Best Session Award for our Tutorial on Form Usability

At this year's "Vielmehr" conference (what was formerly known as "Mensch & Computer") in Lübeck, Germany[GP:luebeck], my colleage Iris Niedermann and I presented a paper and a tutorial. The paper (called "Usability Professionals – a role playing game") was targeted at young professionals and experienced people looking for a change of jobs; the tutorial (called "Form Usability for dummies") covered the basics of form usability and design and included a long team exercise redesigning a couple of difficult forms. Even if we had hoped to win the Best Session Award, guess how surprised and delighted we were to learn we had actually won it for our tutorial!

The prize for the award was the German version of Jim Kalbach's book on Web Navigation :-) Now I've got it in both languages. When I met Jim a couple of days later, he found that funny too. 

Presentation of the results of the exercise

Again, at this Vielmehr conference, I wasn't intrigued to attend any of the "Mensch & Computer" sessions and focused exclusively on the Usability Professionals track, which doesn't really come as a surprise. 

“Mensch und Computer” conference, Lübeck, September 7-10, 2008

"Mensch & Computer" is the biggest usability-focused conference in the German-speaking sphere. Over the last couple of years, it used to feature a "UPA Track" to take into account not only academics' needs, but also practioners' specific questions and wishes. This year, the overarching motto is "Viel Mehr" ("much more"), and it encompasses the Mensch & Computer, DelFi, Cognitive Design, and Usability Professionals conferences! It will take place in Lübeck, Germany, from September 7-10, 08.

My esteemed colleague, Iris Niedermann from soultank AG, and I will be giving one tutorial on form usability (UP T6) and one paper on roles in the usability job universe (UP V6), as you can see in the conference program. Come look our shop!

Mensch und Computer 2006 ? September 3?6, Gelsenkirchen, Germany

Gelsenkirchen[GP:Gelsenkirchen], in Germany's far West, hosted this year's "Mensch und Computer" ("Man and Computer") conference, the most important conference for the German-speaking usability community. As usual, A UPA track accompanied the research and science paper sessions. Again (like in 2004 and 2005), the UPA track featured the sessions I found most interesting – there were a presentation of a non-intrusive remote usability method, some important discussion on whether or not usability professionals had to get a certificate, and the founding session of a new workgroup for in-house usability consultants.

Discussing the Certification issue

Of the invited talks, I much preferred the one by Prof. Dr. Matthias Rauterberg, TU Eindhoven. Back in 2000, I interviewed Mr Rauterberg for my thesis on Joy of Use. I must confess it was quite difficult to stick to my prepared set of interview questions – actually, I didn't manage and got a long, very interesting and though-provoking, but not too focused interview out of it. Now, Mr Rauterberg's speach on "Usability in the Future – Explicit and Implicit Effects in Cultural Computing" tackled Eastern and Western design philosophies, C.G. Jung's archetypes, who we thought the 21st century Copernicus could be, and Alice in Wonderland. I guess he left most of the listeners puzzled, but some found harsher words. I myself must say I quite enjoyed it. Overall, the conference didn't present any surprises. The talks, papers, and posters were ok, but not as inspirational or innovative as I had hoped. It might be a good idea to switch from an annual schedule to every second year to give researchers and practitioners more time to prepare better material. But maybe I've just been spoiled by the euroGel conference experience just two days before.

The Fachhochschule Gelsenkirchen (University for Applied Science)

It’s Conference Time! “euroGel 2006″ and “Mensch und Computer 2006″

The next week will be quite busy conference-wise: Next Thursday, I will catch a plane from Hamburg to Copenhagen, Danmark, to get to Mark Hurst's euroGel, the first of its kind on European soil. (Mark calls, and everyone is coming!) Mark has managed to get a great number of fascinating speakers onboard the conference, and there are even two seminars on Thursday afternoon. I'm very much looking forward to a supposedly completely different conference experience – and I'm excited to participate in this trial. I'm convinced there will be a sequel, and this will be a huge success (at least one that will help spread the word of Customer Experience). (I better be excited – I'm paying this one myself: ticket, flight, hotel.)

The actual conference only goes to Friday evening, and I'll fly out of Copenhagen late Friday. On Sunday I'll move on to Gelsenkirchen, deep in West Germany's Ruhr area where this year's Mensch und Computer conference will take place. (The Mensch und Computer, Man and Computer, conference is the most important HCI conference for German-speaking HCI practitioners – see my reports for the 2005 M&C and some thoughts inspired by the 2004 M&C. I've attended this conference since 1999.) As during the last years, I'm especially looking forward to the UPA track, which will feature e.g. some topics for in-house usability practitioners. And, of course, it's THE place to come together, update one another and do some important networking.

Looks like it's gonna be a fun week :-)

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)