Monday, September 17, 2007

HCI 2007: Jared Spool on Usability - It works in Practice, but does it work in Theory?

Jared Spool's take on several HCI topics ...

Jared M Spool, CEO and Founding Principal of User Interface Engineering, was Keynote Speaker at the recent HCI 2007 conference in Lancaster. He spoke to UsabilityNews about HCI research and practice; professional identity; and the 10,000 new jobs we’ll be trying to fill over the next few years.

UN: Jared, is academia making a valuable contribution to the development of practical and commercial tools, or is it all a bit blue sky?

JS: There’s nothing wrong with blue sky! Academia is focused on the HCI problem space rather than specific commercial questions and that’s how it should be. We can’t always see the relevance of what academics are doing in the lab for three, five, fifteen years or even longer. Ten years ago we were listening to papers on the sociology of strange things called avatars and the usability of mobile interfaces for gadgets that didn’t exist. Now Second Life and Blackberrys are an important reality, where that knowledge makes a vital contribution.

Sure, there is a gap between academic research and applied work, and practitioners understandably get impatient with a lack of good tools and techniques. What we need to address this is more applied labs funded by commercial organisations. The work of Bell Labs, Xerox and Microsoft is still the bedrock of lots of what we do. Commercial labs don’t have to do major, ground-breaking stuff, they just need to focus on providing good answers to the immediate questions the tech industries are asking. In the UK the BBC is doing some of the best work in this area but they don’t talk much about it.


UN: I’ll see what I can do about that. Jared, ‘usability’ is becoming a big issue in a much wider range of applications and industries. Is that a good thing or does it dilute our professional identity?

JS: Look at it like this: Meg Whitman, CEO of eBay, recently stated that user experience has become the number one priority within her organisation. eBay is a big organisation. Other big organisations are making similar statements – and it’s not just the marketing people, it’s the CEOs and CIOs. This is a good thing. But if we translate that kind of statement into specific intentions, if we work out the costs and the recruitment figures, the reality is that we can expect to see an additional ten thousand user experience and usability vacancies globally over the next two to three years. As a profession we’re simply not prepared for that.

So where will these people come from? The reality is that they’ll come from somewhere – probably other, similar disciplines where a lot of people think that usability is easy or that they already know it. This could be good if we gain a lot of new usability professionals, but it’s not such a good thing if more defined professions simply absorb our knowledge and call it their own. If you look at Rolf Molich’s research, it seems like we’re not even sure whether usability is a craft or a science. What is clear is that we need to compare notes more often, tighten up what constitutes a technique, develop reference points that we can all agree on.

On the other hand you can do great HCI work by dispensing with long lists of heuristics and just follow mine instead: 1. don’t do anything stupid; 2. don’t do anything clever."    (Continued via Usability News)    [Usability Resources]

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