Making A Difference Award (2001) — Ben Shneiderman (interview)

[Q1]: Looking back, what was it that first sparked your interest in HCI?

[A]:   My background was in traditional computer science, technically oriented but I always had a very eclectic outlook on life.  My parents were journalists and my sister an English professor, so the human condition was very much part of my outlook; it was natural in the early days of programming to take a look at the designs of programs to see that they would become readable and comprehensible. The use of meaningful variable names, good layout, modular design, clear comments were all issues that intrigued me. When I was an early graduate student I worked with my dear friend Charles Kreitzberg to write a book called The Elements of Fortran Stylewhich tried to capture these recommendations for making comprehensible and therefore debuggable and maintainable programs.  That work naturally led me down the path to say, “Were the recommendations that we were making legitimate?”, so the idea of running controlled experiments naturally ensued. Of course, we had to refine and transform traditional experimental psychology methods to fit this emerging new domain and that became an early challenge.  I got guidance from an excellent psychologist named Richard Mayer who remains a professor at UC at Santa Barbara.  So that early work focused on programmers as users, but by the 1980’s when interactive personal computers became available, it was natural to focus on that topic.  The book I wrote in 1980 called Software Psychology was seen as a very strange idea by many people, but the publisher took it hoping to sell a few books.  It became the selected book from the two Computer Science book-of-the-month clubs and suddenly there was an increased interest in this topic.  By 1982, several of us organized a conference near Washington, DC on Human Factors in Computing Systems, hoping to draw 200 or 300 people.  We were delighted that 906 people turned up, which signaled that there was a great interest in psychologically-oriented studies of programmers and computer users. By the following year the SIGCHI group was formed and so the idea of research topics on user interfaces, human-computer interaction and human factors, became institutionalized in a wonderful way.  The conference that we started continues as an annual event, drawing up to 3000 attendees.  It’s a great satisfaction to see the growth of a strong academic discipline, but it’s still a struggle every day to promote these ideas in technical communities. Catherine Plaisant and I just published the 5th edition of Designing the User Interface; which tries to tell the story about this growing field with strong academic and professional interest.

[Q2]: In your opinion, what is/are the most pressing issues in our field today?  Why?

[A]:   Any success like this generates many challenges and interesting problems.  The transformation from a focus on a narrow group of professionals such as programmers, air traffic controllers or medical specialists, to dealing with a broad community of four (4) billion users of cell-phones and mobile devices is an indication of our huge success. Now we have to deal with the vast set of problems bought by this diverse set of users.  I’ve been an advocate of universal usability, which goes beyond mere accessibility; how do we build devices for novices and experts, for young and old, for low and high bandwidth networks, for small and large screens, or for people who speak different languages.  There are many challenges that will keep us busy for decades to come.  An important challenge is understanding how to transform the tantalizing successes in social media into more durable successes for important national priorities.  It is great that we have YouTube. I consider it a user interface success story – tools for creating and disseminating videos have made Youtube the 3rd  busiest website in the world – a remarkable transformation in just a few years.   Other remarkable sites such as Facebook and Wikipedia also show that with good user interface design that serves important human needs, entrepreneurs can create huge communities of users. The question I’m asking most these days is: How to deal with important human concerns such as disaster response, community safety, healthcare delivery, energy sustainability and environmental protection?  It seems to me we have a remarkable opportunity to apply these chain reactions of human collaboration to important national and international priorities.  I’ve tried to make issues such as United Nations Millennium Development Goals part of our educational space in Computer Science.  I hope computer scientists would play a role in these important international challenges.

[Q3]: Where do you see SIGCAS in the next 10 years?

[A]:   I’ve always been very proud to be part of the SIGCAS community and I appreciate the efforts of many in that community to focus on ethical issues, responsibility, and social questions.  I hope that the group would grow and become more vigorously engaged.  I would like to see SIGCAS become more than a group of academic researchers who discuss and study issues, I’d like to see them become an activist group in much the same way the ACM’s Public Policy group has become engaged in political decision making.  SIGCAS could be influential in a very profound way by its member’s efforts to expand from academic study to a position of responsible scientific activism.

[Q4]: What advice or words of encouragement would you give to up and coming scholars?

[A]:   I welcome, cherish and value every student who has an outlook which includes a focus on technology and its social impact.  We need many, many students who think deeply about how technology design shapes human values.  The SIGCAS community can have an enormous impact for students to move beyond just studying something, their aspiration should be to make interventions that change the world.  I would love to give a grade to my students, for the amount of social benefit that they produce during the semester.  My students all work on projects, both undergraduates and graduates, in which they have a user community.  My students test their progress on their users, with the goal of bringing benefit to people outside of the classroom and having their software survive beyond the semester.  The software tools are remarkable and professors who raise their expectations for what students can accomplish will enrich their educational experiences.

[Q5]:  Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

[A]:    Information and communications are potent technologies; they have their good and bad sides.  Researchers can influence the evolution of these technologies, if they conduct good strong science that gives designers and entrepreneurs an understanding of what works and what does not work.  Rigorous, scientific methods, applied to these emerging technologies with a focus on delivering societal benefits and promoting personal responsibility.  When journalists ask me “What are the next killer apps (applications)?”  I reply, “Trust, empathy, responsibility and privacy”.  Understanding how to design for these goals will shape future technologies.