Alan Dix > HCI Education

just in time – HCI education for those on the e-dge

SIGCHI Bulletin HCI Education column July 2000. bulletin (pdf)
I'm writing this about as late as I can - second 'final' reminder from the editor! Why even more deadline driven than normal? Well, my company, aQtive, is seeking a second round of finance and so life has been rather hectic visiting venture capitalists, presentations, business plans financial projections etc. etc. Six months ago this would have been a painless business, but now, post NASDAQ crash, with dot.com-itis epidemic in the financial sector, life is more of an uphill struggle.

Despite the roller-coaster ride of hi-tech stocks, the implications of dot.com society have hit both popular and business consciousness. The e-market is different. How do you get a market edge when everything is free (can't compete on price), access is global (can't target a local market) and anyone can set up a web site (low barriers to entry)? Some of these factors are redefining themselves in cyberspace (e.g. virtual communities) and there are entirely new factors to consider (e.g. open source), but, to a large extent, product differentiation lies in the product offered and how it is presented: technical innovation, aesthetics, marketing and usability.

Yes, usability is not just an optional extra but part of the central economics of the product. With traditional software, users only discovered how difficult to use it was after they had parted with their money. Ok, so they won't buy from you again, but, hey, you're not expecting to sell to them again for several years and the future is heavily discounted in most business environments. In dot.com world things are different, customers are fickle, if they don't like your web site today, they won't be there tomorrow. As revenue is closely coupled to visit rates, usability differences today can affect this month's balance sheet.

One of the best examples of this is amazon.com. Early entry and strong branding is obviously crucial to its success, but not sufficient alone to fight off strong competition from established booksellers. Whilst often being less cheap than similar sites it wins hands-down on ease-of-use.

So what has this to do with HCI education? Rather than being just an impassioned cause advocated by prophets of usability, we now find that practical, vocational education and training in usability has become a pressing need for all designers and technicians. Just before Christmas, I was giving the keynote at a day conference on design for mobile and broadband users with an audience from many parts of the media and telecomms industries HCI given prime time. In April was another high-profile day for HCI in the UK (which I sadly missed) featuring international figures including Ben Shneiderman and Don Norman, organised by and focused at professionals. My wife, a web-designer, regularly reads Internet Monthly, a popular magazine focused on web users and developers. Its April issue featured a multi-page article on web usability, the first time I recall ever finding a full usability article in any popular UK computing magazine.

So are we up to it? The situation may well be different elsewhere, but in the UK it is easy to find commercial courses in C, Java, Unix, XML, COM, technologies galore, and even some on software design methods such as UML. However, finding courses on HCI or usability (if you exclude Windows programming) is far more difficult. Why is this?

One reason is that HCI design seems 'easy', just a matter of prettying up the interface. Critical web users have certainly dispelled that illusion!

Another deeper reason is to do with the nature of the discipline - choosing the term carefully. HCI is an enculturation topic practitioners often describe themselves as 'HCI people', not just people who do HCI. It's as much about the way you think about things as what you know - hard to convey in a two-day crash course.

The easiest materials for shorter industrial courses are often predigested rules and guidelines (the Internet Magazine article drew heavily on Nielsen's heuristics). But, with rapidly changing technology this has to be constantly re-instantiated. Think of the misapplications of the 7+/-2 rule to web page menus (see Mary Czerwinsky's work at Microsoft for better guidelines on this) and the 'no scrolling' rule touted by many earlier in the days of web usability. Both fine rules for CDROMs and even for the cloistered world of the industrial laboratory with T1 Internet access, but neither applicable to the home user with long page-refresh times. (Of course on the heels of the web is fast coming WAP and perhaps we'll need to consider 3+/-1!)

One way that deeper HCI gets into the workplace is via part-time and break-of-career postgraduate courses and degrees. At a web company I visited recently virtually all their HCI group (which was a substantial percentage of the company) seemed to have come from the University College London's Ergonomics MSc. These are supplying long-term HCI professionals, but don't obviate the need for a quick HCI fix for those doing it as part of their broader job.

Let me know about your quick-fix or deeper-knowledge courses and I'll post them on my website , look there also for more on e-business.