Alan Dix > HCI Education

just-in-time theory

SIGCHI Bulletin HCI Education column May/June 2002

First of all I want to give some updates on a previous column. Last November, in "quality matters", I discussed issues of educational quality and compared it with issues of quality in interface design. This included the importance of reflective practice in educational quality somewhat similar to that embodied in the SEI capability maturity model for software engineering. Brian Shackel contacted me after the column came out and reminded me that two of the ISO standards ISO 13407 and ISO TR 18529 address usability in precisely the manner of SEI CMM.

This also reminded me of Ronan Fitzpatrick's work on choosing appropriate usability assessments methods for particular projects. This is again reflective, looking at different assessment metrics and methods and matching their assessed criteria against project requirements. Notice not one-size-fits-all, but finding the right tool given the context.

Another update on the same article is that Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education is now University of Gloucestershire. Quite soon after I wrote the November column, I heard that they had eventually been granted university status. In the UK the title of 'University' is officially by royal seal and C&G had had a whole year of visits by representatives appointed by the Privy Council, followed by another year waiting while they made judgement nothing just-in-time about the British Constitution! I was there in November to give a talk (called "toys for the boys or jobs for the girls", but that is another story ...) and it was a real privilege to be able to say "it's good to be in the University of Gloucestershire". So, now I'm just hoping that the rest of the 100 or so UK universities can manage educational quality procedures as appropriate and effective as their newest member!

So, now onto something completely different.

I find myself again and again making the fundamental mistake of doing Agatha Christie teaching not telling students what I am doing or why. I have often criticised mathematics for systematising the discipline around who-dunnit education, but don't learn the lesson myself.

It was almost half way through a week-long intensive HCI course for our masters students. Although I was using formally presented material, I also frequently broke the sessions with extensive analyses prompted by devices and software being used in the classroom. Problems with the television prompted discussion of affordances, failure to be able to close a window in Excel lead to mode errors and closure. A colleague who was sitting in on the classes thought this contextualised theoretical analyis was wonderful. However, after a few days I discovered that a number of students, who were used to a very formal teaching style, didn't realise that these 'digressions' were intended to teach and wondered why I was wasting so much time. Belatedly, I gave a short explanation that the stuff on the slides was all in the books anyway, but the 'digressions' were the most important bit. I'll remember to do this at the beginning next year!

This has lead me to think more about these digressions. Are they examples? Not really, an example is something you use to demonstrate a theory, principle or general rule. You say "all sheep have four legs ... for example look at that sheep" or possibly "look at that sheep, notice it has four legs, you know it just happens that all sheep ...". Examples like this are chosen because there is only one salient point and it is the one you are interested in demonstrating. In contrast, these digressions are based on an event that occurs or an artefact in the environment they are not engineered to meet a pedagogical aim, but arise naturally. More like mini-case studies.

Does this make a difference? Well yes. The mini-case study is not contrived, or even selected and so is ecologically valid incorporating in microcosm all the trade-offs, contingencies and complexities of real problems.

Although highly contextual I present the situation in terms of theoretical constructs although these may be diverse and interconnected. In the case of not being able to close the Excel window we have a mode (interaction) that I failed to exit due to closure (cognition), because the mode is not very salient (perception) I thought the machine had crashed. Multiple theoretical positions brought together in a situation. Furthermore, asking why the software is the way it is leads to issues surrounding the design process (software engineering) and user interface construction (software architecture).

Notice here lots of theory. Often those who emphasise the centrality of contextualised accounts also appear to adopt atheoretical, or at least anti-formal positions. However, the students need to apply the lessons of these case-studies to new situations and the language of generalisation is the language of theory. It is contextual theory, instantiated within the scenario. It incorporates situated theory: structures and explanations for this situation linking the insights from the fundamental theories. Because we understand why things happen the way they do, we have some chance of modifying our understanding for the slightly different contingencies of a new situation.

Although, as is evident, I believe strongly in the importance of theoretical understanding, there is too much around for the HCI student or practitioner to know it all psychology, sociology, anthropology, software engineering The nice thing about digressions is that they bring in theory where it is needed, when it is needed just-in-time theory.


just-in-time theory

I was intending to have more available on just-in-time theory by the time this column came out, but haven't had time yet. However, you can see an example that arose during one of my classes: the Excel mini-case-study.

usability quality

See Ronan Fitzpatrick's web pages for his work on HCI quality and links to online testing tools.
SEI's pages give lots of information about the Capability Maturity Model
You can purchase PDF and paper copies of ISO 13407 and ISO TR 18529 from the International Standards Organisation website.
Mikael Ericsson's pages on Guidelines, styleguides and standards contain links to many standards bodies, draft sandards, etc.
Serco's web site also contains an excellent overview of usability and human factrors standards
HUSAT's pages on usability standards examines several of the ISO standards in details.
Brian Shackel pointed out some relevant papers on ISO standards and related methods from the special issue of IJHCS he recently edited (IJHCS 55(4), 2001):

 Jonathan Earthy, Brian Sherwood Jones, Nigel Bevan. The improvement of human-centred processes-facing the challenge and reaping the benefit of ISO 13407

 Martin Maguire. Methods to support human-centred design