Who ya gonna call?
Recently, I received the latest issue, the third edition, of The Handbook of Human Factors and Ergonomics, edited by Dr. Gavriel Salvendy. I am awed and amazed by this massive tome, with its long and distinguished list of advisory board members (25) and even longer and more distinguished list of chapter authors (114). Do we need another 1,654-page summary of everything we need to know, but about which we might be afraid to ask? Yes, but with some qualifications.
This particular collection had some intriguing chapters, like Chapter 21 by Martin G. Helander in Singapore and Halimahtun M. Kalid from Malaysia: "Affective and Pleasurable Design." They discuss a framework for evaluating affective design, research in industrial design and aesthetics, even theories of affect and pleasure, and measurement issues and methods. Surely a professional who hears all the buzz about emotion, pleasure, appeal, engagement, and other topics related to user-experience design, will appreciate the cool, calm, and collected summary of the topic, with extensive references. The very existence of such a chapter in a human factors text is a triumph of such catalytic authors as Patrick Jordan, whose publication about "the new human factors" is cited. The fact that both contributors are located in Asia is also worth noting. The Asian cultural orientation to relationships, not objects, as argued by Nisbett might suggest that authors writing from an Asian perspective may have novel and valuable insights to contribute to what seems to have been heretofore predominantly a Western topic of discussion in CHI/HCI circles.
Another interesting contribution is Chapter 46 by Chris North in the USA: "Information Visualization," a topic of great interest to CHI community professionals and almost an area of specialization within the world of human factors and ergonomics. His discussion of visual mapping and properties, of typical information structures, of strategies for navigation and interaction, and a peek into the future, make for solid, informative reading.
The table of contents, with its 61 chapters, is beyond the scope of this brief review. Please note: There are two other competing handbooks with almost identical titles: The Handbook of Human-Computer Interaction, by Helander, Landauer, and Prabhu, whose second edition published by Elsevier, with 1,582 pages, appeared in 1997, and the equally monolithic The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook by Jacko and Sears, whose first edition of 1,277 pages appeared in 2003 and whose next edition is scheduled for release in 2006. The second of these three handbooks features an editorial board of 14 and 104 contributors to 62 chapters. The third compendium features 23 advisory board members and 121 contributors to 64 chapters. Interestingly, some authors write or co-write more than one chapter of a handbook, and some authors may contribute to more than one handbook. I must admit, for the sake of full disclosure, that I have authored one chapter in each of the second and third handbooks mentioned.
Other than giving a large number of people opportunities to expound on topics of their expertise, experience, and interest, are these documents worth their weight, to say nothing of their cost? I do not mean to propose some simple metric of measuring page count, number of advisory board members, or number of contributors. I have mentioned these statistics merely to convey the scope of some monumental publishing projects. I have no statistics on numbers of pages opened, read, used, or marked up in some institution's, corporation's, or person's library (as someday there would be for URLs visited). I can say that in our own firm, these documents have served "newbies" well and have figured prominently in some of our own major research projectslike collecting all of the human-factors issues relevant to the driver's experience for BMW, then prioritizing and summarizing them for executives and managers to absorb.
At some point, each of us is a "newbie." Where can one turn? These handbook documents aim to be canonical statements of wisdom, carefully digested and considered, milestones in the progress of knowledge within our field. They are something like biblical/Koranic archives of the West or Sutras of Hindu and Buddhist peoples, minus the divine inspiration. Perhaps someone someday will examine as a PhD study in the history of HCI/CHI this march of ideas and discern patterns of wit and wisdom, as well as foolish oversights or blind-faith assumptions.
However, there are other resources from which professionals today can learn philosophy, principles, methods, techniques, and tools. The HCI bibliography edited by Gary Perlman is certainly an invaluable resource, but its massive contents (more than 32,000 entries) is more than one lifetime's reading. The Internet Wikipedia, among other URL resources, supports a number of topics that are both public versions of the traditional publishing system's more closed-editorial format and also explorations of topics that have not yet made it into the canon, a kind of Apocrypha. In addition, numerous blogs provide current views of the hottest, juiciest topics, disputed territory in the battle for ideological supremacy, and URLs from SIGCHI, UPA, and STC, among others, feature knowledge compendia.
Still another level of incoming information can be derived from the numerous discussion groups that have provided debates about issues as well as resources of information. Examples are the discussion groups of the CHI Consultants, Anthropologists in Design, and the Interaction Design Group (IxDG), to name a few. It is fascinating, as a society-of-knowledge-seekers phenomenon, to watch the requests for information on a general or quite specific topic surface and sometimes repeat every five years or so as newcomers enter the profession, or as technology changes. Requests for help often trigger generally helpful replies from voluntary, good-natured, and presumably well-intentioned mentors, along with occasional cranky complaints. I have witnessed this directly, for example, in the discussion threads concerning "what are the basic books I should know as a newbie," "where to find usability labs in Boston," or "what are good search terms for the logical relations of `and' and `or?'" We are looking at the 21st century's version of ancient Platonic school-of-thought dialogues, of rabbinic/priestly discussions, of Zen or other Asian monastic discussions that have delighted, highlighted, and stimulated learning over the millennia.
Finally, at the "lowest," and sometimes most valuable level, are all of the solicited and unsolicited for-your-information links sent by well-meaning colleagues. At the moment, I do not have an official "reader" either human or software-based, who/that can assess the value of these resources and file them as appropriate. In my own experience, they often have specific, useful content related to current challenging strategic and tactical issues, or they are useful for future reference. Sometimes they are trashed; at other times, I carefully file them away, if they seem potentially useful (often with no time to test suggested links) with relabeled subject lines in a document hierarchy that covers most of the major topics of interest to our firm. Others keep track of bookmarks via sites like del.icio.us, and there is even a discussion of such sites at http://3spots.blogspot.com/2006/01/all-social-that-can-bookmark.html. For newbies, they may have to start a social process of giving and receiving to begin the sharing of "useful knowledge."
What seems possible now is being able to pick and choose from varying levels of "canonical" to "apocryphal" thought and discourse. I admit the deluge can be overwhelming. In such cases, the canonical documents come to the rescue. Who can say that one or the other type of resource is unnecessary? They all seem useful in an ecology of professional story-telling and wisdom literature. However, I can surmise that the younger generations may grow increasingly fond of Internet-based resources and eschew the classic paper-oriented resources of the past. This is a process we have experienced before. Recall that Gutenberg's books were criticized as far less worthy than handwritten manuscripts. It is only a matter of time. In the meantime, rejoice in the richness of our wit and wisdom.
About the author
Aaron Marcus is the founder and president of Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A). He has degrees from both Princeton University and Yale University, in physics and graphic design, respectively. Mr. Marcus has published, lectured, tutored, and consulted internationally for more than 30 years.
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