Tom Chi  

Two Worlds

December 6th, 2003 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

Consider two people: an Engineering Project Manager and an Art Director. Really they could both be called “project managers” since Art Directors basically do project management for creative projects.

Although they play conceptually similar roles, if you compare the way these two people work you’ll find notable differences. The engineering project manager wants maximal efficiency — this means trying to prevent the same work being done twice. The art director wants maximal creativity –this *guarantees* that the same work will be done dozens of times. Let me clarify. An artist under competent art direction should expect to work through many drafts, ultimately discarding most, and adapting a few until reaching one that hits the mark. This probably sounds familiar to our readers, since this is what UI prototyping is all about. Ideally we have usability close the design loop, bringing in the feedback that an art director might typically give in a creative project.Now let’s get back to the engineering project manager. He knows engineering. He knows software. He wants to drop HCI in the timeline as a clear cut block. To him, the idea that an HCI person might work on prototypes for 2 weeks or a month and then scrap them because they flopped in usability tests is a scary one. If any coder or engineer on his team suffered a similar month-long “setback” then it would become a significant project risk.

Thus we arrive at our situation today:
Project manager: where should HCI be in the process?
HCI people: everywhere!
Project manager: [furrows brow] Hm. Then I don’t know how to draw the chart.

HCI people are not really saying they want to be everywhere in the process, but rather that they want a different process which adequately affords iterative design. Process upheaval takes some time, and sadly in many situations the process is outside of the HCI person’s control. To cope with this reality we have created “discount” HCI. We operate like guerilla fighters, darting in to win the occasional battle in small targeted attacks. Yet the larger problem remains.

There is hope. Within some domains, for example game development, the creative role is so central that classic engineering management can not dominate. Game development can serve as a testing ground for how creative needs and engineering realities can be met (but don’t get me started on their interaction design! arg). Another avenue comes from within the engineering and project management community. The Extreme programming movement, fast cycle time, and other newfangled processes light a pathway for engineering projects to move toward iterative design with fast feedback loops. As HCI people, one of our goals should be to insert ourselves into these new processes… not as “discount” guerilla fighters, but as equal and essential elements of success.

4 Responses to “Two Worlds”
Steve Nelson wrote:

The best process I have ever used to allow for this mixture of people is the Fusebox LifeCycle Process:

HCI folks work primarily on steps 1,2 and 3. Then engineers work on steps 4-8.

Roland Tanglao's Weblog wrote:

Waterfall software development processes result in unusable software

(SOURCE: OK/Cancel: Two Worlds Archives )- Consulting the users and getting a usable application shouldn’t conflict with getting something that is engineered well.

Paul Reinheimer wrote:

I think one of the problems with guerilla HCI stuff is, we have already been countered, management has guerilla fighters too! And theirs seem to be better armed!

I have worked on many a project, trying to slide usability in under the radar, with slight changes, and vague interpretation of the given guidelines. However, the management guerilla often steps in with requests “Can we put a button right there in the middle for managers”, “What about adding a link here for temps”, “can the president put a message here in the front”, “but i like spash screens”, etc.

Individually, they are just small pot shots against the overall design, but after three layers of direct management, several dotted line managers, and plain old other departments, your project looks like crap again.

Tom Chi wrote:

The source of that problem is that *everyone* has an opinion about design. While marketing manager #3 doesn’t have any opinion on hashing algorithms or database schema, he definitely has an opinion that color blue you picked. And he would love a flash intro… maybe with the company logo rotating in 3D! That’s what HCI people do, right?


In most cases the HCI person doesn’t have the rank to push the good stuff through. So we evangelize and use discount methods just to get a say in what was our responsibility in the first place. Compare our situation to that of an art director. Many times an art director can override a VP, since what does a VP know about art direction anyway? We need to get to a similiar state where HCI is recognized as a specialized discipline which is critical to project success.

Tog is trying to get this to happen. Check out his article, and the corresponding group which is being created:

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?