Beki Grinter

Concerns about the Omission of HCI in Impacts of CS “Tire Tracks” Diagram

In academic management, computer science, discipline, HCI, research on August 15, 2012 at 9:18 am

Recently, the “tire tracks” diagram of how Federally funded research has led to impact on the Computing industry and American experience was updated. Appreciative of the work that it does to continue to make the case for basic research in Computer Science, I was keen to see it. Imagine my disappointment when I realized that HCI was not present.

Maybe HCI is omitted because the “tire tracks” diagram focuses on product and not business practice outcomes. One major impact of HCI on industry is User Experience design. Don Norman and his team at Apple first popularized that term, in a paper they wrote about Apple’s User Experience (UX) practice, the research that continued to inform those corporate practices, writing it up for an HCI conference, the ACM’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI). Now consider, Google’s focus on keeping it simple. I’ve asked UX professionals and global estimates (based in part on membership in professional societies) are as high as 44,000 people who work in the field (another estimate was that about 10K of those people work in the United States). That’s a pretty significant type of employment impact!

Returning to the product-oriented outcomes, Brad Myers has done an eloquent job of explaining the role of HCI in the software and systems we take for granted today. He has even produced tire tracks. His diagrams suggest to me that HCI may have gotten folded into Computer Graphics in the CRA’s version of “tire tracks”. But, to omit explicit recognition of HCI is to preclude innovations that came from explicit consideration of humans, whether it be as information processors or soci0-technical beings. Yes, sure, the product innovations happened in the graphical user interface and how it is manipulated and interacted with, but reading the history of innovations at that interface it’s clear that the inspiration and the basic science that was drawn on included science about people, and developing a basic science of the interaction between people and machines. One particularly fruitful area for development that is of interest within HCI and appears to be missing from the tire tracks is input devices and techniques…

PARC features in some of the industrial work, and it is worth noting that the culture of PARC was to have a focus on the relationship between people and machines. J.C.R. Licklider’s Introductory Note to an anthology of papers about Computers and Systems in the book about the first decade of PARCs research: A Decade of Research: Xerox Palo Alto Research Center 1970-1980 captured this as follows:

In my opinion, the interaction between people and computers is the most exciting new frontier of our time; here, in these pages, are many superb contributions by colleagues who not only share the excitement of that frontier but are developing the new land and building a new way of life in it.

These papers are an eloquent testimoney to the fact that, in the ten years since it’s conception, the Palo Alto Research Center has flourished. In that short time, many computer scientists, I among them, have come to consider it as the leading center of research in interactions between (or, in 1960’s terms, the symbiosis of) human beings and digital computers. …

The science and technology of the human use of digital computers are being created right now. p3

I’m disappointed that as we continue to chart this frontier of novel people machine interactions that the role of HCI has been omitted by the people making the case for the future of our science. I think Computer Science will come up short without taking people seriously. After all, in the marketplace we can ask whether the truly successful technologies are just a matter of their hardware and software, or is it that they deliver something that people want, desire, find useful and useful, and connect them to others.

  1. On page 6 of that report, “graphical user interfaces” are listed as an “unanticipated result” of federal funding for computer graphics research. So it seems you’re right to suggest that HCI is folded into graphics. But I agree with you that this seems absurdly limited.

  2. Thanks Kurt! Its also a real risk for people like us. Through omission the case for advocacy is one that implies that HCI and human-facing activities in general are not a part of what should be advocated for. Omission as a form of exclusion. There are other posts that could be written about tire tracks, it’s a very interesting cultural artifact, but in general I want to be supportive. But HCI deserves a seat at the table, I feel this even more as I read Dealers of Lightening (which I suppose I ought to have read while at PARC, but anyway, better late than never).

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