XXIV.5 September - October 2017
Page: 20
Digital Citation

Planning time: HCI’s project-management challenges

Elizabeth Churchill

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Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.—Douglas Adams [1]

One of the most talked about cadences in HCI is the design lifecycle that involves the following phases: understanding a problem or area, defining what issues there are for people, doing some ideation, then prototyping and testing (e.g., Figure 1). It is baked into our processes and practices in HCI.

ins01.gif Figure 1. The Stanford design-process model.

There are variations of this cadence, but in all cases there are groupings of activities that are sequenced into phases. And each phase implies a certain amount of dedicated time and progress toward an endpoint, often a product. This is a clear temporal flow that makes sense to us as human-centered technology designers.

These flows are appealing in their beautiful simplicity. But, like Douglas Adams’ lunch, the beautiful simplicity is an illusion. We know that, in real life, a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing occurs between the different phases and that much work is done in the cracks between the phases and in communicating insights within the phases. This is true of all but the smallest scoped and resourced projects.

As the size of the project grows, the number of tasks grows. The project team size also grows, as does the social and technical complexity, and the ways in which user-centered insights and principles are woven into decision making becomes an art unto itself. Even the simplest interactive experiences require the building and connecting of a series of intermeshing, interacting systems. Such intermeshing is difficult, requiring a great deal of activity and communication planning, and careful, ongoing, insistent communication management.

Projects also differ in their level of urgency. For some projects, the deadlines are rapid, urgent: Input is needed imminently and is acted upon immediately. For other projects, insights can be generated over months or years, and the flexibility of schedules means there is time to build the communications and the cross-disciplinary understandings that will lead to innovative thinking on all sides. There are also many different kinds of teams: small teams of similarly skilled individuals all focused on a shared goal; cross-disciplinary teams made up of varied skill sets and philosophies, all with their own values and practices and languages (one could call these “tribes”); distributed multicultural teams with little overlap in time zones and vision; teams made up of long-term staff who have known each other for years; teams made up of temps whose expertise is welcomed and who move on as soon as their part is done.

In acknowledging this, we cross disciplines of research and practice, from human-computer interaction to computer-supported cooperative work to project management. For most projects in the world, success or failure rests upon the quality of the project management. Project management is hard—literally thousands of books have been written about it, and there are degrees in the topic, as well as professional bodies dedicated to the craft of and careers in project management [2]. There are also many tools for project management, some formal and many informal.

That said, one doesn’t need formal training or formal tools to engage in some rudimentary project-management practices to manage information sharing and the to-ing and fro-ing of human-centered decision making as projects proceed. For example, although projects actually proceed in a piecemeal way, simple visual-planning techniques worked on collaboratively can be extremely valuable. As a personal example, many of my project plans look remarkably like rudimentary Gantt charts [3] (Figure 2). These simple sketches are useful; having a schedule as a frame upon which to reflect, discuss, and negotiate is invaluable. They can reveal differences in assumptions about time frames for completing interdependent tasks. They allow team members to register and share their optimistic time estimate, their likely estimate, and their pessimistic time estimate, revealing when we are individually or collectively falling prey to the very human “planning fallacy” [4]. Discussion over these sketches can reveal anxieties and concerns, concentrate and amplify communication about actions and sequences, and invite meaningful review, revision, and re-planning.

ins02.gif Figure 2. An example Gantt chart from the 1920s.

I confess that I’d love to see project-management skills be part of HCI courses, to complement our teaching of the recommended phases for human-centric design. I do not mean courses that teach project management with task accomplishment as the primary focus—absolutely not. The biggest and most interesting challenge for HCI projects of moderate to large scale is communication management. As a favorite author of mine, George Bernard Shaw, said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” No HCI project of any scale should underestimate the critical work of communication management across and between disciplines, and across and between the different phases of a project as we weave human-centric insights into critical decision-making moments. I am just suggesting that such work is sometimes invisible or forgotten, considered to be “meta” activity and not the “real” work of HCI. I think we’ll have even more impact if we don’t buy in to that perspective.

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1. From Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio comedy series created in 1978. More information:

2. The Project Management Institute (PMI) offers excellent resources for would-be and in-role project managers, including guidance for managing projects of varied size, scope, cost, time frame, and so on, as well as methods for ongoing quality assessment, and ways of communicating outcomes.

3. Dating back to the early 1900s, the Gantt chart has gone in and out of favor. I can understand why: In creative projects especially, when followed or applied rigidly, or when someone believes the chart is the project, as opposed to an emerging sketch for developing shared understandings, the Gantt chart is more obstructive of progress than helpful.

4. The planning fallacy was initially proposed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979. They showed that people’s predictions about how much time will be needed to complete a future task display an optimism bias; people therefore underestimate the amount of time that is actually needed to complete the task. See more here:

back to top  Author

Originally from the U.K., Elizabeth Churchill has been leading corporate research at top U.S. companies for the past 18 years. Her research interests include social media, distributed collaboration, mediated communication, and ubiquitous and embedded computing applications.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2017 ACM, Inc.

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