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VIII.5 Sept./Oct. 2001
Page: 25
Digital Citation


Susan Dray

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My husband visited the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University this summer. While visiting him, I camped out in his office—mostly to have access to the Internet. To my surprise, one of his colleagues came into the office and asked, "You have something to do with SIGCHI, don't you?" I was astonished. How is it that someone in astronomy has ever heard of SIGCHI? The answer is that he was developing a user interface for telescope time application grants (in astronomy, researchers write grants asking for observing time) and searched the Web to find out more about designing user interfaces. He was not very happy with the results. In particular, he was looking for the one book that would quickly educate him in user interface development so that he would then have guidance in solving his problem. Unfortunately, I think that book has yet to be written.

"Where do I start?" is a question facing many businesses and organizations. Rather than hiring a usability engineer or bringing in a consultant, many organizations assign one of their software people to learn how to build good user interfaces. The question is not whether this is a good practice or not. Often there is no choice because of other circumstances, which include company policies, lack of qualified individuals in the job market, lack of onsite expertise to evaluate a consultant, ongoing but not full time need for a user interface person, or lack of funds. The real question is how such draftees can train themselves as quickly as possible so that they can be effective in their new role. The remainder of this article gives my personal perspective on this issue. I am assuming that the person seeking information is bright, articulate, a good software person, but has little or no background in user interface development.

First, people want to know "What can I read?" My favorite starter book, Task-Centered User Interface Design: A Practical Introduction [2], is small and costs five U.S. dollars. A shareware book, it is short and pragmatic, gives lots of good examples, and leads the reader through interface development from start to finish. The book was published in 1993, which often means that it is overlooked by computer scientists, who think that anything older than five years in their field is out of date. This is not so in the science of user interface design. Humans do not change in the way that computer technology does. Other available books can be found on the HCI Bibliography reading list at I particularly recommend Deborah Mayhew's 1992 book Principles and Guidelines in Software User Interface Design [3] because of its many examples and the care she takes to justify the recommendations in terms of psychology theory. Mayhew recently published The Usability Engineering Lifecycle: A Practitioner's Handbook for User Interface Design [4], which complements her previously mentioned book. The latter book is full of examples of how to develop good or at least workable user interfaces in a large variety of settings, but remember that we are talking about a beginner. The older book has the basics and lots of wisdom and ideas that are not to be missed.

Second, people want to know "Can I take a course in this?" Of course, the answer is yes, but it is important to point out the variation in quality in the available offerings and to inform people about how to evaluate them.

CHI conference members have compiled a set of introductory HCI tutorials that continue to be immensely popular. The conference tutorial chairs are careful to staff these tutorials with known experts and good teachers. The British HCI Group offers similar high-quality tutorials at its annual conference, as does the Interact conference sponsored by the International Federation of Information Processing (IFIP) Technical Committee on human-computer interaction. But conferences are far away, cost a lot to attend, and happen, at most, yearly. Commercial companies offer short courses in HCI, but the quality of these offerings can vary. If an instructor is offering a set of courses, it pays to see whether they also teach in the refereed tutorials at the aforementioned conferences. Courses offered at universities can also vary in quality and content depending on the knowledge and interests of the instructor. Unfortunately because of the shortage of academics skilled in HCI, the instructor is often in the same situation as the attendee, having been asked to learn and then teach about HCI a few weeks or months earlier. It pays to check instructor publications. If they publish regularly in HCI-related conferences, chances are they know a lot more about HCI than instructors who focus mainly on database systems or computer graphics. Viewing Web pages of local universities can uncover courses in HCI in computer science departments, faculties of management, psychology departments, or colleges of library science.

Third, people want to know "What's online?" Three of the biggest resources are those of ACM SIGCHI (, the British HCI Group (, and the HCI Bibliography run by Gary Perlman at Gary Perlman's site is by far the best. It is always up-to-date and full of useful links to additional Web sites. However, these resources are not designed specifically for beginners and do not suggest links and paths a beginner might take to best explore the field. For newcomers, I recommend the IBM Ease of Use Web site at Once there, follow the link to User-Centered Design. Note that I am not mentioning the gurus of our field who also have Web sites, because I am focusing on resources most useful for those who are just entering this area. Gurus such as Jakob Nielsen and Bruce Tognazzini target people already in the field who have advanced problems they are trying to address. The HCI Bibliography Web page has links to these sites for perusing what the experts are talking about today.

Many user studies can be conducted with a simple camera on a tripod and a VCR with a time-stamp function.

Fourth, after a short time spent working on their organization's interface problems, newcomers often ask "Are there others like me close by?" This is an opportunity to introduce them to various HCI societies, many of which have local chapters with regular meetings where members discuss their solutions to specific problems and other issues. ACM SIGCHI has 60 local chapters in 32 countries. You can find out if a local chapter is near you by going to Other countries have national organizations associated with IFIP ( or with their own national computer organization. The Usability Professionals Association ( and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society ( both have local chapters throughout the United States that hold monthly meetings, although HFES may not always focus on user interface issues. The International Ergonomics Association ( supports a collection of national organizations that have some focus on human-computer interaction. IEA also sponsors APCHI (Asia-Pacific CHI), a biennial conference held in Southeast Asia for its growing HCI community. Many of these groups bring in tutorial instructors for much less than the cost of attending a commercial tutorial. They also hold monthly meetings and sponsor workshops and conferences; however, they may not be close to your location. If Web searches for kindred souls are unsuccessful, a local group may not exist. There are ways to find colleagues nevertheless. HCI is pervasive today, to the point where many people are asking "Where do I start?" Local, provincial, and state computer societies are ubiquitous. A posting in a newsletter or online through these groups will likely bring responses from colleagues with similar start-up problems.

Fifth, once a user has some understanding of the area, he will ask "How do I go about setting up a usability lab?" By this time, a person new to the field has probably seen videos of the ultramodern usability labs that are used by Microsoft, Apple, Nokia, Siemens, IBM, and Merrill Lynch. They have one-way mirrors for user observation, strategically placed cameras, and a suite of video recording equipment for capturing user behavior. Although they are impressive, these labs may have set the hurdle too high for newcomers that wonder how they could ever persuade their companies to make such a large resource commitment. These people should know that these usability labs are showpieces for their companies, which use them extensively for a wide range of user testing, and do not represent the starting point for most companies. If a company develops user interfaces at a rate that keeps the laboratory in use about half of its time (10 Web pages per month or an interface as complicated as five mobile phone screens every three months), then this type of space is justified. However, many user studies can be conducted with a simple camera on a tripod and a VCR that puts a time stamp on the video. For many interfaces, this is the optimal capturing device for usability because user testing is often best done in the field where noise, disruptions, and other available information resources affect the usage of the interface being developed.

A highly recommended book that describes to the beginner exactly how to run a usability study is Jakob Nielsen's Usability Engineering [7], which is now available in paperback. Nielsen also edited a special issue of Behaviour and Information Technology [6] that contains lots of useful information on how to set up usability labs. The final question arises once the initial books, Web sites, and classes have been digested: How do I design a good user interface?" Design of user interfaces, much like its counterpart, the design of computer programs, requires the skill of an artisan. Just as a programmer recognizes that problem A is best solved through a binary search or that a sliding window method would best apply to problem B, many solutions to analogous problems are already available in the literature. One of the most creative resources and an ingenious inventor of interface methods that solve specific interface and user application problems is Ben Shneiderman. His Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction [8] is replete with solutions for a wide variety of design problems that the user may be faced with. This book is the only one organized around interface problem areas with most other books presenting both the theory and methods of HCI.

Obviously many beginners have already bought Microsoft Corporation's The Windows Interface Guidelines for Software Design [5] or paid handsomely for the Handbook of Human-Computer Interaction [1]. Don't throw them away. These and many others are good books; the aim of this column is not to overwhelm but to provide a good starting point.

back to top  References

1. Helander, M., Landauer, T., and Prabhu, P. Handbook of Human-Computer Interaction. Second ed., North-Hollander Publishers, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 1997.

2. Lewis, C. and Rieman, J. Task-Centered User Interface Design: A Practical Introduction, 1993. Available at ~perlman/uidesign.html or

3. Mayhew, D. Principles and Guidelines in Software User Interface Design, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1992.

4. Mayhew, D. The Usability Engineering Lifecycle: A Practitioner's Handbook for User Interface Design, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 1999.

5. Microsoft Corporation (ed.) The Windows Interface Guidelines for Software Design. Microsoft Corporation, Redmond, WA, 1995.

6. Nielsen, J. (ed.). Usability laboratories. Special issue of Behaviour and Information Technology 13, 1–2 (1994), Taylor & Francis.

7. Nielsen, J. Usability Engineering. Paperback. Academic Press, Boston, 1993.

8. Shneiderman, B. Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction. Third ed. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1997.

back to top  Author

Marilyn Tremaine
Chair, ACM Special Interest Group on Computer–Human Interaction (SIGCHI)
Professor of Information Systems,
New Jersey Institute of Technology

Business Column Editor
Susan Dray
Dray & Associates, Inc.
2007 Kenwood Parkway
Minneapolis, MN 55405, USA
fax: +1-612-377-0363

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©2001 ACM  1072-5220/01/0900  $5.00

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