In May 2003 I had a vague feeling that the technology sector was doing all right again after the Internet bubble. Of course, I knew the Internet was doing just fine, happily increasing the number of users at a headlong pace, and the bandwidth getting wider and wider. I also knew that the Internet bubble hadn't been about the Internet, but more a positive-feedback loop that was bound, nay doomed, to end. In fact since then we have learnt that railway revolution in England in the 1840's had a interestingly parallel boom and bust (see for instance www.iea.org.uk/record.jsp?type=publication&ID=210).
But I had this vague feeling that it was getting better. Not that I really followed share prices, but I had some sort of gut feeling. And then at Ben Shneiderman's plenary talk at the Web Conference that year, he flashed on the screen a "map of the market" (the one at www.smartmoney.com/marketmap), an application that summarizes the state of the financial market as a treemap, showing you huge amounts of information in a glance. At once you could see that all technology shares but one had risen considerably since the start of the year. No more gut feeling: it was obviously so. It was an overpowering example of how we can use our abilities with color and space to understand abstractions.
The banking world is largely very conservative, especially when it comes to computing. I can imagine many reasons for that; the financial world can be fragile, so you don't want to make too many sudden movements, but in any case an overriding feeling must be that if it's not broken, why fix it? Having once consulted for a bank, I can tell you I was shocked by what I saw on the inside, not only in the antiquated computers, but in the methods. An insider confided in me that there were 25 people walking around in the IT department that they didn't dare sack, because they didn't quite know what they did...
In this issue there is an article on two case studies applying HCI to trading systems, putting HCI principles to the test in two rather complicated systems. As they say in the conclusions "the trading systems considered in this paper were (until this study) largely uninfluenced by the progress made in the field of human factors." It is heartening that HCI principles are getting traction even in the banking world!
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