Design by Committee

a review of
CHI 2000 - The Future is Here
Den Haag, The Netherlands, 1-6 April 2000
Copyright © Paul Brown 2000
All Rights Reserved

This review was written for fineArt forum and appeared in their May 2000 issue.

I remember the shock when I saw my first Mondriaan. I'd seen his work in reproduction for many years. Then the real thing. I was horrified by the thick impasto of the paint, the wobbly hand-drawn lines, the places where you could see he had painted the edge back and forth trying to place it, the paint thickened and thickening as he did. Not at all like the crisp reproductions in the magazines and books that had taught me art history and theory.

As a student I had been pursuing the perfect surface - I was even offended by that slight build-up of paint next to the masking tape edge. I discovered the computer thinking it may give me that perfect untouched-by-human-hands finish that I desired. Now some 35 years after that first encounter I'm in the Gemeentemuseum again. Looking once again at these paintings. In this brave new millennium they are crackled and yellowing with age, old masters, highlights of a bygone age. And now the evidence of Mondriaan is OK and the images no longer offend me. I'm overwhelmed by this rare opportunity to see so many of his works at one time. From early figurative works from the 1890's to that final "Victory Boogie Woogie" painted in New York in 1944, the year he died. So overwhelmed that I can take in no more of this recently and wonderfully restored and only recently reopened museum.

The Gemeentemuseum is in Den Haag, just round the corner from the Nederlands Congress Centrum where I'm supposed to be for CHI 2000. Computer Human Interface - it's an American conference. The Europeans prefer HCI, the idea that humans come first, are still in control, superior or something like that.

There are over 2600 people here from 40 countries. It's only the second time in Europe and it’s the best attended CHI ever. US delegates nonetheless predominate. There are over 1000 of them with a disproportionate (or do I mean proportionate) 306 from California.

My excuse for being here, apart from the opportunity to view Mondriaan’s great works again, is the invitation to participate in a pre-conference workshop on “Semiotic Approaches to User Interface Design”. The position papers of the workshop delegates are posted at:

It was good to sit around a table with many of the leading figures in this field and agree that it’s time for the computational metamedium to escape from the “mimicking” stage common when new media emerge (early film mimics theatre, video starts by mimicking film, photography mimics painting, etc...). Although we all agreed that a semiosis of this new metamedium is an essential component of it’s maturation as a multidimensional medium in it’s own right we were a bit short on practical suggestions. My own opinion is that it’s too early - that the field has not yet emerged to a state where it can be realistically deconstructed and codified.

In the “real” conference there was much emphasis on the pragmatics that have informed much of the development to date. “Transparency” and “useability” - or in other words - disguise it as something else and test it on as many poor unsuspecting humans as possible. Is it an Islamic saying that claims that ...”a camel is a horse that was designed by a committee”?

The presentation “Hedonic and Ergonomic Quality Aspects Determine a Software’s Appeal” by Marc Hassenzahl typified the conference for me. He correctly suggested that the relationship between quantitative and qualitative is a major problem for CHI. However he lost the plot by arguing that hedonic qualities which are to do with “fun of use” were non task related unlike ergonomic ones that were to do with “ease of use”. Hedonic categories include: colour; graphics; sound and music. He then showed a load of examples which would have been good illustrations of what Edward Tufte calls “chartjunk” - frivolous and gratuitous embellishing of the interface and not, unfortunately, good or useful design.

The simplistic equation that colour and graphics are “fun” aspects that are essentially naughty and fundamentally unnecessary reeks of religious guilt-ridden attitudes (if you enjoy it then it must be sinful). More to the point was the speakers seeming lack of awareness of the well documented and long established relationship between aesthetics and ergonomics in the history of non HCI-related design.

On Wednesday Microsoft had organised an “Interactionary: A Live UI Design Competition”. Teams from Sapient, IBM, Malmo University and Razorfish were challenged to design a future interface for an airport food and drink vending machine in 15 minutes. To my mind Razorfish were streets ahead with their WAP-enhanced mobile phone interface which already had your profile food preferences stored and let you order as you stepped off the plane then gave you a map guiding you to the closest collection portal. Obviously I don’t have the right sort of mind because Razorfish came last. The other contenders all suggested refinements of 1960’s style coin slot vending machines and got high marks for involving the audience in useability studies:

“What don’t you like about vending machines?”
“The candy bar gets jammed in the exit chute!”
“OK - so we have this lever to unjam the system.”
... cheers from the audience ....

The best bit though was when Microsoft announced that IBM had won even though several of the audience pointed out that Sapient had actually accrued more points. It’s reassuring to know that the world’s largest developer of office software can’t add up. Makes them seem more human after all. Maybe I’ll upgrade to Word 6.

The panel “Scaling for the Masses” featured e-commerce “useability engineers” all from USA companies because ...”no overseas sites generated enough traffic to be considered”. eBay pointed out the conservatism of their users - they get one complaint per minute after a major revision. In contrast Fidelity have “Tweak Teams” who make small ongoing revisions (so the users don’t notice?). An interesting insight from eBay - users think they own their site whereas ...”no one thinks they own MS Office” - highlighting the difference between HCI for online interactive applications and for software interfaces.

“Smart Toys: Brave New World?” began with Zowie Intertainment’s “Redbeard’s Pirate Quest”. And what can we do with this educational toy that plugs into your home PC and allows you to sail the vast oceans of the world? Well for starters you can shoot the shit out of anything else in the game. For the girlies Zowie make “Ellie’s Enchanted Garden” where you can make the nice flowers grow. Brave New World’s huh? Good to see those gender stereotypes being consolidated. Let’s hope there’s a bible in every box too. Zowie’s products are only available in the USA - let’s pray it stays that way.

Lego, bless their Danish socks, showed MindStorms - their new programmable bricks which is what I want for Christmas! You can even program them to evolve and make robots that can fight each other.

John Thakara who used to be head of the Netherlands Design Institute and who now directs the provocative “Doors of Perception” annual conference gave the opening plenary. He made many good and salient points: hiding complexity makes things worse; the term “user” is derogatory; the US approach is to “bulldoze culture” and he ended up with an agenda for future development that included the following:

2. We will deliver value to people, not people to systems
4. We do not believe in idiot-proof technology - because we are not idiots
5. We will not pretend things are simple when they are complex
8. We will focus on services, not on things; and we will not flood the world with pointless devices

And so - back to the panel on Smart Toys which did address one question that Marc Hassenzahl would do well to consider: “What is fun?”. Fun should be difficult and challenging but not frustrating.

And maybe this is the problem with HCI. By working so hard to make the UI transparent and useable developers have forgotten the human need for challenge and for overcoming difficulty. Learning isn’t usually easy and, to a certain extent we can argue that the harder we have to work at something the better we can learn it or the more we end up appreciating it.

One lesson of CHI 2000 was that the discipline has become institutionalised. Researchers are asking the wrong questions and have become conservative in their disciplinary allegiance. The field came across as a discipline in crisis. The byline for the conference was “the future is here”. A more appropriate one would have been “ripe for radical change”.

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