First of all I want to give some updates on a previous column. Last
November, in "quality matters", I discussed issues of educational quality
and compared it with issues of quality in interface design. This included
the importance of reflective practice in educational quality somewhat
similar to that embodied in the SEI capability maturity model for software
engineering. Brian Shackel contacted me after the column came out and
reminded me that two of the ISO standards ISO 13407 and ISO TR 18529 address
usability in precisely the manner of SEI CMM.
This also reminded me of Ronan Fitzpatrick's work on choosing appropriate
usability assessments methods for particular projects. This is again reflective,
looking at different assessment metrics and methods and matching their
assessed criteria against project requirements. Notice not one-size-fits-all,
but finding the right tool given the context.
Another update on the same article is that Cheltenham and Gloucester
College of Higher Education is now University of Gloucestershire. Quite
soon after I wrote the November column, I heard that they had eventually
been granted university status. In the UK the title of 'University' is
officially by royal seal and C&G had had a whole year of visits by representatives
appointed by the Privy Council, followed by another year waiting while
they made judgement nothing just-in-time about the British Constitution!
I was there in November to give a talk (called "toys for the boys or jobs
for the girls", but that is another story ...) and it was a real privilege
to be able to say "it's good to be in the University of Gloucestershire".
So, now I'm just hoping that the rest of the 100 or so UK universities
can manage educational quality procedures as appropriate and effective
as their newest member!
So, now onto something completely different.
I find myself again and again making the fundamental mistake of doing
Agatha Christie teaching not telling students what I am doing or why.
I have often criticised mathematics for systematising the discipline around
who-dunnit education, but don't learn the lesson myself.
It was almost half way through a week-long intensive HCI course for
our masters students. Although I was using formally presented material,
I also frequently broke the sessions with extensive analyses prompted
by devices and software being used in the classroom. Problems with the
television prompted discussion of affordances, failure to be able to close
a window in Excel lead to mode errors and closure. A colleague who was
sitting in on the classes thought this contextualised theoretical analyis
was wonderful. However, after a few days I discovered that a number of
students, who were used to a very formal teaching style, didn't realise
that these 'digressions' were intended to teach and wondered why I was
wasting so much time. Belatedly, I gave a short explanation that the stuff
on the slides was all in the books anyway, but the 'digressions' were
the most important bit. I'll remember to do this at the beginning next
This has lead me to think more about these digressions. Are they examples?
Not really, an example is something you use to demonstrate a theory, principle
or general rule. You say "all sheep have four legs ... for example look
at that sheep" or possibly "look at that sheep, notice it has four legs,
you know it just happens that all sheep ...". Examples like this are chosen
because there is only one salient point and it is the one you are interested
in demonstrating. In contrast, these digressions are based on an event
that occurs or an artefact in the environment they are not engineered
to meet a pedagogical aim, but arise naturally. More like mini-case studies.
Does this make a difference? Well yes. The mini-case study is not contrived,
or even selected and so is ecologically valid incorporating in microcosm
all the trade-offs, contingencies and complexities of real problems.
Although highly contextual I present the situation in terms of theoretical
constructs although these may be diverse and interconnected. In the case
of not being able to close the Excel window we have a mode (interaction)
that I failed to exit due to closure (cognition), because the mode is
not very salient (perception) I thought the machine had crashed. Multiple
theoretical positions brought together in a situation. Furthermore, asking
why the software is the way it is leads to issues surrounding the design
process (software engineering) and user interface construction (software
Notice here lots of theory. Often those who emphasise the centrality
of contextualised accounts also appear to adopt atheoretical, or at least
anti-formal positions. However, the students need to apply the lessons
of these case-studies to new situations and the language of generalisation
is the language of theory. It is contextual theory, instantiated within
the scenario. It incorporates situated theory: structures and explanations
for this situation linking the insights from the fundamental theories.
Because we understand why things happen the way they do, we have some
chance of modifying our understanding for the slightly different contingencies
of a new situation.
Although, as is evident, I believe strongly in the importance of theoretical
understanding, there is too much around for the HCI student or practitioner
to know it all psychology, sociology, anthropology, software engineering
… The nice thing about digressions is that they bring in theory where
it is needed, when it is needed just-in-time theory.