Educating tomorrow’s HCIprofessionals

A summary from the IHM-HCI 2001 conference “Interaction without Frontiers”.

This will be an interactive, participative session where topics will range from the different approaches to HCI education and practice in France, Britain and elsewhere in Europe, to the best means of preparing HCI professionals to meet the burgeoning needs of industry and e-commerce. To set the background, it may be useful to summarise the views of the panelists from their position papers.

Stephane Chatty, CENA Toulouse – The French education system tends to involve highly specialised training and careers. Therefore through broadening the core discipline, HCI courses have benefited computer science profession, but there are still ways we could increase its influence. Designing products and implementing them are different activities, and specific curricula should be developed for the job of managing product design. Programmers need more training in psychophysics and handling the requirements of graphic designers, and less use of the purely cognitive notions.

Peter Gregor, University of Dundee – A recent review of UK degree programmes which focus on HCI showed that there 11 different names in common use, most nesting within Cognition and Psychology, Design or Computer Science departments. It may sound as if HCI educators are doomed to fighting battles on the edges of Psychology or Engineering Departments, but this need not be the case. HCI should be an integral part of degrees in computing, rather than an ill-fitting module. Industry has signaled that it needs software developers who know about HCI. To meet this need, the University of Dundee has created a coherent computing degree that assumes usability engineering processes as a background on all projects. The aim is to provide graduates who have a culture of developing software with and from a user-centred perspective.

Lars Oerstreicher, University of Uppsala – HCI is on the verge of a major change in emphasis, evolving into the wider field of Human-Machine Interaction (HMI). This is driven by the integration of computers into machines and devices. As embedded systems combining computers with technical artefacts play a greater role in society, a different type of education is required. Education in the area of HMI will need to be more holistic and relate more to real situations, less on the computer as a standalone device.

Tom McEwan, Napier University Edinburgh – For greater commercial acceptance of HCI, a simpler approach is needed, avoiding opaque and arcane language which alienates other stakeholders. We need a simpler interface to the usability profession itself. Large companies clearly require more usability specialists, who are often placed in small specialist teams developing internal standards. These same companies measure ability not by the value of your ideas, but by your ability to persuade others of their validity. The UK academic tradition emphasises education, not training, yet a purely academic approach replete with reference citations only marginalises the usability specialists. Therefore Napier aims to reinforce lifelong learning, often through part time or evening classes. Graduates can leverage their real world experience which, combined with their HCI knowledge, provides a better basis for integration into commercial projects.

Phillipe Palanque, LIHS, University of Toulouse – Phillipe acknowledges that the area of HCI is relatively less developed in France than in other countries such as the USA and UK. This is reflected by the fact that there is very little recognition of HCI as a discipline in academic environment. Although computer science is the most accepted field within which to teach HCI, computer science students receive a superficial presentation of HCI. Partly because it is not recognised as its own discipline with its own diploma, HCI is still not considered as a profile for recruiting professionals in industry. Therefore a better recognition of the field in academia will be an important step in raising the profile of the profession in industry.

My own view – helping to plant the seeds for usability profession

As a usability consultant rather than academic, my own views on the subject of HCI education are based primarily on my experience providing training courses to commercial clients. Providing training courses, especially for web usability, has been an increasingly popular service of my company, and I have provided in-house public courses of varying durations. These are attended not by students, but full time employees of financial institutions, web design firms and other corporations.

In teaching courses in HCI, I may not be educating tomorrow’s HCI professionals (unless they feel so inspired as to sign up to an academic programme) but I am educating the HCI advocates and implementers, which is no less important. After the class the attendees perform the important role of informing their managers of the cost benefits of usability, illustrated with some examples (perhaps from the course) and possibly offering to coordinate a drive to increase awareness and application with the organisation. They have motivation and a degree of knowledge from the training, and often evangelise to their workmates about the benefits of the user centred approach. I have seen people who adopt usability as a result of their training, leading an internal crusade and seeking opportunities to drop in impressive sounding new parlance such as ‘information architecture’, ‘heuristic evaluation’ and ‘contextual task analysis’.

Hopefully many of these go beyond providing lip service and lead the effort to integrate usability within their software, product or web site design. It is important that they score some early, important ‘quick wins’, identifying usability bloopers that the design team built in through over familiarity with the product. In some cases the information gained from a one day course is sufficient for the attendee to address most of the usability concerns on their project, and I may have taught myself out of a consultancy assignment. However, if the project is of a significant scale, they often realise that their own knowledge is insufficient and they search for external professional help. Commercial training helps to plant the seed leading to greater awareness of the profession. This in turn leads to more involvement of HCI professionals, whether as a short term contract for a consulting firm or a full time job by the graduates of one of the academic programmes.

There seems to be a correlation between latitude in Europe and the prevalence of HCI in industry and academia. Whether it is through economics or academic tradition, the fields of HCI and human factors seem better represented in the corporations and universities of northern Europe than the Mediterranean countries, although exceptions do exist. Having spent a year in Spain performing usability related consultancy, I found that outside the corporation where I worked the awareness of usability and opportunities for employment in the field were lower than the UK or US.

More commercial training will help address this and complement the existing academic programmes in southern Europe. Some companies may consider that a full time HCI professional is not needed, yet they will want to gain the well-publicised benefits of user-centred systems. More commercial HCI training will help to bring about a synthesis between the attendees’ knowledge of their commercial domain and practical knowledge of usability which, in the long run, will help create greater recognition and demand for HCI professionals.

It is clear from the views expressed above that there are many challenges and opportunities for HCI education throughout Europe.

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This article was written by Chris Rourke. Chris is the Managing Director of User Vision, a usability and accessibility consultancy that helps clients gain a competitive advantage through improved ease of use.

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