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VII.2 March-April 2000
Page: 59
Digital Citation

Interview: Ben Shneiderman and Allison Druin

Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson, Ben Shneiderman, Allison Druin

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As a research consortium what projects do you consider most influential?

BEN: To me, the great satisfaction has been the interdisciplinary work and my chance to learn about psychology and graphic arts and design, library and information sciences and education and many other disciplines. The particular project that was a great thrill was in the middle 80s when we created hot-linked or embedded menus, as we called them in 1983-84, and developed a system called HyperTIES for the Holocaust museum that became a commercial product. What was satisfying to me was the close interdisciplinary collaboration with Kent Norman as we were learning to do empirical tests of a variety of about 20 different kinds of studies. We also collaborated with the College of Information Services with Janet Moraru, and later Gary Marchionini, and with the History Department who wrote the content for us on Austria and the Holocaust. For me, learning to do empirical studies and producing results that were well beyond my own intuition were particularly satisfying. I think we repeated this in later efforts on touch screens and home automation, and more recently in efforts on information visualization. But I think nothing was more satisfying than the rich collaborations when all of these different units were working on the same problems.

ALLISON: I've only enjoyed the past two years with HCIL, but I can echo Ben's sentiment that really the exciting part of being part of HCIL is interdisciplinary collaboration. In my case, I also enjoy intergenerational experience with kids and I work with children ages 7 to 11 as partners in our lab weekly. So it's an exciting place to be.

Ben, you mentioned a lot of things you've learned from interdisciplinary interaction. Allison, what can you say that you've learned from working with kids?

ALLISON: I've learned that we have an awful lot to learn about children. I've learned that we have to change the way that we do design with children as our design partners. We can't assume that because we've done interdisciplinary collaboration with adults that we know how to work with children as interdisciplinary collaborators. We have to change our methodology. Every day I am extraordinarily surprised at what we can create because of our collaboration.

Do you find that any of the methodological work you're doing with children is generalizable, that it can be applied in another area not working with children?

ALLISON: I believe so to some extent; in general, the way we go about trying to brainstorm together with people of all ages has a lot to do with the creative process. This has given me a great deal more respect for how ideas are developed together. Basically, our goal is in the elaboration process, so that at the end of the day we don't know whose idea that really was, whether it was an adult's or a child's or a computer scientist's or an artist's; we all contributed in some way.

How do you select the projects that you're going to work on?

BEN: Partly it stems from what we think are exciting ideas, and also who is supporting the work. We have no state or university funding, and all the work we do must have some supporter behind it. However, working in that context, the excitement often bubbles up from within one project which leads us to another project and a different idea and a different set of funding. We do like to work on projects that have medical applications such as several for the Library of Medicine, or for museums like the Smithsonian or libraries like the Library of Congress. We're fortunate to be close to Washington, D.C. near these remarkable institutions. We have the satisfaction of working with them and then seeing 51 computers installed at the Library of Congress for public use, or the NASA Web site containing the technology that we developed. Working for public purposes is particularly satisfying to me.

Do you find that there is a lot of cross-over between your projects?

BEN: We try hard to make that happen. Our happiest time was in the mid-80's when we had 3 or 4 or 5 hypertext projects that crossed multiple disciplines, and the work from one project fed in and supported the next one. The ideas became refined because they were challenged by the novel circumstances of the next application domain. I'm a great believer in Fred Brooks' suggestion that it's important to have a driving problem, and choosing good driving problems that really matter (not the fantasy ones that are in your mind) I think has been one of the keys to our success. I gave a talk at Harvard and was asked, "Where do you get these wonderful application domains?" The trick is that we've been willing to put ourselves out in very public environments with real organizations that have real desires, and we produce deliverables that put these ideas to work.

ALLISON: In terms of our work with children, we look to work with anybody that is interested in partnering with children. Not necessarily making something and saying, "So what do you think?" but working together in developing our relationship as design partners so that children are a part of the design process throughout the experience. We have very generous sponsors, from the National Science Foundation to the United States Census Bureau, so we work with a fair number of different people with different projects. Lately, we are working with projects that all seem to focus on developing technologies for storytelling. I'm not quite sure whether our methodologies lend themselves to that, or we were focused on those areas and the methodologies came along.

How about continuity with the children you work with?

ALLISON: It's a critical thing—I don't believe that you bring in new children every 10 minutes. I believe that just as you would hire graduate students, you hire children and your child partners are a part of the team. Four children have been with us since day one when we started our intergenerational design team. Each year they are given a technology gift (because of child labor laws) that they have worked for during the year, a Gameboy or a CD ROM, and essentially those kids only leave us when they have to—for example two children left us this year because they moved. I have a waiting list until probably the year 2005 for children waiting to join the group. The idea is that they are here at least between the ages of 7 to 11, and after that we negotiate as to whether they come back as helpers or on special projects.

So they're literally growing up with you?

ALLISON: Yes, they are!

BEN: It's an amazing thing; a distinctive feature of Allison's work is the continuity of these kids and the real special skills they develop by the personal experience they're getting. The camaraderie and the way they work together is a very special thing.

Do you see much interaction between the kids in terms of coaching and mentoring, when new kids come in?

ALLISON: Oh, absolutely. This summer we had 3 new children join our team and we were looking at making storytelling robots. We took a look at an existing robot that one of my graduate students had made out of Lego parts. So I said to the kids, "Why don't you take it apart?" So they all took it apart, all 7 of them. Then I said, "Ok, so now let's put it back together and see what we get." The 3 new kids immediately said, "Oh no, I don't know how to do that!" And the 3 kids we had before, each one of them said something fascinating. One of them said, "Oh, we don't give up here, we just do it and we try and no one laughs!" Another one said, "Come on! We do it together, it's okay!" And another kid said, "This really isn't as bad as it seems, and you never have to get scared, because we're all here!" I almost broke into tears listening to these kids. It is a real feeling of a cohort. I hadn't actually realized how far my kids had come in terms of how tough they were as designers until I had brought in 3 new children. It was fascinating to see the differences between the competence levels and so on.

Do you have any plans to track them as they get older and outgrow your program?

ALLISON: We're doing a longitudinal study using journals and videotape, and once they leave the program I ask that they continue to write in their journals, and we'll see how it goes. I'm now writing a study that analyzes the first few years of this, and with any luck we'll have a very large study in the next few years that looks at where these kids go.

Are there any particular design principles you follow when you conduct design projects?

BEN: There are really two levels of answer to that: one is about the design process, and one is about the design.

In terms of design: 1) direct manipulation notions of visual presentation of objects and actions, and 2) rapid incremental and reversible operations, which I've found to be a very useful guide, expanded for the information visualization area. People seem to like this notion of the visual information seeking mantra: overview first, zoom and filter, then details on demand. That's to convey the notion of seeing the whole database, the whole library, the whole process on the screen at once, and understand where you are within that larger space. That allows you to navigate, and then zoom in on what you want, filter out what you don't want, and then click to get the details on demand. Using that as a guideline captures the dynamics of screen usage, as opposed to design guidelines that focus on the statics of screen layout, such as the wonderful books by Tufte and others, who talk about graphic design but focus on the static effort aspect. A lot of our innovations have come from understanding the dynamics of use of the screen.

In terms of the process, I believe you should have a rich understanding of the background, and you should have a real problem that you're working on. Studies have two parents and three children. The two parents are: 1) a practical problem that someone cares about – the driving problem, and 2) a theory, framework, and foundation in which your thinking is based. That could be cognitive, perceptual, or anthropological theory; you should have an understanding of the framework in which your discussion is proceeding, so that as you work on a specific problem, you're also aware of the breadth of its generalization and applicability. The three children of every study or experiment are: 1) some practical advice (someone cares about the problem), 2) refinement to the theory, and 3) advice to the next researchers who might carry the work forward.

ALLISON: I think Ben broke it up nicely in terms of the actual product of design versus methodology. In terms of the product of design, I have two beliefs.

One is that we should be developing new technologies that enable children to be authors of their own environments and in some sense to develop expressive media. We've done a lot of work thinking about interactive textbooks for kids but it's time to really think about how to enable kids to be explorers and scientists and artists and musicians, and use technology in ways that are enabling as opposed to passive and controlling. I also believe that technology should bring people with differences together. I do not believe in developing gender specific technologies; I believe in developing technologies that support people with differences but bring them together to create and collaborate in exciting ways. I guess that's a bit controversial.

And then, in terms of the design process, I believe we need to work together, particularly with kids, in three ways as design partners. I believe that we have to observe what people do with their existing technologies and not just have adults watch kids, but have kids watch kids. We need to create low-tech prototypes together and sketch together with tools and art supplies that allow all parties be a part of the communication and brainstorming experience. I also believe that we need to have technology immersion experiences which are not just 15 minutes of touching the computer, but what happens when somebody really lives with this stuff? When they carry it around with them all day and go from school to home and so on? I call all of those various things cooperative inquiry, based on the Scandinavian design principles of cooperative design as well as the participatory design principles that have come out of the United States.

You do a lot of usability testing in your labs. Is usability testing becoming more important, less important?

BEN: It's a very fascinating process to watch its dissemination. It's certainly growing in its usefulness and the degree to which it is being used. One by one, companies are finding a way to make it fit their particular needs. I see steady progress. The business case has been made dozens of times and we're seeing the rise of groups such as Usability Professionals Association and continued interest in the topic.

ALLISON: In fact, usability testing is becoming a critical part of everything that we do in terms of developing technologies for kids. We're usually about five years behind with the involvement of kids than we are with the involvement of adults. We've just finally come to the stage where people acknowledge, "Ah, we'd better have kids' hands on this thing before it goes out." It's very surprising if people don't do usability tests with children in commercial products and university environments. It's a wonderful thing to see. I think there should be more involvement of users even beyond usability testing; I believe it should go on to the informant and the design participation stage.

When we conduct usability testing it is often difficult to get adult participants to understand that we are not testing them, we are testing ourselves and we want to see if we pass, not them. It's also sometimes difficult to get them to use a think-aloud protocol. What has your experience been with children?

ALLISON: We always work with children in a minimum of pairs so they talk to each other. We feel very strongly about doing simple things, like wearing relaxed informal clothing, and not holding big pads of paper that make it look like we're testing them in school. We actually try very hard to make it so that it doesn't feel like I'm a teacher and you're a kid and there's some right answers and you just have to tell me those right answers. We have a list a mile long of the things you should be doing during usability tests with children: such as, let's all sit on the floor together, as opposed to sitting in desks; if the child sits, then you sit.

Do you think there any lessons the rest of us could learn from this?

ALLISON: I happen to know that when adults come into our lab with the stuffed animals and sitting on the floor they seem to be pretty comfortable, too. So who knows, perhaps our usability labs will start to look more like kids live there!

Do you have any thoughts on whether we're doing anything damaging in user interface design, and could we change it?

BEN: I think what we see these days is a very lively debate about future directions. It's healthy for the field that we see these differences. I'm a great advocate of designing comprehensible systems that have the properties of consistent behavior, they're predictable, and they are controllable by the user — creating the affective experience of mastery, satisfaction, and then responsibility. However, there is an alternative, and I do sometimes think it is dangerous, which says that machines should be adaptable, they should be autonomous, and anthropomorphic. I am concerned about that direction. A book titled Aviation Automation by Charles Billings, former head of the NTSB, claims that autonomy in systems is deadly. If the users are not in control of the systems we build, then the consequences in air traffic control and aviation are potentially deadly. But I think we assume other kinds of risks if we try to build systems that are autonomous and incorrectly adaptive for the user. Yes, there are some dangers in the directions in our field.

How do you think anthropomorphism is damaging?

BEN: First, it's a deception to portray the machine as a person. The suggestion that people are machines or that machines are people is counterproductive; it misleads designers and deceives the users. The design of effective interfaces is not necessarily based on human-human interaction; it's often a misleading design strategy. This was pointed out brilliantly in Louis Mumford's 1934 book, Techniques in Civilization, which talked about the obstacle of animism. Most technologies went through an early stage where the anthropomorphic model was used as a design principle and misled the designers. Once we get past that, we can move on to more effective design. Often agency also has many of those misleading principles, as I've written in interactions in an article in 1995, "Looking for the Bright Side of Agents" (interactions 2, 1, Jan. 1995, pp. 13 - 15). The agency notion suggests autonomous behavior. It suggests unreasonable adaptivity and capacity, and that vague prescriptions will lead to productive or effective results. I have some troubles with the agency issue, also reported in interactions in 1997 in a debate with Patti Maes, "Direct Manipulation Versus Interface Agents" (interactions 4, 6, Nov. 1997, pp. 42 -61). The point is that users –including children– want to be in control and have a sense of their own accomplishments, not the sense that some magical machine did it for them. The evidence shows that those who promoted these anthropomorphic designs or agent scenarios in the past were historically and empirically wrong. Historically the talking automobile and talking Coke machines vanished quickly. The Postal Buddy was a $1.6 million mistake, and Microsoft Bob was a $100 million misguided design effort. If you look at bank machines, you see the same strategy. Some early designs were anthropomorphic, with Tillie the Teller and Harvey Wallbanker, and my favorite, Johnny Cash – but customers rejected them; the designs were inappropriate for the user. These are often technology-centered designs which have a certain appeal to early adopters. The durable designs are the ones that provide a sense of function and control and empowerment to the user.

ALLISON: Beware of controlling the user! You have the ability to make quite an imprint if you try to control a child with a machine. I think one of the challenges is developing user interfaces that support differences but also bring people together and support collaboration. I feel very strongly that children need to be brought together with other children who have differences so that they can have exciting experiences. I think the one computer/one kid model is a bad thing. Ben Bedersen and I and our graduate students are working on the concept of multiple mice at one computer so that multiple children can use storytelling tools simultaneously. It's really critical to have not just distributed collaboration such as discussions over email, but also shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration where children sit around one computer screen. Ben calls this single-display groupware, where we're all together at one screen and we all have a chance to create something with multiple input devices.

Anthropomorphism used the wrong way can be damaging, but I also believe that it can be empowering. For instance, we've been using the notion of a storytelling robot. You can create your own robot by putting together different pieces of animals to create a crazy looking animal, and the child tells a story to the robot and the robot acts out the story.

So the notion is in some sense advanced puppetry and communication. It's a nice way of showing how you can have characters who are different, and also are a way for kids to say things they might not normally say. We've been experimenting with how to talk about emotions. It scared Ben at first when we came in and said, "We want to test out some emotions on you that we are going to put into our robot." Then we explained that we were going to tell stories about emotions, and we were trying to figure out what action the robot would act out every time it got to an emotion in the story. It was pretty exciting because it led to conversations about what are emotions, and what are important emotions to talk about. So our storytelling robot, PET (Personal Electronic Teller of stories) does just that. It's exciting to see how you can take some of the elements that can perhaps be a concern, but can be empowering. One of the things we found in the literature on children is that characters are a way of letting children say things they wouldn't normally say because it's a safe way of expressing things.

Where would you like to take HCIL? Any new areas you'd like to pursue or extensions to what you're doing now?

BEN: For the moment I'm still intrigued with the challenge of carrying information visualization forward, and crossing the chasm from a research concept to a widely-used commercial success. We've seen the beginnings of that but there's a lot of exciting work still to be done. The second direction is this notion of universal usability, trying to design systems for the broadest range of possible users to help bridge the digital divide. This is of great concern to me. Within this context I see three challenges of dealing with the diversity of technology that users have.

The first set of challenges is 100:1 ratios of CPU speed, network connections, and screen sizes. The second set of challenges is dealing with the diversity of users from experts to novices, able to disabled, old to young. The third set is bridging the gap between what users know to what they need to know. As a profession, if we can move forward in making the technology accessible and usable to a wider circle of people, we will be remembered in honorable ways for our consideration for the underserved or forgotten user.

ALLISON: I think in trying to understand the role of the user in the design process, I'd like to move forward in trying to help people understand that what we create with users as partners can be better than things in which we don't involve users as much. We're trying to analyze the differences in roles of children in the design process. We also want to move beyond the desktop into room-sized environments and embedded objects. We want to take computational power into the things that matter in our everyday lives in the physical world, not just into schools but also in the home. We want to understand how we can support multiple age groups in and outside the home; truly intergenerational technologies that bring different aged people together. I hope we can create more avenues to get the message out about the kinds of things we can do, because it's very difficult to figure out how to support people's understanding.

BEN: And finally, please come visit us at our 17th Annual Symposium and Open House on June 2, 2000! And do visit our website,

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Interviewed by Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson

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F1Figure 1. PETS project.

F2Figure 2. A PET (personal electronic storyteller).

UF1Figure. Ben Shneiderman, Professor and Head, HCIL, Department of Computer Science, University of Maryland

UF2Figure. Allison Druin, Assistant Professor, HCIL, Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS), University of Maryland

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