These notes are a while in coming, but here are the lessons I took away from CHI 98.
1. HCI Professionals Don't Get The Web
2. The Media Lab is Extremely Cool
2a. SimpleThings Hold Complex Ideas
3. Web Information Architecture
4. Game Design Has A Lot To Teach HCI
1. HCI Professionals Don't Get The Web, and Thus Display Sour Grapes
At best, the HCI folks asked to talk about the Web stated the obvious. At worst, they exhibited a rampant cluelessness.
Not one person I heard said anything remotely interesting or new. My belief is that HCI folks were so obsessed
that The Next Big Thing in home computing was to be document-centered object-oriented applications (based on technologies
like OLE and OpenDoc) that they were blind-sided by what has proven to be the single most popular technology in
the history of the PC.
And, as it is human nature to Fear That Which You Don't Understand, much breath was spent deploring the state of
Web design. I listened to a distinguished panel (including Jared
Spool and Jakob
Nielsen, among others) gripe for over an hour, and then asked them the
question, "If the state of Web design is so bad, why is it the most popular application of the PC?" To
which Jared Spool replied that essentially, popularity is not a worthwhile metric ("Laverne and Shirley was
the most popular show in America for four years" he witticismed). To which I responded, "Well, Jared,
than what use are you?" because if success doesn't count for something, I don't know what does.
One man on the panel, Nick Ragouzis, did bring some clear-headed reason to the talk, making the bold suggestion that in the
same way a successful artist must be master of his materials, a successful web designer must understand the engineering
and technology. He also deplored the types of usability tests that Jared conducts, which define the success of
Web design as how well it fills some Aristotelian perfect goal of information retrieval. Nick encouraged extreme
experimentation in Web design, because it's only in those outlying areas will we find the models that will lead
us to progress. It's far too early in this field to build a box defining 'successful' Web design, which is what's
happening as people attempt to adhere to Jared and Jakob's usability principles.
2. The Media Lab is Still Extremely Cool
One of the highlights of attending CHI is exposure to the work being done at the Media Lab. Of particular inspiration was a demo
given by Vanessa Colella titled "Participatory Simulations: Using Computational Objects to Learn About Dynamic
Systems." Much simpler than it sounds, the participatory simulation is a group game in which
the goal is to meet as many people in the game as possible without attracting a virus (follow the previous link
for more details). What was particularly inspirational was a video of high school students playing this game, and
then actively desiring to figure out how the system worked. By the simple matter of making the students part of
the data collection (as opposed to having them analyze somebody else's simulation), and the direct fear that these
students have of real virii, this game encouraged them to think experimentally about this complex systemt, to develop
strategies for understanding its mechanics. This shows that, contrary to popular wisdom, students do want
to learn, but that education needs to be placed in a relevant context to encourage their curiosity.
2a. Simple Things Hold Complex Ideas
Ahh, the name tag, that staple of conferences and trade shows everywhere. A seemingly simple object, it actually
plays an integral role in a rather complex social function. Before actually talking to a person, people will pointedly
scan tags to pinpoint desirable conversation partners. Ribbons dangling from the tag are emblems of importance,
like stripes on a soldier's uniform. The plastic holder serves double duty as a business card pouch. By adding
some rudimentary technology to these tags, researchers at the Media Lab have created ThinkingTags, which extend the capabilities into
some potentially exciting new realms. (ThinkingTags were instrumental to the particpatory simulation discussed
In a trial conducted at an MIT gathering (documented here), guests answered five questions by dunking
their tags into buckets scattered throughout a room (typing in your answers at a kiosk was considered antisocial,
so the point was to make the answering of questions part of the social experience). Then, when you approached someone,
your name tags would light up showing how many questions you answered in common.
The point is not that this is the focus of the event, but that, like clothes, grooming, etc., it provides further
context for your personality.
I find two exciting ideas here. First, the exploitation of something so simple into something potentially profound.
Second, the idea of turning computer displays outward so that they're active participants in socialization, instead
of an isolating agent, requiring interaction from its user.
3. Web Information Architecture Shouldn't Be Deep and Narrow nor Shallow and Wide
But somewhere in between. One of the few pieces of solid information I took away was a paper presented by Kevin
Larson of Microsoft. His study showed that, when searching for information on a Web site, the optimal topic structure
is not narrow and deep (8 x 8 x 8), nor wide and shallow (32 x 16), but in between (16 x 32). This flies in the
face of the "7 +- 2" rule, which favors the narrow and deep mode.
4. Game Design Has a Lot To Teach HCI
Chuck Clanton of Aratar
spoke about lessons that computer games design have for interface design.
Among the longstanding banes in HCI has been the novice/expert problem--how do you develop an interface that's
obvious and simple to a novice (usually meaning a lot of cues and handholding) that doesn't burden the expert?
Chuck pointed out that games can have extremely long and smooth learning curves.
Successful games hold a clear vision, clearly something lacking in much (if not most) software. Also, frustration
can be your friend--if a challenge is appropriately used, it will encourage use and supply joy when met.
An exemplar of great game design is You
Don't Know Jack. Chuck addressed many points; I'll focus on two.
1. Errors. In a typical application, an error is met with an oblique unhelpful message. YDKJ uses errors as opportunities
to improve the interface, to teach the user how to interact, and to have fun doing so.
2. User awareness. YDKJ exhibits a cagey awareness of its players, which makes them feel more highly involved.
This is in marked contrast to the coldly impersonal "productivity" applications we all use.