HCI:20 and me

This post is a little bit random — some reflections on my own past triggered by an event at Stanford — might be of general interest, might be of interest just to me. That’s sort of why I blog. 🙂

Anyway, a few weeks back I was lucky to attend HCI:20 at Stanford, a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Human-Computer Interaction program at Stanford, started by Terry Winograd. There were a bunch of themes that I found noteworthy, and it was great to reflect on the origins and history of the program. And it was really fantastic to hear colleagues and friends of Professor Winograd talk about his contributions and impact over many years.

One of the first speakers talked about a paper Winograd published in January 1971 — coincidentally the month I was born. It was an AI paper on some work he was doing at the AI Lab at MIT — really focused on computers understanding human language. And that was Terry’s focus for quite a long while, doing work with Flores on computers and cognition. It’s amazing to think about that — that so much of the modern discipline of HCI and interaction design grew up from roots in getting computers to understand and communicate in natural language. It makes total sense, of course — that the same people who were trying to figure out how to get computers to understand how to interact with us are the people now trying to build more effective interfaces — the interfaces have just changed.

The line up of speakers was incredible — sort of a historical trip from then until now — here are a few:

  • Danny Bobrow & Stu Card (early NLP)
  • Fernando Flores (who Terry wrote Computers and Cognition with)
  • Eric Roberts (who worked early on CPSR and the ethical foundations of computing)
  • Reid Hoffman (trained in Symbolic Systems & philosophy)
  • Don Norman (trained as an EE and a psychologist)
  • Steve Cousins (robotics)
  • David Kelley (founder of IDEO, and the Stanford d.school)

So you see a journey from language/AI through philosophy & psychology and on to design thinking — in my view, that’s when things really started taking off. The foundations in linguistics and computation (not to mention ethics) were extremely important, but it was when iteration and design thinking got into the mix that the field really started gaining momentum and influence.

I started my own interest in HCI in about 1991, when the work was just starting to be oriented around design thinking (Bill Verplank from PARC, IDEO and Interval) and anthropology. The program had just started; I was probably a sophomore or junior at the time, and a senior friend of mine named Sean White kept telling me that I should look into it, that I would like it a lot. I kept brushing him off — I thought my path was going to be in (what I thought was the significantly more technical and higher impact world of) computer architecture design (RISC is the future!).

There were two events that were pivotal for me (beyond Sean’s good-natured prodding). [and a short aside here is in order — not only did Sean affect what my course of study would be, but about a decade later, having not been in touch for many years, out of the blue Sean sent an e-mail introducing me to someone named Reid Hoffman, then an exec at PayPal. No agenda, no motive, the note just said that he thought we might like knowing each other. That was the start for what’s turned into an exceptionally productive relationship — Sean profoundly affected my life a 2nd time!] But back to this story…

The first pivotal event was an internship I had at Sun Microsystems, working on graphics hardware. At the time it was obvious that Silicon Graphics was the important competitor and that hardware architecture was the important thing to work on. (Note to self: what seems completely, totally obvious today often seems pretty ridiculous in hindsight.) But fortunately that was a time when Scott McNealy was CEO and he really opened up the place to interns — he really encouraged us to poke around inside Sun, to talk with interesting people, and to generally make nuisances of ourselves. One of the guys I’m sure I annoyed was Bob Glass, a UI designer nicknamed “Dr. Bob” who had come to Sun from Apple to “drain the swamp or pave it over” — talking about the crappy UIs that Unix always had (especially) compared to Apple. Clearly, he didn’t really win that particular battle, but he framed an important problem for me as we talked in his office. He said this: “Who cares how fast the architecture is if nobody uses it?”

That single question, quite literally, changed my life.

I finally started to understand what Sean White had been saying all along, and started looking seriously into pursing HCI at Stanford. The second pivotal moment for me came shortly after, when I read an essay by Mitch Kapor making the case for software design as a profession.

After that series of events, I was pretty well hooked, and dove into learning everything I could about how to design systems that people actually wanted to use; software that made people’s lives better. I started working on my master’s degree at Stanford with Professor Winograd as my advisor.

There were only 2 courses in the curriculum at the time: CS247A, something like fundamentals of HCI, taught by Bill Verplank, and CS247B, something like using anthropological techniques to do needfinding, taught by someone who I remembered liking a LOT, but who I can’t recall anymore.

At that point, I became the Annoying Junior Design Guy, quoting a (complaining) Don Norman all the time, asking everyone why the clocks on their VCRs and microwaves were always blinking “12:00” and generally just bitching about how badly designed the world was. I’m sure I was a real treat to be around. But then I got involved in a few more classes that I just really loved.

CS447, taught by Terry Winograd and David Kelley, was a design lab affiliated with the then-annual Apple Design Competition — I learned a lot about how hard it is to actually make things that don’t suck. (Which, happily for everyone, subsequently reduced the amount of complaining about bad design that I did.)

I remember taking a class on Filmcraft in User Interface Design that pretty much blew my mind. The instructors of that class were Chuck Clanton and Emilie Young from First Person, a Sun spinout building a set top box that would fail, but would ultimately be the foundations of the Java programming language. They were really pioneers in thinking about how to use animation in computer interfaces — very early forerunners of the physics in the UI of today’s iPhones.

Many foundational elements were put in place by Professor Winograd and friends in the early nineties — but I think that maybe the most important was getting the IDEO folks, and David Kelley in particular, involved. It brought a human-centeredness to the work that we did and that Stanford taught, and a religion around iteration that has served the program well since, and paved the way for a lot of what the Stanford d.School is today. Winograd did all this stuff at a time when, especially among “proper” computer scientists it wasn’t very fashionable — but he had conviction and passion around the work — and of course he was right to.

From the vantage point of 2011, it’s clear that the work done by Winograd and the rest of the growing HCI group there is important and has had a large impact on creating thoughtful designers.

It’s also very, very clear that our educational system hasn’t produced nearly enough good designers who are technical enough and talented enough to build all the great products and companies that Silicon Valley (and the world) are trying to build. That’s not particularly an indictment of the educational system — we’re in a golden age of technology development — a sort of New Cambrian Age of personal digital life. There are so many new things to build, so many new areas of communication to explore and create, so many new interactions to create from whole cloth — as a society and as an industry, we’re going to have an insatiable appetite for great designers certainly for the coming decades.

We’re in a time now when everything’s changing; everything is up for grabs. I’m just incredibly glad that Professor Winograd and his colleagues had the foresight to set the foundations that we’re building on so quickly today. And personally grateful for Sean White pushing me to notice the things that were happening right under my nose.

One comment

  1. Great post, John. It is amazing to me how small pebbles, once set in motion, can have such large impacts years later… Amazing what an impact the HCI program has had, on people like yourself, but also indirectly in the influence you and others going through the program have had on other people and the industry at large.