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VII.2 March-April 2000
Page: 48
Digital Citation

Commentary


Authors:
Gillian Smith

Wow! When I first went to CHI in 1991, people were very welcoming but could not understand why somebody from an art school would be there, nor how art would have anything to do with computers. Reading this issue of interactions nine years later, people would not be so mystified.

One of the most striking things about this issue is its contributors’ matter-of-fact acceptance that human-interface design, or, more broadly, interaction design or user-experience design, needs to draw on a wide range of skills. The jobs are called different things and the distinctions are drawn differently in different companies but they range from interaction design, visual design, information design, graphic design, industrial design, human factors and usability design, to user interface engineering and development (and the backgrounds of those involved are even more diverse). Moreover, if Steve Hartford is right, we ain’t seen anything yet: While previous computer software required only standard 2D layout skill, designers today are required to be fluent in many disciplines, from 3D modeling and rendering to digital audio design. The breadth of skills required will continue to increase as new technologies add more possibilities and continue to enrich computer-human interaction.

An interesting diversity exists in the proportions of interaction designers and in the way they are organized at different firms. Tom Spine at Sun has a very straightforward goal for his group: to make the role of the user interface designer as fundamental as the roles of the software engineer, technical writer and quality-assurance engineer. This contrasts with Eliot Tarlin at Uppercase, who sees four user experience designers out of a staff of 60 as a big commitment for a startup. At Microsoft (except for large products such as Windows), no user experience designers are dedicated to product teams. Instead, they draw on central consultants when they need to. And at IDEO, the product design group, the balance between design disciplines is changing: Human factors and interaction designers now make up 50% of the design staff.

There is a whiff of turf wars in some of the pieces, which is perhaps inevitable. "Expecting systems software engineers who are attracted to numbers, not people, to do human-interaction design is just a bad idea," writes Bruce Tognazzini. Dave Cortright at Microsoft and Tom Spine at Sun are essentially saying the same thing—team members want to be involved with design, but the two men imply very different environments. Whereas Dave says "team buy-in [developers and testers] is very important for ensuring the final design gets implemented as specified," Tom says:

"Designers should be firm, but not dictatorial in creating and guiding a vision. Designers should create an atmosphere where all team members feel that they can contribute to the design."

These tussles won’t go away until people really appreciate each other’s disciplines and the skills necessary to practice them, as well as know and accept their own limitations. In other fields someone always holds the vision: the art director, the architect, the film director, the football coach. This is accepted, and the illustrator, the construction engineer, the cinematographer, and the athlete do not feel belittled by it. They have their skill and they know it is essential to the successful outcome of the project.

In CRD we think of projects as a combination of three elements: people, technology and the medium. Most projects have one of these as a starting point. One project starts with a particular problem or opportunity for a user group, such as games for girls. Another project starts from a particular technology: New services that could be supported on a particular mobile phone, for instance. Yet another project starts from the medium: representing time on a 100x100 pixel screen, or fitting a portable phone to the body. A successful project needs people who really enjoy starting from one of these corners but are prepared to engage with people in the others.

Many of the authors talk enthusiastically about working with users. I was struck though, by the difference in the enjoyment people express about their users. This may be entirely a factor of the authors’ style but overall it does seem that designers in the consumer field, who work with people unfamiliar with computers, or with kids, seem to get a lot more fun out of their users and perhaps more fun into their products. Could we hope for a little more fun in the serious products, too?

Author

Professor Gillian Crampton Smith
Chair, Computer Related Design Department
Royal College of Art, London
g.crampton-smith@rca.ac.uk

Figures

UF1Figure. Gillian Crampton Smith

©2000 ACM  1072-5220/00/0200  $5.00

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