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Encounters with HCI pioneers : a personal history and photo journal
Shneiderman B., Morgan&Claypool Publishers, San Rafael, CA, 2019. 187 pp.  Type: Book (978-1-681734-78-1)
Date Reviewed: Sep 3 2019

Personal computing really only emerged thanks to the ease of user experience design (UXD) and the discipline of human-computer interaction (HCI). In this volume, the author describes his personal democratizing experience with a small group of researchers at the forefront of converting the obtuseness of computing technology for the remarkable transformation of everyday life.

Human-centered design was thwarted by: 1) computing specialists who understood computation but not people-oriented services; and 2) individuals who designed for anthropomorphic agents or robots understood as overtly autonomous processes. For the uninitiated, however, computing processes are not intuitive, and the triumph of design over function won out in the saga related here.

The work provides the personal history, intellectual arguments, and key personalities of these HCI pioneers. It highlights the stories of 60 personalities, includes a generous amount of photos, and captures the drama of competitors and collaborators who forged the synthesis of HCI and UXD.

Note two caveats about the work related to history and HCI. Three chapters cover the personal history of the writer, as this new discipline emerged during the course of the 1970s through the 1990s. The book does not attempt to be a definitive history, and no doubt there is room for other contributions. As an emerging discipline, abundant possibilities are likely for HCI. The author himself explicitly notes that his work is incomplete. The book is divided into two distinct parts, an initial short but substantial argument favoring human design and a more lengthy second section featuring a browsable photo journal of pioneers.

Caveats aside, an important theme emerges for computing history. Are artificially intelligent machines our partners, tutors, or replacements, or are computers our tools to support or amplify human performance? Any answer to that question has enormous implications, especially for quantum computing, artificial intelligence (AI), and a whole host of known and unknown developments. The reflective developer could benefit from the historical perspective and previous controversies contained within this volume. For example, at least one major figure (Doug Engelbart) and many lesser-known individuals felt that they lost the battle to AI promoters as funding for human-centered ideas dried up.

The cognoscenti versus the ordinary computer user is a perennial computing debate. During the 1970s and 1980s, the author and his allies backed his argument in favor of direct manipulation. His central theses are that ordinary user performance is enhanced by the visual representation of objects (files, directories, and programs), and computing is eased with actions like an icon for the window closing, a printer for printing, and a trashcan for deleting. However, computer gurus still favored command-line interfaces, whereby users had to memorize commands and type file names for computer actions. The success and popularity of WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) word processing confirms the human design approach. The advantages of human design are rooted in ease of learning, low error rates, and subjective user satisfaction.

The ease of using human design tools can be appreciated in the shift from keyboards to pointing devices such as the mouse, but today touchscreens are even more prevalent. These easier-to-use techniques are what contributed to the rise and popularity of computing for many people. The trend began as the author and his colleagues built touchscreens for kiosks in museums, homes, and stores. Today, touchscreen-based mobile devices are even more popular. Users can put their finger on the screen to get a cursor above their finger, and then slide around to place the cursor and activate on lift-off. The lift-off strategy remains standard for the Apple iPhone and many mobile devices. The author’s thesis is that without these time-saving devices, computing would be less popular and confined to computer specialists.

Steve Jobs and the rise of Apple are illustrative of the growth and public acceptance of personal computers with a graphical user interface. Symbolically, the groundbreaking Apple advertisement run during the January 1984 Super Bowl indicates how personal computing took hold in the battle between Macintosh versus Windows. The ad represented the unrelenting move to attract a popular audience by featuring human design elements, and proved irresistible. As a result of the overwhelming public response, direct manipulation became a key principle for both Apple and Macintosh guidelines, which influenced a generation of designers. Users drove progress during the 1990s through direct manipulation, resulting in hypertext, collaboration, and multimedia. At the same time, the author had revised his “Eight Golden Rules of User Interface Design” [1], which have become standard practice in the industry.

The work is valuable for many readers who would enjoy a personal history of computing during this period, and as an pictorial album of the field’s pioneers.

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Reviewer:  G. Mick Smith Review #: CR146680 (1912-0433)
1) Shneiderman, B.; Plaisant, C.; Cohen, M.; Jacobs, S.; Elmqvist, N. Designing the user interface: strategies for effective human-computer interaction (6th ed.). Pearson, London, UK, 2016.
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