Many countries do not share the same understanding about, or have the same approach to the field of HCI as the USA. This derives from a matrix involving a nation's political agenda setting for university education; business and industry demands for graduates in designated work areas; arbitrary resource allocation within university education; and cultural expectations and inhibitors within and between nations.
As I see it when travelling in many countries and working with educators, there are a multitude of solutions to dynamic questions that arise from this matrix. The question that we all face in our different ways is: How do we prepare students to become HCI professionals?
Students seeking to study HCI are a very diverse group. They may have a research orientation, or work in industry or business where they have gained a practical interest in the area. They may decide to take up HCI as a career. More frequently in Australia at least, they will take one HCI course or even part of a course that covers a semester or two to satisfy their own interest and maybe get a job relevant to the area.
It would be a false premise to think that all HCI students are preparing to begin their working life and that HCI is a major focus of study, or of workplace practice. Far from it. Many graduates of other disciplines are already in the work force, with titles like usability specialist, usability analyst, information architect, and so on, but with no formal knowledge of the field.
If organizations become aware that usability is a useful addition to their software design and system development life cycles, they face the problem that there are no university courses that tackle the subject with a pragmatic approach. An often minimal and "ad hoc" approach to incorporating usability in organizations may seem to satisfy management's concerns about the potential usability of their products and services, but may take little account of now well-established HCI principles, tools, and techniques. While industry's awareness of the need to incorporate usability is growing, there is a severe shortage of experts that are trained to implement HCI and usability in the market place.
This led me to develop an HCI course at graduate level that focuses specifically on the needs of industry and business. The orientation of such a course then changes from a traditional academic course to a fresh pragmatic process approach, as new questions emerge:
- What should the objectives/content of the course be?
- How practical/technical/theoretical should the course be?
- How narrow/broad should the course be? Just interface design or an overview of the whole continuum from highly specific and technical considerations of the physical interface to the economic, social, environmental and political concerns associated with introducing technological changes to current practice?
- What knowledge and skills are essential in the workplace? And what is desirable?
Australia is an island continent of about three million square miles and a population of 18 million. Nearly 50 percent of Australia's population lives in two cities, Sydney and Melbourne, with the remainder living around the coastal fringe, predominantly in the southeast corner. This leaves vast distances between centers of population, and difficulties of access and communication. The USA is slightly larger than Australia in geographic area but with a population 15 times greater. Australia is larger than Europe. It is indeed the "big country."
Australia has 39 universities and about 670,000 students. Computer science (or some variation of this title) is taught in all universities. New subjects and specializations like HCI have to find a place within the existing curriculum framework. This is difficult in the current political and university climate. Universities no longer have the freedom to teach innovative courses that are not seen to be satisfying current national/industrial needs and that are not immediately cost-effective. Government research funding (the main source of funding research in Australia) is shrinking and becoming more focused on "traditional" areas of research and areas of tangible, demonstrable need. Many of the American models of university education, research and curriculum do not apply in Australia.
HCI is multi-disciplinary, leading to even more difficulties in knowing where to place such a course, especially if it is not certain that there will be sufficient students (and academic staff) on an ongoing basis to warrant its inclusion in a university curriculum. Teaching HCI requires special resources that need extra funds. This in turn requires a student load that is sufficient to justify that commitment of resources.
In Australia, serious attention to HCI is given by only a handful of universities and each deals with the curriculum in its own way. Most universities teaching HCI do so in a one-semester full-time course (about three hours a week), and feel very fortunate if they can teach more. This article outlines the way in which one of those accommodated to the demand for a program that provided graduates with an accreditation in the field.
In developing the program of study, I realized that there were key components. An understanding of systems, an understanding of perceptual and cognitive processes, an appreciation of analysis of problems and the development of solutions that can accommodate to a wide range of human capabilitiesphysical, cognitive and socialwithin a work context.
The HCI program comprised three courses:
- Fundamentals of HCI (1 evening3 hours per week for about 16 weeks in the first semester);
- HCI Tools and Techniques (1 evening3 hours per week for about 16 weeks in the second semester);
- Implementation of HCI (equivalent to 1 evening3 hours per week for about 16 weeks in the second semester, but mostly done in all-day weekend workshop mode because of the practical nature of the subject).
The program was established in such a way that a student could progress through levels. They commenced their study in a graduate certificate part-time over two semesters (one year). If successful, they could proceed through additional study in areas relevant to HCI and complete a substantive research project to graduate with a Masters degree (in a total minimum time of three years).
If a pre-requisite for studying this course had been confined to students with a background in computing science or information technology, it would have been disastrous. Students entering the program have come from degrees in art, music, engineering, design, languages, commerce, law and other fields. They have found themselves to be in areas of work, or are keen to join areas of work, which have components that require an understanding of the principles of HCI. Their diverse perspectives and prior experiences greatly enrich the learning environment for all students.
In a program of study that does not require a common background in its students, there must be a high level of flexibility in the selection of content and in style of learning tasks that are used. Evaluation may also have to be non-standard.
When developing HCI courses, my goal is always to put people first, with the computer being subservient to this. The human focus is always the lead componentHCI and not CHI.
Students need to understand that their most important goal is to ensure that technology fits the needs of people, and not that people fit into a design dictated by technology. This provides educators with a great challenge, as there is clear evidence, in everyday life and work that the latter is the common experience. HCI is broad not narrow, so teaching principally about user interfaces does not give sufficient breadth or context for a student to develop a holistic understanding of the area, unless there can be many courses covering many topics in a specialized major or complete degree program.
To achieve these goals, I created a curriculum that helped students to understand human needs, orientations and inclinations, as well as processes, so that they could interpret the interactions that occur between the human (the user) and the machine. That machine may be a computer, but it may also be a computer driven device such as a railway ticket vending machine, or a self-service book-issuing machine in a library.
We have a wealth of HCI principles, tools and techniques to help us devise learning experiences for an HCI course. If educators "practice what they preach" and work on a premise of "learning by doing" in developing curricula, then students receive HCI messages in more than one way, thus aiding the whole learning process. It helps too, if educators themselves have had opportunities to experience HCI work in industry settings, and thus broaden their understanding of ways in which HCI may be implemented.
Experiential learning and real-world situations are an essential part of learning about HCI. There is a big difference between being told and experiencing. If we consider cognitive development, we know that a child has to enjoy many concrete experiences through infancy and middle childhood before reaching (around early adolescence) the period of developing concepts. No concrete experiences leads to poor concept development. Experiential learning can be achieved by requiring students to accomplish practical assignments of lasting value, rather than completing theoretical studies resulting in academic essays.
The objectives for such an HCI course aimed at providing students with an HCI survival kit that would:
- Change student attitudes (learnt from previous experience in which it is commonly assumed that technology IS the solution to all problems) to a human-centered approach, where people create solutions, and technology is a useful and powerful tool to enable this. To my mind, this is the most essential objective to achieve, as previous job experience has centered their thinking on the technology, designing for technological solutions, designing screens and interfaces. This emphasis gets in the way of learning about and understanding HCI. They need to expand their horizons from the detail of interfaces to the entire task/work/social environment in which interfaces are being used.
- Provide students with a framework of HCI principles, tools and techniques at a basic level, and an understanding of what is needed when implementing HCI in the workplace.
- Develop basic skills of observation, analysis and evaluation within an HCI context.
- Increase student confidence to search and find sources of HCI information.
- Develop a better understanding of collaborative and group work practices that are essential when implementing HCI in work practices.
Some examples of assignment components for such an HCI course may help to show how teaching principles can be put into practice.
The first assignment concentrates on real-world observation, using an immersion technique for rapid awareness-raising. The assignment has the best effect if started in the first week of the course and takes about two to three weeks to complete. Its purpose is to make students aware of usability issues, successes and difficulties when people use commonly accessible technology devices. Each student observes several people in two different situations using publicly-accessible kiosk systems or terminals, such as ATMs, train or bus ticketing systems, car parking meters, information kiosks, library cataloguing systems and so on. No discussion with the people being observed is allowed. The outcome is a written report of the observations, including a description of the process required to use the device and an analysis of what people found easy or difficult to do when using the system.
Often students query the need to do this assignment, as they "already know how to use the machine and use it regularly." This is equivalent to the notion that "users are all like me." In class discussion at the completion of the assignment, their attitude has changed and there are frequent comments expressing surprise at what people actually did and questions as to why people did what they did. Thus, students quickly learn the difference between their own ideas about how people use technology and what people actually do. This often new idea of perception versus behavior of people using technology leads to interesting discussions and questions about why is this so? The assignment is followed by sessions on cognitive factors, especially perception, representation, attention and memory featuring practical exercises, tricks and magic that excite and motivate students to read further in the areaand to take some of the fun they have just experienced back to their workplace colleagues.
A later assignment may be based on a literature review using (mostly) electronic resources, a skill building exercise. Students choose a topic from a list of interface design features, and conduct an electronic search for information about the topic. A report of their findings is written, summarizing the major points. These are shared with the class for further reference. In this way, the often-expressed student need to learn about detailed interface design is explored in a way that is useful for students in the longer term. They also gain substantially more information by way of the reports that other students have writtena multiplier effect that is very satisfying for the whole class, and builds cooperation and collaboration between class membersanother instance of working within the HCI context.
Without a real task to carry out, students are not likely to search the Web seriously. In many countries, university students have not had experience at school or university of training to search and interrogate the Web for purposeful ends. The Web can provide a wealth of information if searching is successful. If not, it provokes many feelings and negative attitudes in the searcher toward both their ability to use the technology and the inadequate design of interfaces that are viewed while searching. This in itself is a valuable experience for HCI students, and leads to very fruitful discussions.
During the second semester of study, a major project involving usability testing and writing a usability report should be undertaken. This project encompasses major facets of the course in a practical way. Groups of about four students are free to choose an existing application (often a Web site), plan and conduct a usability test in a formal industry-standard Usability Laboratory (if available in the university) and write and present a usability report of the test. In courses where a formal laboratory is not available, this project can be done using other appropriate usability testing techniques.
The project mirrors reality as it allows students to gain hands-on evaluation experience applying knowledge and practical skills gained throughout the course. As the written reports are presented to the class, all students learn from the different usability tests and report styles. The way in which this project is organized means that all students undertake the tests in a supportive learning environment, and so develop their understanding of what is involved. At the same time, they gain confidence about how similar test sessions may be conducted, and what to expect from usability reports of such testing. These are important lessons to take back to their workplace.
An HCI curriculum can be developed with limited resources; it provides learning experiences for students that enable them to function better in their jobs; and it can promote research. HCI education does not need to be big to be successful; it just needs to be well planned and based on good judgements that take into account local (country) requirements and cultural style. The International Federation for Information Processing Working Group (IFIP WG13.1) organizes international activities about HCI education and curricula and has provided input to the IFIP/UNESCO Informatics Curriculum Framework 2000.
Judy Hammond, F.A.C.S.
Favourite Publications (for this course):
- J. Dumas and J. Redish, A Practical Guide to Usability Testing (1999) 2nd Edition, Prentice Hall, New Jerseyan invaluable guide for use in the usability testing project
- William Newman and Michael Lamming, Interactive System Design, (1995), Addison Wesley, UK
- Human-Computer Interaction: INTERACT, Proceedings of IFIP TC13 INTERACT biennial conferences
- Human Factors in Computer Systems, Proceedings of ACM CHI annual conferences
- ISO 9241 (1998) Ergonomic requirements for office work with visual display terminals (VDT) Part 11Guidance on Usability, International Standards Organisation
- ISO 13407 (1999) Human centred design process of interactive systems, International Standards Organisation
- Donald Norman, The Design of Everyday Things (1998), MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
- Jenny Preece et al, Human-Computer Interaction (1994), Addison Wesley, UK
- Gary Strong et al, ACM SIGCHI Curricula for HCI (1992) ACM press
- Donald Norman, Information Processing, 1971, a film, a period piece which although dated is still very relevant today (apart from the flared trousers, long hair, and other trappings of that time).
"Well, it depends ..." a wonderful expression to get across the dynamic, organic nature of HCI and the reflection that should always be present before offering advice on problems involving HCI in any context.
People, as I travel in many parts of the world working with people in my role as Chair of the IFIP Technical Committee on Human-Computer Interaction (IFIP TC13) and its Working Groups and observing and listening to people using technology in diverse countries and workplaces.
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