Cultural and personal impact

XV.6 November + December 2008
Page: 70
Digital Citation

(P)REVIEWHCI, life and death, and Randy Pausch

Fred Sampson, Keith Instone

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When Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch passed away on July 25, 2008, millions of people—most of them non–HCI community members—knew and took inspiration from his story.

How is it that a teacher of computer science, usually a low-key position of little consequence to the general public, becomes such a figure of reverence? In the age of instant communication, of wide distribution of media in varying qualities, it's been said that everyone is famous to 15 people. Randy Pausch was famous to millions. On the morning that Pausch's death was announced, his Wikipedia entry was updated faster than his own website (maintained by friends and family). ACM TechNews distributed the news before noon. I learned of his passing from a Twitter post by Jared Spool, in less than 140 characters.

Word of mouth has become word of electrons: Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook, instant messaging, texting, all make the world a smaller place and enable communities to rise and disappear as quickly as a few passionate observers can type or text. Thus it was that Randy Pausch's "The Last Lecture" to CMU students was recorded and distributed and became a phenomenon.

Pausch himself used the Web to communicate about pancreatic cancer, the disease that ultimately killed him, in gut-wrenching detail. And when the video "The Last Lecture" became popular, Pausch collaborated with a professional writer to record the lecture and additional stories in a book. That book, The Last Lecture, appeared for more than 18 weeks (at this writing) at the top of the nonfiction book charts and went through multiple printings, all the more remarkable in an age of shorter attention spans and declining sales. I will not speculate here on the book's appeal, other than to acknowledge that it includes heart-wrenching stories that are especially effective for those of us with spouses and small children, embellished with brief stories to illustrate numerous of Pausch's life lessons. For anyone who spends time at all contemplating their mortality, Pausch's approach to ensuring that his young children will feel connected to and instructed by their father is meaningful. But ultimately, the book's popularity must be evaluated in light of the exposure that YouTube, ABC News, and the Web provided for Pausch's story.

A few statistics help tell the story:

  • 10 million views on YouTube
  • 2 million-plus books in print, translated into at least 17, possibly 30, languages
  • 18-plus weeks on Publishers Weekly non-fiction bestseller list, at no. 1 since it appeared April 21, 2008
  • ABC's rerun of the Diane Sawyer interview and profile, presented the Tuesday after Pausch's death, scored a 2.4 rating, 7 share, with more than 7 million viewers—the third-best ratings of that evening.

"Don't tell people how to live their lives; just tell them stories, and they'll figure out how the stories apply to them," Pausch said in the lecture. So his book is all stories, some brief, some longer, all making a point. Maybe that's part of its appeal: The reader can digest it in bits and pieces, pausing when a passage hits a little closer to home. Likewise, the video clips ("The Last Lecture" excepted) can be viewed in chunks, out of order, rewound and rerun.

ABC's story and interview billed it as a love story. Pausch himself revealed at the end of "The Last Lecture" that it was not about his audience, it was for his children; and ultimately, it was not about living your dreams, but living your life in a way that allows your dreams to come to you: karma.

At first contact, Pausch frequently came off as proud and arrogant; perhaps these impressions derived from the passion Pausch brought to teaching, to the study of HCI, to life. Randy knew that but didn't let it slow him down. In a Time magazine interview published April 10, 2008, a reader asked:

"From your lecture, you seem like a very modest person. How are you handling the adulation?" —Vernon Hines, Columbia, Md.

Pausch: "First off, I reject the premise. Anyone who knows me well will tell you that arrogance is one of my flaws..."

Information architect Keith Instone took a stab at writing this review and found himself immersed in the emotion of Pausch's story (see sidebar). It's hard to be clinical and scientific—looking at it as an "engineering problem," as Pausch puts it—when the subject himself chokes up on camera.

If Pausch's story in all its forms achieves anything for the field of HCI, it can be seen to humanize computer science, to reveal the passion at heart of our work. We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't believe that we could make living in this world better, easier, more rewarding; that good design can make technology less intimidating (see Pausch's VCR-smashing story), can ensure that the research we perform makes more usable products, that the products we create are useful, usable, and desirable. Because we believe, like Randy—with deep and authentic passion—that ultimately it's not things that make life worth living, it's the people on whom we have some impact.

Keith suggests that the answers to his questions go something like this: "I had some suggestions for future issues of interactions showing how popular culture views our designs and vice versa. A call to action for us to stop paying so much attention to selling more widgets on the Web and instead put our collective might into helping to solve the energy crisis, AIDS, or even developing better user interfaces for scientists searching for a cure for pancreatic cancer. How we as a profession should do more story-telling, to touch our stakeholders at an emotional level. How we are neglecting our duty to leave a legacy to the next generation of user experience professionals."

I couldn't say it any better myself, so that's the review. Your experience will vary, but you will not go away unmoved. We encourage you to translate that emotion into action; don't let Randy's story be just about the passing of one life and his legacy for his family. Passion pays huge dividends.

back to top  Authors

Fred Sampson is a staff information developer for the content management and discovery team at the IBM Silicon Valley Lab, where he helps user experience designers create self-documenting user interfaces; he dreams of growing up to be an information architect. Fred is vice-president for finance of ACM SIGCHI, a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication, and a member of the Information Architecture Institute and the Usability Professionals Association.

Keith Instone is the information architecture lead for, where he works on strategic projects (like personalization), day-to- day navigation (with a story behind every link), and many things in between. He has been an active member of the user experience community for more than a decade—receiving service awards from both SIGCHI and UPA—and is now devoting his volunteer time to the User Experience Network.

back to top  Footnotes


back to top  Sidebar: Objective? Not When it Comes to Randy Pausch

As distanced as I was—I met Pausch once, found him to be both passionate and arrogant—I found that sections of the book raised my own emotions: about children, about love, about living one's life, about disease and death and loss, and about life being what happens while you're making other plans.

How do we, as a user experience community, make the world a better place? How do we make sure the products, services, and solutions we design improve people's quality of life? How do we leave a legacy of work that enables the next generation to solve humanity's problems? How do we affect the changes necessary to really solve our most difficult social, environmental, and economic crises?

With those questions in mind, I tried to take an objective, scientific review of the "Randy Pausch story," that of a CS/ HCI professor whose campus lecture was watched by millions, who appeared on national TV, lobbied Congress, and authored a best-selling book. All while battling one of the most severe forms of cancer.

Go watch the videos, read the book, find the TV segments. A clinical clipping of Randy's story does not do it justice—you should experience it yourself. Just realize that if you run into me at a conference and start to talk to me about Randy's story, I will not be able to retain my composure. Give me a hug and help me through it.—Keith Instone

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