XXV.1 January + February 2018
Page: 20
Digital Citation

Let’s strengthen the HCI community by taking a gap year!

Jonathan Lazar

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If we could have just one wish for the HCI/IxD/UX community, what would it be? My wish is that we all could take a deep breath, spend a year working or studying outside HCI in a related field, and then come back and apply what we learned to understanding HCI challenges. The most interesting research and development questions are at the intersection of two (or more) fields or disciplines. Our primary field is HCI, yet we really need a deep understanding in a related field or fields. It’s not enough to read a book or an article. We need to take a deep dive into another field.

As this article goes to print, I am an LLM student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. After 18 years as a professor of computer and information sciences at Towson University and 14 years as director of the undergraduate program, I took a yearlong leave of absence from my professorship, and for this academic year, I am a law student. Why? Because my research, teaching, and advocacy work on interface accessibility for people with disabilities had increasingly been taking me into legal topics. And, like nearly all members of the HCI community, I’m educated in a multidisciplinary set of skills—computer science, psychology, sociology, and design—yet law was not one of those skills. I was starting to have interesting new research ideas and was encountering great opportunities for projects that I didn’t feel I had the necessary skills for. I had also started receiving speaking invitations that I simply couldn’t say yes to (e.g., ones related to interface accessibility in the context of Canadian human rights, and U.S. constitutional law) because I did not have the required background.

There comes a certain point when you realize that you just need to go back to school and learn more. As researchers, this seems at first like a foreign concept—if you want to learn more, you read books, read articles, and attend conferences. You assume that if you have a Ph.D., you know how to learn, right? Those strategies are not sufficient. Just reading books and articles isn’t enough if you are trying to understand a field that has very different approaches to learning, different methods of analysis, different terminology, and even different standards for writing. You need to “go native” and immerse yourself deeply in the other discipline.

Some people may hear that I took a break for a year to study something else and think, It’s because you don’t like HCI anymore. The opposite is true. I love HCI so much, I think it’s so important, that I’m willing to take a break for a year, and a major financial hit, to study what I need to learn to truly make a difference. The most interesting and challenging problems are at the intersection of HCI and other fields. Ask anyone who works on HCI issues related to healthcare, or journalistic integrity, or education, or anything else.

My journey into law started when I was asked to serve as an expert consultant in the landmark National Federation of the Blind v. Target case in 2007 [1]. Along the way, I’ve learned one key thing. If you are an accessibility researcher and you want your research to have any real impact outside the research community, you need to understand law. If you care about making the world of technology more inclusive for people with disabilities, you need to understand law. Many countries have statutory laws or codes related to providing equal access to technology for people with disabilities, but the need to understand law is especially important in common-law countries—such as the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Canada, and New Zealand—where court precedents are binding law. To understand legal requirements, you can’t just read the statutes, regulations, or codes. You must be able to parse through and understand court cases.

The most interesting and challenging problems are at the intersection of HCI and other fields.

On this journey, I have had so many interesting opportunities to interact with lawyers and policymakers. I regularly provided testimony to the Maryland State House of Delegates and Maryland State Senate on bills related to Web accessibility and other technology issues, as well as to the U.S. Access Board and the U.S. Department of Justice (both at the federal level). In 2009 and 2010, I served as a pro bono accessibility advisor to the U.S. Federal Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, led by Vice President Biden, which was supervising the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Since 2010, I have presented at unexpected places for an HCI researcher—the White House, Harvard Law School, the Jacobus TenBroek Disability Law Symposium, and the Korean Disability Law Association in Seoul. I have published two books at the intersection of HCI and law, Ensuring Digital Accessibility Through Process and Policy (coauthored with disability rights lawyer Dan Goldstein and Microsoft accessibility researcher Anne Taylor) [2] and Disability, Human Rights, and Information Technology (coedited with Harvard Law School professor Michael Stein) [3]. I have even had the opportunity to serve as a contractor for ICF International, working inside the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, on the regulatory process for websites under the Americans with Disabilities Act.


The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are considered one of our great success stories in the accessibility community [4]. It’s the set of technical standards that we apply to all technologies, not only Web technologies. The WCAG make up the most well-documented set of accessibility standards in the world; most governments have adopted it. Yet a U.S. district court recently held that the “... Plaintiff seeks to impose on all regulated persons and entities a requirement that they ‘compl[y] with the WCAG 2.0 Guidelines’ ... This request flies in the face of due process” [5]. As an accessibility researcher, I can’t just say, “WCAG is a violation of due process? That’s weird.” I need to understand it, and understand why a court ruled this way. I need to understand how this case affects the continued use of the WCAG. As HCI professionals around the world, we need to understand the legal requirements in our own country, as well as international treaties that have an impact on our work. While studying treaties may be a foreign concept to computer scientists, understand that treaties, ratified by many of our home countries, do affect our work in HCI. For instance, Articles 9 and 21 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities [6] both focus on equal access to digital information and technologies for people with disabilities. The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled also focuses on the accessibility of digital content [7]. Do you know whether your home country has signed or ratified those treaties? You should know.

In my 2016 SIGCHI Social Impact Award speech, I challenged members of the community to go outside their comfort zone [8]. And I still mean it. I’m not implying that you should go somewhere on sabbatical and become a visiting professor or a fellow. I mean that you should do something really uncomfortable: Go back and be a student. Get another degree. If you are working on applications for healthcare, go back and study healthcare policy. If you are working on research related to fake news, go back and study journalism. If you are working on interface design, go back and truly study graphic design. Or if you don’t want another degree, go work in a company or a nonprofit or in government. Get hands-on experience doing something that feels foreign, that feels a bit scary. One of my mentors once taught me that there’s no growth in the comfort zone, and no comfort in the growth zone (attributed to many different sources). So my wish for the HCI community is that we should all go study or work outside the community. Leave for a year—go do something different, something uncomfortable, and grow. Then we should use those new skills, partnerships, and knowledge to do groundbreaking HCI work, addressing grand societal challenges and breaking down barriers to enable every person to achieve his or her goals.

back to top  Acknowledgments

The author appreciates feedback from Simone Barbosa and Ben Shneiderman on an earlier draft.

back to top  References

1. National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corp., 582 F. Supp. 2d 1185 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 28, 2007)

2. Lazar, J., Goldstein, D., and Taylor, A. Ensuring Digital Accessibility Through Process and Policy. Morgan Kaufmann/Elsevier, Waltham, MA, 2015.

3. Lazar, J. and Stein, M.A., eds. Disability, Human Rights, and Information Technology. Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

4. Hochheiser, H. and Lazar, J. HCI and societal issues: A framework for engagement. International Journal of Human Computer Interaction 23, 3 (2007), 339–374.

5. Robles v. Dominos Pizza LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53133 at 17 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 20, 2017).

6. United Nations. UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 2017;

7. WIPO. Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled. 2017;

8. Lazar, J. Having a Societal Impact by Getting Outside of Your Comfort Zone. SIGCHI Social Impact Award Presentation. 2016;

back to top  Author

Jonathan Lazar is a professor of computer and information sciences at Towson University, lead author of the books Research Methods in Human-Computer Interaction (2nd edition) and Ensuring Digital Accessibility Through Process and Policy, and recipient of the 2016 SIGCHI Social Impact Award.

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Copyright held by author

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2018 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

@Mark Albin (2012 06 30)

This is a very interesting article about social bots, thanks for sharing.

@Aman Anderson (2012 07 18)

This is great
“So what’s the center of a design? In one sense, it is the designer’s nuanced understanding of the problem or opportunity at hand. The focus of design is problem solving, not self-expression.” - Uday Gajendar, Interaction Designer

@Bill Killam (2012 07 31)

This is a long overdue article.  And I couldn’t agree with it more.  I’m current working on yet another Federal RFP that is asking for us to do work using short cut methods that are likely make it harder to get them quality results, and we can probably propose a cheaper and more data rich approach if they didn’t specify how we had to do the job.  Sad.

@Demosthenes Leonard Zelig (2012 08 12)

Great Article, it is funny to notice that such huge corporations do not even bother to do a market research before releasing products on a new market. However, I guess we are still learning from our mistakes. (2012 10 24)

Hi everyone, In the Technological University of Panama there is also a movement. There is a 2 years MS in IT with a specializtation in HCI. We are also trying to include HCI as part of our main curricula. This year we started a research with a company interested on incorporating usability in their development. We expect to receive a Fulbright Scholar next year in this area…


Karla Arosemena

@John Michael Sheehan (2012 11 06)

There are thousands of blogs that requires comments on them. What is the intention of blog comments? Sent From Blackberry.

@Junia Anacleto (2012 11 07)

A very shallow and naive view of a much more rich and complex context.
I am still waiting for a fair position paper to be presented.

@Rick Norton (2012 11 17)

Excellent article raising significant issues that are largely overlooked.  The prospect that the collapse of sustainability for a growth/consumption related societal model is inevitable, is a topic I have often wondered about, given the nature of capitalism as we know it today.  Even the “Great Recession” of current times gives me pause to wonder just how long we can keep this economic engine going before we have to face the reality that we are all going to have to learn to “live with less”.  (A quantitative assessment, not necessarily qualitative.)

Keep up the good work.  Hopefully, you will raise awareness of these topics.

@Noah McNeely (2012 11 27)

Very nice article, that raises meaningful questions.  I actually think that the idea of sustainable products and sustainable product development is a bit of a myth.  All products consume energy and other resources in one form or another during their production, use, or re-use.  The key, ultimately is to balance resource consumption with resource production, but we will always need to be producing new resources.  See my blog post on the subject at ( ) (2012 11 30)

The quote in the article mis-contextualize James Landay ‘s essay. James actually is actively working to break down those stereotypes, but you can’t do that without understanding what the deep problems are.

James’ blog post on this is at

@Lee Crane (2012 12 03)

This is a topic that is thought provoking and important.  The message explores how humans can escape and survive the world they have jumbled.  So many of the theories and ideas are basic.  Our future may look a lot like the distant past.  And indeed we may be happier for it.

@ 4996484 (2012 12 19)

this is a great article David and Silvia!  I’‘m so excited that you guys wrote this up and are showing everyone the complexities in this space. I hope Interactions features more of this kind of research on China.  Although I agree w/ @landay’s assessment of China’s creativity problem - but he’s working with a very different population than you guys. I think you research is absolutely on point - creative folks are going to hacker spaces like Xinchejian, they aren’t ending up in institutions like Tsinghua!  I explain more here:

@Joe (2013 01 04)

I think that if you study the Elliot Wave Theory it can answer your questions.

@Rafeeque (2013 01 06)

good one

@zhai (2013 01 16)

Enjoyed reading this article. I finally got why Harold wants to call it “the Fitts law”. If enough people write it that way I would never have to correct another submission making the embarrassing mistake of ‘Fitt’s law”.

I did not completely get the following remark though:

        “The Accot and Zhai paper about the Fitts Law [3] has a clever title that illustrates
        the rules on letters, “More than dotting the i’s…”—a bad pun on eyes.”

I came up with the title, but the word “eyes” never came to my mind. We meant that the point-and-click style of UI is like dotting the i’s everywhere—- placing a click on constrained targets as the fundamental action in interaction. Why not using ” Crossing the t’s ”  as an alternative action?  Indeed, we presented models of a new style of UI, which systematically reveals when crossing is superior to clicking,  hence the subtitle of the paper “Foundations for crossing-based interfaces.”

Shumin Zhai

@Mohamadou M. Amar (2013 03 22)

I am a Doctoral student in I/O Psychology with Touro UW and need to access your articles.

@Mohamadou Amar (2013 03 22)

Need access for Doctoral Research

@William Hudson (2013 04 09)

Gilbert overlooks the important issue that the ‘big boys’ largely do not appreciate the need for design all and the problems that real people have with technology. I admit that we’ve had a hard time selling UCD but I am not persuaded by the arguments here to abandon it. Perhaps have a look at my article on a similar subject - User Requirements for the 21st Century - where I take a more pragmatic view of trying to address real users’ needs in the development process.

@ 0343665 (2013 04 29)

Fantastic text. I came here by searching for people that quote the Standford study on multitasking. The introduction is fantastic as it builds up an argument that attention has some features that do not change over time.

@Simon Taylor (2013 04 30)

not wanting to do anything so grandiose as building a (technology for) a world parliament, I have in essence been working on the same problems and facing the seven challenges with a project called ‘company.’ []

In 2011, working with senior software developers - gratis - although neither the ethical undertaking nor the promise of sweat equity were enough to keep them involved - I established the technical feasibility of ‘company.’
In 2012, turning from the ‘voluntary’ ‘principled’ participation model - because the attractions of real paying jobs had lost me my team - I received financial support from the New Zealand government. This part-funded an Intellectual Property Position Review - which government considered a pre-requisite - as commercial due diligence - to investing in an initial build, or beta. The IPPR recommended I do proceed… However, government offers only part-funding and without a team - either technical or commercial - there has been little to no investor interest.

As things stand at present, I have the tools and schematics for a beta build of something which would fit the sort of use imagined here. If you have any interest in helping, please contact me.

Simon Taylor