On German vs. US Adademic HCI: Differences, Similarities, and Ways Out

Last month I was at the Mensch & Computer 2004 conference in Paderborn[GP:Paderborn]. Fortunately the conference featured a so-called UPA track with lots of good sessions, just like the M&C03 ("UPA" stands for Usability Professionals Associtation; its German Chapter has been hosting the UPA tracks). UPA track sessions target the practitioners and are (normally) held by practitioners, too. Papers are chosen by practical relevance and not by statistical validity and cited literature 🙂 For me, it's the UPA track that makes the conference worth attending.

When I attended the "Software-Ergonomie 99" conference in Walldorf[GP:SAP] (I was still a student then), I got so frustrated after two days that I started pondering whether I'd chosen the right subject of studies (HCI as specialisation within Work and Organizational Psychology). Maybe I should have chosen Industrial Design instead! The conference seemed rather dull, inclined towards theory and not up to design to me. And this contrasted heavily with the practical HCI impressions I had gathered during my studies!

A similar feeling has gotten hold of me whenever I've joined "pure" academia settings ever since. There's not much to see of practical relevance there (with some very nice exceptions such as scientists giving talks on the UPA track ;-)). Nevertheless, I need to lend a bit of a hand to the German HCI academia – the really interesting US research results either don't come from within the universities (but, for example, from Xerox PARC, T.J. Watson Research Center and similar company-owned R&D departments) or they are heavily funded by industry and government / military (MIT and others – a political question coming to my mind is: do I want to work for the military?). Moreover we shouldn't forget the proportion of software that is and has been developed in the US as compared to software being developed in Germany. All the big software companies (SAP being a great and notable exception) have their headquarters and lots of their R&D in the US, so it's no big surprise to find most of the new findings originating in the US. Furthermore it seems to be easier (or at least not as frightening ;-)) for someone in academia to change into industry and get back into university later on (which, if found here at all, is a rare exception – e.g., Prof. Siegfried Greif, Universtity of Osnabrück, left university for two years and went to work for a company as a coach and doing training and consulting – and came back and told us enthusiastically about his experiences).

How could German HCI academia get more relevant for practitioners again? My feeling is that it's lost itself in evaluating and re-evaluating stuff (creating the n-th method for assessing some metric that doesn't really have an impact on any product aspect) and looking at HCI from a wealth of angles, but none of them is design (btw: by "design" I mean: to deliberately and consciously change something, most of the time to improve it, to make it better suit the requirements). Here are a couple of proposals:

  • Co-operate with local software companies. (Nearly) every software product happens to have a user interface, and every software's got a structure that can be fitted to structure of work in real world. Sign contracts of cooperation between the universities and the software companies, let students learn how to do usability engineering and experience the software development life-cycle, let people write their diploma and master's thesis on issues of practical relevance, and teach the findings. It'll spice up your lectures.
  • Get out of the ivory tower. GOMS et al. is important, but it's just one method amongst others. You need to get your hands dirty even in university. Assessment is only half the deal. Get into designing things, gather practical experience.
  • I once met a highly-appreciated colleague who was of the opinion that psychologists are not taught to create stuff – only to analyze it (if a psychologist starts designing, s/he leaves her/his professional ground). While this may be true (and, likewise, be applicable to HCI people with a computer science background), there is no need to live up to this expectation. Don't stick with analysis – later on, the students need to be able to provide designs, too. Designs lead to new ideas, new ideas might lead to great research topics. (Nearly) no-one cares about questionnaires in practical HCI work, but everyone expects an HCI practitioner to be able to come up with a great design. And while you're teaching it, why not change yourself? (CHI2002's motto comes to my mind: "Changing the world, changing ourselves.")

So, in a nutshell: to get more relevant for HCI work, I'd suggest the German academic HCI community to not lose contact with the subject at hand – and that's both designing and evaluating the human-computer interaction. Get involved, make a difference.

(adapted from: OpenBC's forum "Internet und Technologie > Forum 'User Experience' > board 'Discuss Board' > 'German HCI', Sept 13, 2004)

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