Fresh: mailbag

XII.3 May + June 2005
Page: 13
Digital Citation

Letters to the editor

Jonathan Arnowitz, Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson

back to top  Master of the Universe?

The method of storytelling described in the case study "Storytelling Evolves on the Web: EXOCOG and the Future of Storytelling" (January-February 2005) is very similar to storytelling in role-playing games (RPG). I am not referring to the kind played on the computer, but the kind where one person (the game master) develops a universe and the other people play characters in that universe.

In a good RPG scenario, the game master has developed a world in which some epic story is occurring. The players interact within that universe rather than being told a narrative and the game master plays a balancing act of allowing the players to discover and influence key parts of the story while keeping that story on track. The exact same elements were described in this article: reader/players discover the epic story online and become minor characters; interacting with each other over newsgroups and blogs. Also, there have been problems with very small number of players in RPG (with mental illnesses) having trouble distinguishing between the story in the gaming universe and reality. The author of this article points out there can be the same problem of reader/players not knowing the story being told is fictional.

It will be interesting to see how these two forms of storytelling will be related and even possibly merge over time.

Stephen Arnold,
Ph.D. Computer Science Division
UC Berkeley, CA, USA

back to top  Usability vs. Science

I couldn't agree more with the editors' rant "Usability as Science" (March-April 2005). I just want to add a final reason for not claiming usability to be a science—namely, it's not.

If you ask any philosopher of science what "science" is, the answer will be something like the following: Science is the systematic study of a domain of natural phenomena—e.g., plants (botany), chemicals (chemistry), human and animal behavior (psychology)—guided by the construction and refinement of theories which are adequate to explain the phenomena in that domain. While usability is informed by the science of psychology and other disciplines, its aim is Usable Products, not Theoretical Understanding. Moreover, as Tom Hewett quipped to me, any discipline that calls itself "science" (e.g., Library Science, Christian Science, Computer Science) is not science.

Howard Tamler
Amdocs Product Group
San Jose, CA, USA

back to top  Usability as Science

To my mind you do away with science too light-heartedly in last issue's rant ("Usability as Science," March-April 2005). Your remarks seem to be influenced by a random and superficial notion of science that is perceived as prescribing from its ivory tower without considering the outside world. Although this notion is widespread, it is nonetheless misguided.

When we turn to the history of the sciences, we see that science evolves only after a field has developed a significant body of practice that invokes the need for systematic reflection. So it has been that science follows practice—not vice versa. Look, for example, at medicine. The emphasis on practice is reflected in the term "general practitioner." We expect doctors to heal people—or, better still, to prevent them from getting ill—and, although doctors are not generally viewed as scientists, it appears only too common that they are trained in the sciences. Yet, we know that the best doctors are not necessarily those that act according to the textbook; it only gives them a background that they then combine with their experience, their knowledge of the patient, and other qualitative elements—in short, their subjective assessment—to come up with a proper treatment.

Aren't these the very same attributes you ascribe to the skilled usability practitioner? So why deny them something that others are freely granted? I say: Let the field of usability and its practices—yes, more than just one—grow; that growth will bring about its science automatically, but not as a prescriptive and limiting antagonist to practice, but as mutually beneficial complement to it.

Michael Zobel
User experience designer
Vienna, Austria

back to top  We're Engineers

Your last editorial rant ("Usability as Science," March-April 2005) concluded that usability practitioners were craftspeople. I thought the article excellent, but it was aiming at the wrong target: science. The practice of usability, or more accurately, the practice of interaction design, is not a science, and it shouldn't be. But that doesn't restrict our field to that of an art or a craft: Neither of these designations is truly appropriate because both neglect the importance of the scientific foundations of our profession.

Yes, we need a science of interaction, but let us not confuse that science with the activities people do in producing products. I am always careful to distinguish the two different activities I do: One is basic research and science, the other is application. When I am in application mode, I consider myself an engineer and designer, not a scientist. Each activity, science and engineering, informs the other, but they are very different.

An engineer, says WordNet, is "a person who uses scientific knowledge to solve practical problems." Sounds right to me. Interface designers are not scientists. We shouldn't be. We are professional practitioners applying scientific knowledge—we are engineers. I once coined the term "Cognitive Engineering" to describe the application of cognitive science. Maybe we should call ourselves "Design Engineers."

Science, mind you, is never enough—there are always huge knowledge gaps. In the end, practitioners must use approximate methods, rules of thumb, generally accepted principles, guidelines, and handbooks of best practice. So, sometimes we are artists and artisans: Arts and crafts play an important role in interface design. Just as there is an art and a craft to bridge building, programming, and circuit design, so too is there with interfaces. Good engineering is based upon science translated into a format that makes sense in practice.

Don Norman
Nielsen Norman Group
Palo Alto, CA, USA

back to top  Authors

Letters to the editor may be mailed to interactions mailbag, ACM, 1515 Broadway, 17th floor, New York, NY 10036 or sent via email to Please include your full name, address and daytime telephone number. Letters may be edited for length and clarity and may appear online.

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