HCI and CSCW – is your usability too small

Recently heard some group feedback on our HCI textbook. Nearly all said that they did NOT want any CSCW. I was appalled as considering any sort of user interaction without its surrounding social and organisational settings seems as fundamentally misbegotten as considering a system without its users.

Has the usability world gone mad or is it just that our conception of HCI has become too narrow?

Now it may be that by ‘CSCW’ they were thinking ‘Groupware’ and I can sympathise with this to some extent – explicitly collaborative software is after all just one application area … and if we ignore SMS and photosharing, email, blogs and forums, industrial and transport control rooms, track changes and comments in MS Word, the collaborative features in Google office products, and I guess pretty much all of Web2.0 … well I guess there is stall plenty of software (?) that doesn’t have explicit collaboration.

But it sounded as if it was not just this, but CSCW as a whole that was rejected … and I guess any socio-technical considerations with it.

How does such a myopic conception of HCI arise?

I would guess it has two roots:

  • fragmentation within HCI as a discipline
  • narrowness of usability / interaction design vision


The first of these can be seen as a side effect of maturity. While there are still general CHI conferences such as CHI and British HCI, there are numerous more specific areas such as mobileHCI and in particular CSCW and ECSCW. These sub-areas have distinct communities and so it is not surprising to see a level of boundary setting in individuals’ interests.1

What is more problematic is to see this community fragmentation reflected in education. In some cases there may be specific modules about socio-technical design, organisational issues or CSCW itself, where broader contextual design issues arise … but in many undergraduate and masters courses there is just one module and one shot at informing a generation of students that people (in the plural) matter in design. We may not have time to teach everything we would wish (and indeed in my own courses I only occasionally mention collaborative issues); however we should at least be giving our students a proper view of the scope of HCI. If they were going to enter a company alongside a team sociologists, organisational psychologists and other specialists maybe this would be OK, but it is likely they will be the lone voice for the user – if the user model they have is sociopathic what hope for rounded design!

narrowness of vision

The second issue of increasing narrowness within the scope of ‘usability’ is at least as worrying. In the 1980s HCI took a decade to escape the idea that you either (a) get in a usability person to evaluate the system your programmers have already put together, or at best (b) ‘put an interface on this system’. It seems we are coming full circle, just doing (b) to ourselves. How many of the problems I noted in my recent post “I just wanted to print a file” would be picked up by a standard usability evaluation? The problem with a too heavy evaluation focus demands a post of its own, but suffice to say it is odd to see so much focus on evaluation compared with design itself and even less on the knowledge needed for design.

Lists of guidelines and usability heuristics are an easy hit, but risk limiting us to:

  • a superficial veneer of usability that misses the deeper functional user issues and broader social context
  • a narrow range of pre-studied application domains

The latter is perhaps most obvious when we look at the resistance in some quarters to dealing with affective issues and user experience and the problems in dealing wth new domains such as Web2.0.2

At Talis they spent over a year trying to find a HCI specialist / interaction designer to work on design of their semantic web / web2.0 products. When they interviewed they found people who could go through a web site and fix usability bugs, but not with the deeper understanding to address new domains.

… it sounds as this is exactly how we are educating our next generation of students.

If your conception of usability is too narrow, it is time to branch out.

cover image: your god is too smallP.S. the post title is taken from J.B.Phillips’ classic book “Your God is Too Small” (Wyvern Books, 1952) – it is not only HCI that paints its conceptions too narrowly!

  1. Indeed, a young researcher who attended the recent ECSCW in Limerick found that the concerns of that community also seemed very insular.[back]
  2. See the HCI 2.0 panel and also palexa’s paper on YouTube evaluation.[back]