Tom Chi  

Why We Need HCI Gurus

February 6th, 2004 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

Spool says links should be 7-12 words long. Nielsen dislikes Flash, PDFs and frames. Tog hates the Dock. So many HCI/Usability gurus — so many opinions, and many of them conflicting. So why do we need them at all?

I tend to see gurus as being useful because they create much of the shared language by which we can discuss and understand our work. Whether you agree or disagree with their statements, by making those statements they create terminology which allows people to adopt or reject a collection of ideas. In fact, the guru’s names earn a special definitions — becoming terms in themselves wherein certain standpoints and approaches to usability can be lexically collected. For example, to say a site is “Nielsen-esque” is a quick way to encode many attributes of how it is designed. Similiarly, if someone does a “Tog-like” review of your UI, you better believe that Fitt’s law will be in full effect.In this way, gurus and their collected ideas become like musical genres. Ultimately everyone is working with sound, tones and rhythm, but from genre to genre the approach can vary widely. When I say “HCI hiphop with an old-school storytelling flavor”, that means something even if you haven’t heard the song yet. In fact it already tells you enough that you could debate its merits vs. “HCI norwegian black metal song”. Over time, people pick designers and gurus that they believe in, just as they pick musical genres that they like. They simply go with the ideas and approaches appeal to them, ideas which may completely aggravate someone else.

The confusion comes because HCI has an air of science, and science is supposed to strive for the absolute truth. But while HCI shares many techniques with science (systematic testing and statistical analysis), ultimately I see it as more of an engineering discipline. If 10 different civil engineers are given the task to build a bridge, they will come up with 10 different designs. Some designs may test better than others, but is there an optimal bridge which is absolutely scientifically correct?

Even if there were, would you spend the extra money to reach that design versus the other 50 which also work fine? Now don’t get me wrong. Underlying civil engineering, there is physics — a science. But oftentimes when I see gurus clashing, it is at the engineering/design level of the problem, not at any underlying scientific level. On top of this source of conflict, I think a lot of gurus just enjoy argument. While this creates a lot of noise and confusion, it’s exactly what we need. Our field would advance incredibly slowly without these clashes, and without these design/usability philosophies creating the structure and scale by which we see and evaluate our own designs. So gurus: keep on trucking. Don’t let KC discourage you. :p

2 Responses to “Why We Need HCI Gurus”
Chris McEvoy wrote:

You may find this interesting…

New Theoretical Approaches For HCI by Yvonne Rogers

jiji wrote:

He !

I like norwegian Black Metal and i am a (french) usability specialist…

Now, I am affraid of what i’ll learn when i’ill conduct new usability tests.

Thx ;)

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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) ?