Alan Dix > HCI Education

the past, the future and the wisdom of fools

SIGCHI Bulletin HCI Education column April 2000. column (pdf)
As I'm writing this it is still the first week of the new millennium, the Y2K bug has not bitten and everyone is beginning to recover from their New Year celebrations. Already most workers are back to their normal jobs and over the coming weeks students will return from their Christmas vacations and begin another year's studies.

But, of course, not just any year. Only yesterday a colleague of mine was about to criticise something that seemed a little old-fashioned "come on this is the 20th century", then he stopped and he suddenly realised ... with all the hype he had fully internalised that this was the year 2000, the beginning of a new millennium, but for the first time it sunk in – this is the 21st century.

When I was growing up, as I'm sure for most of you, the 21st century represented 'the future'. I used to read a comic, TV21, full of futuristic machines and space travel (not to mention computers with large whirring tape drives). For the purist, we perhaps ought to wait until 2001 (another auspicious date), but whether you wait a year or consider it now, the message is straightforward – the future is no longer coming, the future is here. So what do we need to teach our HCI students for the 21st century?

With the New Year I'm seeing a change in my own academic life as I leave Staffordshire and take up a similar post at Lancaster. Last year was special for Staffordshire University as it was the 30th anniversary of its first computing degrees. In 1965 it was one of the first 3 institutions in the UK to start a computing degree programme. (Are there older programmes anywhere else in the world? Please let me know.) In computing education terms this is as far back as you get, so looking back over the last millennium is looking back to 1965. Computing itself only goes back a couple of decades before that.

Since 1965, computers have changed from room-fillers to pin-heads, but if you read the 1965 curriculum there are clearly aspects of the courses which are still relevant today. If I look back to my own first formal computing education, (a school course) over 20 years ago now, I also find that much of the knowledge I gained then is still relevant: operating system principles, ideas of algorithmics, fundamental theory of computation. The hardware and software platforms have changed but many underlying principles remain. So a computing education 20 years ago is still valuable today.

So what of HCI? Although we can trace roots back to Douglas Englebart or Vandevar Bush, (just as computing looks back to Babbage and Leibnitz), HCI only became a definable discipline in the early 1980s and widespread HCI education is even more recent. Although there may have been a few early leaders, it is probably only 10 years since university HCI courses started in any number. So, what are the enduring underlying principles that students of HCI from 10 years ago learnt? This is important as these are the lessons that are also likely to last into the new millennium.

Pick up a recent CHI conference proceedings and turn to a paper at random. Now look at its bibliography – how many references are there to papers or books written before 1990 (or even before 1995)? Where there are older references, look where they come from – you'll probably find most are in other disciplines: experimental psychology, physiology, education. If our research papers find no value in the HCI literature more than 5 years ago, then what value has today's HCI got in 5 years time? Without enduring principles we ought to be teaching vocational training courses not academic college degrees.

Of course, it's not really quite that bad! There are several reasons for the lack of fundamental citations in the HCI research literature. One is the tendency for paper writers to cite the most recent publications just to show they are "up to date" – shallow yes, but we've all done it. Another is due to the nature of HCI. John Long regards HCI as a 'craft discipline'. In a craft, knowledge is embodied less in abstract texts and more in practitioners' experience, passed on through apprenticeship and embodied in artefacts. Indeed (more than 10 years ago) Jack Carroll introduced the idea that artefacts are carriers not only of knowledge, but also of theories.

So, returning to the future, can we give our students an HCI education that will fit them for the next 20 years? Or in other words, what are the enduring HCI principles that apply equally to character-based 80x25 terminals, mouse-based GUIs, wearable computers, augmented reality and ambient interfaces?

One obvious source of enduring knowledge is the applied psychology of perception and action. This endures because, whilst computers may change, people don't. Another is the general HCI enculturation: "think user". Then there are issues of separability in UI architectures that recur from Seeheim through to CSCW and mobile architectures.

I won't go on – think of your own list.

How can we tell if the principles we teach our students will be of value to them in the future, rather than just being our own biased view of the present? Perhaps give them a design exercise – usability analysis for USS Enterprise (I never have worked out how those funny patterned screens work).

Of course, even science fiction is rooted in current practice, can we prepare our students to design radically new interfaces and use objects?

This issue will come out in April. In the UK, April 1st is called "April Fools Day" and people play tricks on one another. In Shakespeare the figure of the fool is very important, telling truths that could not have been told with greater seriousness. In my last column I said that I wanted my students to learn to use imagination. One of the greatest barriers to imagination and innovation is good ideas. As soon as you have a good idea you want to protect it, nurture it, keep it safe. Innovation needs to step out, take risks, often be wrong. As a way to encourage innovative solutions and new ideas I like students to think up bad ideas. Try it yourself – think up a really bad interface idea (e.g. voice-controlled roller-skates), then try to analyse its usability and improve it.

One of the exciting things about HCI is that the future is never far away. It's not just that we are seeing new technology, but that the nature of this technology is introducing whole new categories of experience. As well as basic principles that we can reapply from the past, we are finding ourselves having to create new paradigms – how to understand the cognitive processes involved in interactive visualisation or cyberspatial navigation, the nature of social interaction with a talking fridge.

So teach your students to respect the past, look to the future and have some silly ideas on the way!