There has been a proliferation of professional groups representing HCI in the past decade. While multiple, collaborative professional societies that focus on the different aspects of our discipline provide a professional forum for various specialized subgroups (and thereby provide benefits to individuals within the community), the benefits to business are not at all clear. In fact, fragmentation of our field may be preventing the voice of HCI from being heard in businesses that hire and use (or should be hiring and using) the services of HCI professionals. This is a potentially dangerous situation, both for us as professionals and for us as a discipline.
The Opportunity. Imagine for a moment, that there was a single, well-respected, professional society that spoke for HCI. There might be other societies that focused on specializations or emerging new sub-disciplines within HCI, but imagine that one organization was recognized as speaking for the field. What value might that have with respect to the role of HCI within businesses? What impact might that have on HCI as a discipline?
One way to answer this question would be to look at other professional organizations and see how they strive to deliver value to businesses. One such example might be the British Computer Society, part of whose charter is to: “...provide service and support to the IT community, including IT practitioners and employers of IT practitioners.” The programs that they provide to “employers of IT practitioners” include the “BCS Career Developer,” (www.bcs.org/BCS/Products/Corporate) which helps corporations “... define, manage and develop the IT skills within [your] organisation.” They also recognize best practices in employer IT training and development, and provide a “Skills Manager” to help the business understand how employee skills match business requirements. From a marketing standpoint, these examples are directly accessible from the BCS Web site under “Corporate Products & Services,” which implies a clear focus for the organization.
Another example of how professional organizations strive to deliver value to businesses is the American Chemical Society (ACS), which provides a Web site specifically targeted at employers of chemists. The focus is on job posting, but they also provide newsletters, articles for employers, and access to a “Career Center” (http://chemistryjobs.acs.org/hr) at their national meetings. Because ACS is clearly the major professional society for U.S. chemists, it is a natural place for targeted job postings and searches. ACS also provides professionals with career tools such as salary surveys and salary calculators, which are also excellent competitive analysis tools for businesses. It is difficult to provide any direct assessment of the impact of these efforts on businesses that employ chemists. However, while working for a pharmaceutical company, I was asked to be a member of a panel at a small ACS workshop, and I received very strong management support for my participation.
In both cases, the professional organizations provide a central voice for their constituencies that impact the businesses that employ or hire those services. There are many other examples of professional organizations reaching out to the business sector to partner with them to advocate and educate for and about the profession.
The Reality. So, is this true in HCI? What is the state of HCI professional societies? Many of the various societies have either job sites, consultant lists, or opportunities for corporations to support the society. However, there is nothing akin to the BCS “Skills Manager” on any of the HCI sites for a manager or business person. The AIGA Web site (www.aiga.org) does provide links to design competitions which I believe are immensely valuable to the businesses which compete. The Society for Technical Communication (www.stc.org) also provides competitions, but the value to the businesses employing the winners is not nearly as direct as in the case of the AIGA competitions. The STC Web site provides a very nice set of career and job tools which may be of some value to businesses looking to hire technical writers. Many of the sites provide consultant directories, which can be of significant benefit to the businesses represented.
The real problem is that managers who are not HCI people themselves could spend a lot of time looking at these various organizations and not gain any overall sense of what HCI is about, or what it offers them and their companies. Nor would it be clear how (or if) any of these organizations would be helpful. One implicit side effect is that only very motivated and enlightened managers would take the time to find out if any of these organizations are really helpful to the productivity and career growth of their employees, which could impact their willingness to support membership and/or volunteer activities. More likely, these managers would not even be aware of the large number of organizations they might look to for information about HCI. The combined visibility of a number of small societies is probably less than that of one large group. More concretely, if a manager is looking for an “HCI Professional,” “Usability Professional,” “User Centered Designer,” or “User Experience Designer,” the proliferation of societies relevant to these professional labels makes it hard to find one central source, and the manager might not even know which societies would be relevant to the search.
A Solution? I submit that we in HCI have a problem as a profession trying to reach businesses. We clearly care about reaching business because it is a central topic of conversation at annual conferences, professional journals, and amongst volunteers within our various professional societies. There are continual complaints about HCI professionals not being taken seriously enough in organizations, not being integrated into the product design cycle early enough, etc. This is certainly changing in some areas, but in terms of professional recognition, we still have a long ways to go. We need a strong advocate that reaches both the public and corporations to educate and inform about the value and benefits of incorporating HCI principles (such as user centered design and usability testing) into the products and services people use and corporations produce. Instead, we have many weaker advocates.
Concern about fragmentation in our field reflected in this issue is also reflected by the fact that BayCHI and BayDUX organized a meeting at Stanford last October to focus on collaboration and “the complementary interactions of the relevant organizations” . I laud the meeting organizers” efforts to bring together such a diverse group representing so many organizations and societies, but I believe that mere collaboration and recognition of the complementary nature of the many sub-disciplines is not enough. There needs to be single voice to reach business: a single voice to describe the profession, publish professional ethics, skills metrics, and career tools; a single voice to educate and inform consumers about usability and the importance of demanding that industry produce usable products; a single voice to educate and inform businesses about the economic benefits of HCI practices, help businesses hire HCI professionals that meet their needs, and recognize businesses that produce particularly usable products.
Which of the many organizations should provide that voice? Well, of course, I’m a member of SIGCHI and on the ACM Council, so I am biased. I suggest that the next collaborative gathering of all of the various societies and organizations that represent HCI professionals figure out how to speak with one voice, particularly to businesses and corporations. This will benefit their members and the profession as a whole and will, I believe, provide an excellent return on the investment. Whether a consortium of organizations does it, or one professional society, the entity that does the best job of outreach to business and the general public will become the most influential in the field.
John “Scooter” Morris
University of California, San Francisco
About the Author:
A recipient of the SIGCHI Distinguished Service Award, Scooter has worked tirelessly for SIGCHI and the CHI conferenceshe was the first AV chair (ever) at CHI ‘85. Scooter is currently the executive director of the Resource for Biocomputing, Visualization, and Informatics (RBVI) at the University of California, San Francisco, which develops software tools and Web sites to support the analysis and visualization of a variety of complex biological problems and interactions. Scooter serves on the ACM Council.
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