Travelling HCI salesman (report)
Last Friday I was attending a symposium on the retirement of Gerrit van der Veer from the VU in Amsterdam. Quite an illustrious event with some interesting speakers and attendees, culminating in Gerrit receiving the "Orde van Oranje " for his achievements in HCI and the Dutch educational system.
Joëlle Coutaz from LIG presented a short history of HCI from a computer scientists point of view. She pointed out the inherent tangibility of applications during the era of punch cards, which was lost through abstraction and has recently been recaptured by researchers, such as Karouzaki's interactive tiles. Joëlle also shared her observations on the development of ubiquitous computing and the importance of well-designed meta UI concepts to control ambient spaces. Common languages are still very important today, with increased interaction and coupling of systems and spaces, using devices such as Nabatztag . The challenge is to enable naive users to control and program complex systems without realizing that they are doing it. Quite an interesting and inspiring talk. As Don Norman commented, his (updated) dream is to walk up to a system "hey this is me, interpret what I want and act accordingly".
Anton Nijholt from BrainGain provided an overview and examples of current research in BCI (Brain-Computer Interaction). Recent developments by the gaming industry, such as Emotiv, have generated a lot of interest. It still seems pretty clunky and rudimentary, though the potential for disabled users is quite promising. However, I find the risk of misuse, e.g. by certain government bodies, rather frightening!
Donald Norman presented his new book "Design of Future Things " and shared his latest interest in services and operations. The anecdotes of mindless equipment overruling common sense and preventing users from concentrating on the real issues were illuminating. As Don points out, "intelligence is not in the equipment, but in head of the designer". HCI is not really a conversation, but rather two monologues (of the user to the system and the system to the user). As designers we have to recognize and allow for the fact that we cannot anticipate or control all circumstances of using systems in different contexts. According to Don, problems occure due to a mixed level of automation, with seemingly intelligent devices that are not reliable and require monitoring by humans. An "understanding of the human" needs to be put back into operations. The difficulty lies in interfaces and communication (human-system and human-human), which requires establishing "common ground". The challenge for designers of systems as well as services is to make life better, pleasurable and safe, while enabling humans to feel in control.
Gerrit van der Veer gave a summary of his work as a "travelling salesman in HCI". As computing evolved from interested experts to casual users, the challenge of modeling and designing for a wide variety of users remains. Most users are not interested about "what's inside", as long as it serves their purpose. Context awareness of systems is increasingly important, as is the influence of art and creative disciplines. However, Gerrit emphasized that it remains crucial to maintain a thorough understanding of the user's mental model, the system's technical model, the design rational, and fully understand implicit choices and consequences. Design for users becomes design for people's context, experience and activities. Including emotional, practical, sensual and cognitive aspects to determine functionality, appearance and interaction of systems. Gerrit also pointed out the need for multidisciplinary teams (including theories, techniques, tools, art & craft, industry, etc) and called on academia for a vision of HCI as a design science.
I guess considering technological developments over the past years, it was not surprising that all speakers referred to the challenge and increasing complexity in the design of interfaces and interactions. Though given the rather academic and traditional HCI background of the event, the recurring reference to design for emotions/feeling and a need for multidisciplinary teams including arts and crafts was good to hear. In the past, the UX and design community often seemed sadly unaware of some of the methods and models of traditional HCI. As business awareness of good design increases, websites grow into complex services, and traditional artifacts become more interactive and connected, the various disciplines finally seem to be coming together. Exciting times ... :-)