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.