to complete the History of UX  — with respect to the Computer Systems people.

History of UX Part 1 was about the UX origins in Applied Psychology through Human Factors.

Part 2 was about the influx of graphic and industrial Designers, and digital multimedia pioneers.

So the ‘third leg’ of the UX stool is Computer Systems, or Human Computer Interaction (HCI). If you look for a history of interaction design, in fact, you typically get sidetracked into history of computers — you know, Xerox PARC, Memex, Englebart’s mouse and demo, CERN & HTML, etc… That’s interesting and all, but most of the advancements in computers were engineering and the practice and profession of UX was more reacting to what the technology offered than driving the technology (arguably where we think we are now).  For example usability, now considered derogatory by those from the design side (probably thanks to Nielsen’s disregard for graphics and design — e.g. see link below), was the foot-in-the-door tactic to get engineers (more focused on utility) to consider the end user. Jakob Nielsen (who received his PhD in HCI  in 1988) became famous for bringing usability to the early unusable web.

Jonathan Grudin has written a number of informative articles about the history of HCI, notably the Timelines column in ACM Interactions. John Carroll has a chapter in the Interaction Design Foundation’s Encyclopedia of HCI relating early interest from cognitive science, and the community of communities nature of HCI  [Aside: not sure how I feel about a site with a motto ‘Knowledge Wants to Be Free’ and charges $150/year membership–and you never see the cost until you try to purchase.]

Grudin’s history is very informative, again discussing the convergence of many fields: human factors engineering, cognitive psychology, library / information science, artificial intelligence etc. What is most interesting to me in this history are the reasons why  Human Factors and HCI diverged, among them:

  • HF wasn’t interested in discretionary use of computers  (it’s in the name: ergonomics = ‘work laws’)
  • Desire of early researchers to create a hard science‘ vs. the soft science of human factors/psychology (TLDR this from Newell/Card and response from Carroll
    • early HF emphasized behavioral psychology, HCI started with cognitive psychology
  • HF emphasized journal publication; HCI conference presentations
  • HF culture was/is heavily government and military, where early HCI (especially the homebrew computer club types) was counterculture, objecting to the gender-specific ‘man-machine’ terminology as well

There is a small Computer Systems Technical Group in HFES (interestingly the Cognitive Engineering group is the largest), though the ubiquitous computer is part of every system researched/designed in HF. CSTG sponsors a UX day at the annual HFES conference; Bill Buxton was the keynote at the last one I went to.  Though tellingly, the HFES president at that same conference made a disparaging remark about UX (“user experience, what the heck is that?”) during her address, ironically titled ‘Building Bridges to the Future’. Probably the most relevant TG to UX is the Product Development TG, which had some of the most interesting sessions at the meeting.

Enough about HFES though — this post is about HCI, or SIGCHI in parlance of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group in Computer Human Interaction…in expanded TLA notation). That same year (2012) I attended the SIGCHI conference for the first time. It was in Austin, so no travel expense… my impressions were that it was very academic, mostly presentations related to thesis and dissertation research. There were a lot of new and improved mobile keyboard layouts, devices, social computing — I didn’t get a lot out of the paper presentations but the keynotes and panels were OK.  Seemed like it got a more prestigious crowd than UXPA, though if you measure prestige with research publication it follows. UXPA prestige/fame would be the bloggers and consultants. Not sure if I’d attend SIGCHI again. I do like the Interactions  magazine, and access to the ACM Digital Library, but note I haven’t really missed it since I stopped.

So that’s a quick review, I noticed as I write I more or less bookmark the interesting research for later reading. Works for me.

History of UX, Part 3

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