About two weeks ago I run a discussion at Uppsala University in Sweden on the theme of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Education. A group of students, teachers, practitioners and I were set to discuss how HCI Education can address the challenges of an ever-growing complex reality.
HCI as a discipline was born complex, daring to propose the alliance of two (apparently) totally unrelated and opposing disciplines: engineering and psychology. However, what I wonder today is if the researchers and practitioners that proposed such audacity back then have predicted that, as HCI progressed through the line of time, more and more disciplines were to embark on what HCI comprises today. From ethnography to design and sociology, the spectrum of disciplines that find a spot under the umbrella of HCI is enormous.
Arguably nowadays and because much depends also on the project at hand, it is not even possible to specify a clear fixed list of fields of knowledge contributing to HCI and therefore a given HCI project. The point is that HCI needs to embrace several disciplines, each of them contributing with different nuances to HCI and the design of user experiences and technology. The purpose: an efficient, accomplished and empowered user. The reality: a world where the boundaries of technology are no longer visible and daily life is lived with and through technology.
So, how do we teach HCI for such complexity and diversity? If the number of possible devices, being them visible or not (think of the case of sensors currently hiding in the most surprising and sometimes even embarrassing places) is large enough, the application domains are only limited by our imagination. Finally, the user can be each and every one of us and more recently even our pets. This vastness has no limits and it is pertinent to ask what does the HCI discipline consist of nowadays? Besides and most importantly how can HCI Education account for such extravaganza? And if we want to add a little more complication to this panorama, we can think of how Education is taking place present-day, with a number of renowned and prestigious universities successfully offering massively online open courses totally free of charge.
In Chinese, the concept of Education means ‘teach and foster’… So, I would like to advocate for the idea that the role of the HCI educator is to foster the pleasure for designing meaningful experiences. The teacher does have the role to inspire students and to first and foremost pass on the HCI philosophy. A successful teacher can possibly even make the students, at least some of them, addicted to the pursuit of users satisfaction.
Tightly related to Education, is the concept of Learning, which in Chinese means ‘learn and repeat practicing’… So this is what we should set our students to do (and ourselves!). Indeed learning takes place and is revealed in the midst of action and every day through every new project and every new team… Also important in this process is ‘trial and error’ and the ‘trial and error’ period starts in school! And for this there are projects…
Projects are a fundamental piece when it comes to teaching HCI. They show us the value of multidisciplinarity and allow us to realise that not only we need the expertise of every team member as it is in the combination of the idiosyncrasies of each of then that the true value of a project can be found. This is not always easy and we do need to train some skills in this process: communication (and listening), observation, flexibility, and sometimes patience. These skills also come in handy, if not crucial, when directly interacting with users.
Projects also show us the constant need for attention to details and adaptation. Users do not respond as desired, clients persist on some preconception for the final design, technology imposes unforeseen limitations, and all these unpredicted constraints require the project to adjust accordingly. It is also the case that design briefs are ill-defined and open-ended, then causing the overall design process to be wicked. So a good practice is to keep an eye on the design goal at all times and never lose it off sight. It is very easy to focus on the technology as discovering how to use it to our own advantage can be very entertaining but, most probably, the goal, the core of the design lies on the user and the purpose she/he has when using a given piece of technology, so it is there that we need to focus. For example, when someone uses a mobile phone to text her/his loved one, the person’s intent is not to use the technology in itself, but to connect and relate with the person she/he loves.
Sometimes, even after following all the logical rules of thumb, projects fail and when this happens it is critical to reflect on the why and learn from it (Refection is actually very much needed throughout the whole life of a project). Projects are characterised by a certain immediacy, so it is the responsibility of an HCI teacher to counterbalance that superficiality with a solid ground of HCI principles and techniques; these are the muscles and bones structure of the body that is going to take part in the projects and is going to articulate and get fitter and fitter as it gets to experience and practice in more and more projects.
Much more could be said about HCI and HCI Education and these reflections could go on for many more paragraphs, but I should bring this vignette to an end so I will conclude by saying that from my experience it all starts with a passion, an infatuation, but then HCI and HCI Education is like anything we feel deeply about: ‘First you find it awkward and then it creeps under your skin.’