12 Months of HCI

A notebook for Carnegie Mellon’s Masters of Human Computer Interaction program

April 9th, 2008

Agile or Awkward

The most interesting CHI session I went to today discussed the experiences of User Centered Design (UCD) professionals trying to work within an Agile/Scrum project schedule. I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate Interface Design into an Agile environment, so I was a little surprised that the panelists had such universally negative experiences. The best that any panelist could seem to say about Agile was that they had to work with it, so there was no point in fighting it. But none of them seemed to think that it added to or supported the design process. This seems unfortunate to me as both methodologies fundamentally strive to use an iterative process to create a high quality product. There should not have to be a tension between Agile and User Center Design.

As the post-presentation discussion went on, I began to wonder how much of the issue has to do with methodological dogma. I used to work at a company that, despite calling itself Agile Partners, did not practice a strict Agile methodology. However, when I read about Agile’s philosophy, I see a reflection of Agile Partner’s values and practices. But we never had a Scrum and we never worried about 3-4 week development cycles. Those practices seem useful for instilling an Agile mindset in developers trained in the much maligned waterfall process. But they don’t seem to be the important part of Agile. I see nothing magical about a 3-4 week development cycle that a 6 week cycle would fundamentally violate. It seems like a good practice for staying disciplined, but I don’t think that it should be a goal in itself. Though I’m sure that some would disagree and I can’t say that I’ve experienced a strict Agile process.

But it seems that it is this strict process that is causing trouble for User Centered Design practitioners. I’m curious how many of these issues would be resolved if Agile Developers relaxed some of their process and UCD professionals adopted the underlying philosophies of Agile. It reminds me of Kosher vs Kosher-style. Keeping Kosher means following the Jewish dietary laws that forbid things like eating pork or combining dairy and meat in the same meal. It also extends to only eating at restaurants that are certified as Kosher (regardless of what you order) and keeping one set of dishes for meat and a completely separate set for dairy. Kosher-style means that you don’t eat pork or combine meat and dairy, but you can eat at any restaurant and only need one set of plates. I saw alot of people today complaining about being forced to keep multiple sets of plates and not being able to eat at their favorite restaurant.

April 9th, 2008

Usability Evaluation (and/or Academic Pressures) Considered Harmful

On my first day of CHI perhaps it is appropriate that the session I remember the most is the session that was most focused on CHI itself.  “Usability Evaluations Considered Harmful” discussed the problem of usability evaluations being misused and doing more harm than good.  However, rather than being an issue with evaluations the problem seems to be a cultural one within the HCI (and specifically CHI) community.  It seems that PhD students and professors are under pressure to publish.  And to publish in prestigious conferences.  And to get into these prestigious conferences, many feel that some sort of evaluation must be performed, regardless of whether it really has a point besides making the paper look publish-able.  Thus the provocative claim that Vannevar Bush’s seminal paper on the Memex would be rejected by CHI today as unbuilt and untested.

The good part of all this is that the session seemed to be the start of a healthy discussion within CHI of where the community is now and where it is going.  It also made me think about the proliferation of different HCI/UI/UCD/UX conferences these days (CHI, UIST, IXDA, DUX, etc….).  It remains an open question whether CHI will remain viable in the years to come or whether focus will shift to a younger more dynamic conference.  But it seems reassuring that the discussions are taking place and that options abound.

January 8th, 2008

Korean Food is a State of Mind

When I first visited Korea, I found it somewhat difficult to eat.  Not because of the food itself, I had eaten at (and enjoyed) Korean restaurants many times before.  Rather it was because of the way that a Korean meal works.  Its typically not based on any one dish but consists of rice, soup, and a 10 or so shared side dishes.  Thus after each bite I had to think about which side dish I wanted to eat next.  Eating at Korean restaurants hadn’t really prepared me for Korean meals.  At a restraunt there was always a main dish that was mine to focus on.  The side dishes were just that: side dishes.  In a Korean home the side dishes are the focus.

However, the fact that Korean food is more about an approach to the meal and less about the food came into focus on my most recent trip to Korea.  I was sitting in a Bennigans of all places having a large family meal with my relatives.  Two cousins of mine were sharing fajitas.  While one of them did occasionally wrap a single piece of meat in a tortilla, for the most part the meat, sauteed vegetables, lettuce, tomato, sour cream and guacamole were treated as a set of side dishes.  They would individually eat a vegetable or a piece of meat.  The tortillas were mostly left alone.  And the sour cream and guacamole were hesitatingly picked around.  Thus although the ingredients were faithfully reproduced, the concept of a fatija just wasn’t there.  Although its rarely explicitly recognized, the meal resides in the mind of the person eating it, regardless of the food in front of them.

December 25th, 2007

Jewish Christmas in Korea

I just spent my first Jewish Christmas in Korea and I have to report that they don’t really celebrate Jewish Christmas in Korea.  Now this may seem obvious as there aren’t that many (any besides me??) Jews in Korea.  But it doesn’t really take many Jews to have a Jewish Christmas.  Just alot of Christians.  And Korea has plenty of Christians.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, Jewish Christmas is the most modern and surreal of Jewish Holidays.  It commerates the fact that you have off from work, yet all your non-Jewish friends are busy with family and all the restraunts and stores are closed.  Thus you have nothing to do.  Its a holiday defined by oddly empty streets and rows and rows of closed stores.

Like all Jewish holidays, Jewish Christmas begins at sundown, in this case on Christmas eve.  It is traditionally observed by gathering your Jewish friends together and going to a Chinese restraunt (traditionally the only restraunts open).  After diner, you go to the movies (again, about the only other thing open).

However, despite the fact that about half the population of Korea is Christian, Christmas seems to be just another day.  The streets of the shopping district were packed on Christmas eve.  All the stores were open, yet people didn’t seem to be doing last minute shopping.  We ate at a Korean restraunt for diner without having to even worry about it being closed.  In fact, as far as I can tell, every where had normal business hours throughout Jewish Christmas.  Even the 3 hour train ride on Jewish Christmas day to visit my parents-in-law was packed.  None of the Christians in Korea appartently thought to get to their families before Christmas started so that they could leave us Jews to have cheap, half-empty transportation on Jewish Christmas.

So for the first time that I can remember in my life, I missed out on the chance to experience the bordemn and surreal feeling of everything being closed that only comes once a year on Jewish Christmas.

November 17th, 2007

Sony Factory

We went on a Human Factors field trip on Thursday to a Sony factory an hour outside of Pittsburgh. It was the most interesting part of the class so far. However, it was ironically interesting more as a lesson in global economics and the manufacturing business than in Human Factors.

I’m sure it must have been impressive a few years ago when thousands of people worked there manufacturing big, heavy CRT TVs. It made sense then because TVs were so heavy that it was economical to make them in the US and save on shipping. But now that flat screen TVs are so popular, its cheaper to make TVs in Mexico or China and ship them to the US because they are much lighter. So now there are only 2 production lines at this factory. And robots are increasingly replacing the workers that remain. In fact, one had to wonder to what extent the Human Factors issues that we studied haven’t driven up the cost of US manufacturing and contributed to those jobs going to countries unconcerned with cumulative trauma disorders and people bending over to pick up heavy objects.

November 15th, 2007

The Affect of Analog Clocks

I admit that I’ve never been very good at reading analog clocks. I’ve always used digital ones myself. But when I moved to Pittsburgh and no longer had a cable box with a digital clock on it to tell the time in the living room, I discovered that digital wall clocks are really, really hard to find. So I got an analog clock for the living room and between that and the Brain Age clock training game, me and analog clocks were slowly mending our relationship.

Then the subject of displays came up in Human Factors and the teacher insisted in class that analog clocks were faster for telling the approximate time than digital clocks were. Alot of people in class disagreed with her and I really disagreed with her, verbally, even after she gave further reasons for analog clocks being faster for approximate times. Granted, we both agree that digital clocks are faster for telling the exact time. And I think that part of the issue is that my brain doesn’t work with approximate times. It wants to know the exact time and will sit and look at the analog clock to calculate it.

Anyways, the interesting/unfortunately part of all this is that I’ve noticed my time telling skills on analog clocks have gotten alot worse since then. When I look at my clock on the wall, all I can think about is how many extra milliseconds of cognitive processing time it takes to compare the two hands of the clock to figure out which is the minute hand and which is the hour hand, the time needed to realize that the hour hand is slightly before the”10″ and that its thus only 9:55, not 10:55, etc. Its as if all my gripes with the class have been transferred to the clock and my time telling ability has suffered for it because my mind focuses on the argument against analog clocks rather than figuring out how much time I have before class.

October 11th, 2007

Heuristic Evaluations

Its a fancy sounding term. But when it comes down to it, Heuristic Evaluations are basically going through an interface and writing down all things that match a list of abstract good or bad features. Its a bit more formal and structured than that and it helps if you are an experienced professional. But thats the basic idea.

Its easy to see how this simple idea can be a powerful and cheap way to discover usability problems. In some ways its just a more rigorous and formal version of the way I would find usability issues as a developer. But it reminds me of the usability report I once saw that the Nielsen Norman Group did for a site I was working on at the time: Merck.com. Although I can’t find my copy now, I remember at the time thinking that many of the suggestions in the report sounded reasonable in the abstract, but didn’t really seem that relevant or applicable in this specific case. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, as I don’t remembering talking about it that much at work and I’m not sure if any recommendations of the report were actually implemented.

Using this Heuristic Evaluation for the first time myself, I can see myself finding “issues” that I can justify with the given list of usability principles and thus quickly record. For example on the site I’m evaluating, having all these ads clearly violate the “aesthetic and minimalist design” principle (even though they are Google text ads). However, I would never think that this was an issue normally and I’m not convinced that its really important. After all, the site has to make money or at least defer some of the server costs and the ads are not that distracting. I’m only recording it because I’m explicitly looking for things off of a given list and the goal of the game is to find as many as possible, even if they are minor infractions and don’t really cause any harm in the given context. I feel that I’m thinking like the usability experts who wrote that Merck.com report that I scoffed at and ignored so many years ago.

This seems to be a somewhat known issue with Heuristic Evaluation since it was discussed in class that it tends to find many issues that don’t have a noticeable impact on usability. However, my criticism is not so much that it tends to find minor issues. I’m all for more polish in interfaces. It seems that it manufactures artificial issues that are only of concern to people temporarily confined to reading off of a list of ten usability principles.

September 1st, 2007


For 5 years I worked with a group of mostly Java developers who had to drive about an over an hour each way once a week to the client’s office. In this time I managed to avoid ever getting behind the wheel of a car (I’m phobic of driving in big cities, especially New York). I also mostly managed to avoid touching Java. This had less to do with a lack of Java knowledge (though it is not my strength), and more with a dislike of the type of work that Java lends itself to. When I did make the occasional commit to Java code (usually a minor change, I only remember writing a new class once), it often elicited some sort of joke from a co-worker (or myself) that I had actually written in Java. So when I sat through the first part of an ad-hoc “refresher” session on Java for my Software Architecture class, it was reassuring that I didn’t really learn anything new.

Read the rest of this entry »

August 31st, 2007

Elective Confusion

Yesterday, just when I was starting to feel more stabled and settled into Pittsburgh and the HCI program, a little bit more chaos entered into my day.  I went to the first class for my highly anticipated “Evaluation of Computational Cognitive Architectures”class (what an impressive sounding name!).  Right after I sat down I found out from a classmate that it wasn’t really a class and even though it had already been approved by my adviser I couldn’t get credit for it.  I wanted to take some classes in Cognitive Modeling and this seemed like my best (and only) option to do so this semester.  I knew that it was going to be a seminar style class.  I assumed that we would have readings every week that we would discuss in class and then do a significant paper or something at the end.  This is how a previous seminar class in undergrad was structured.  It turns out its really more of a series of presentations by various speakers.  You can ask them questions as they go, but its not really a group and discussion.  And its definitely geared towards professors and PhD students.  And most importantly there is no work to do.  Thus, my previous approval for this elective was revoked and a mad scramble to find a replacement is underway….

Read the rest of this entry »

August 27th, 2007

First Day

I’ve just finished my first day of classes at CMU and so far so good.  During the orientation the previous HCI graduate students said that on the first day of the HCI Methods class last year the professor told everyone that they were already a week behind in their reading.  Thankfully that didn’t happen today. In fact we have no homework (yet).  The class still looks like alot of work, but hopefully it won’t be as insane as it was made out to be.

My biggest issues have been with the non-CMU parts of Pittsburgh: Verizon screwing up my internet connection, my landlord loosing track of payments I sent them (twice),  Pennsylvania alcohol laws that seemed designed to make the purchase of alcohol an all around unpleasant experience.  But the CMU parts are all good.  My fellow MHCI students are smart, friendly, and diverse.  The classes look interesting and useful.  The trickiest part of the semester looks to be the logistics of scheduling meetings and work for the various group simultaneous group projects.