Human first

I spent the day today at the annual end-of-year symposium of the Human Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL) at the University of Maryland. All three of the Lab’s successive directors – Ben Shneiderman, Ben Bederson and Allison Druin – were there, and they are all good friends of mine. Ben Shneiderman founded the lab in 1983. He is one of the fathers of the field of HCI research, and is a font of wisdom on many subjects. Ben Bederson, with whom I’ve been friends since he was in grad school, took over the lab directorship in 2000. Allison, who is married to Ben Bederson, became the lab’s director in 2006. I actually know Allison the longest of the three. I have had lots of time to talk with all three of them in the last twenty four hours, which has been great fun.

The wonderful thing about the HCIL, as Allison pointed out today, is that it puts the “human” first. Much of computer science research seems to forget that there are such things as humans. Instead it seems to be a quest for a kind of abstract algorithmic purity, as though computer science were merely a branch of mathematics. The HCIL people have been way ahead of the curve in recognizing that the real power of computers comes when we find ways to interweave that power with the complementary power of the human mind. Computation is indeed enormously powerful, but computation that augments human thought is downright transformative. And to achieve that, you’ve got to understand human thought.

This is rather tricky for many academics, because it requires bridging the large gap in scientific subcultures between computer science on the one hand, and psychology on the other. It’s very hard to get academic recognition when any given reviewer of your manuscript is not going to understand half of what you are saying. To me the people at HCIL are visionary because they recognized, a full quarter of a century ago – long before it was fashionable – the need to reconcile these two parts of the problem.

And they are still at it. Only now the world is starting to catch up.

2 thoughts on “Human first”

  1. Thanks Ken… for your kind words and thoughtful contribution to the 25th Anniversary events…. it’s great to see that our message was heard and received in a warm human way.
    Sincerely… Ben Shneiderman

  2. don’t forget anthropology in there. meaning not only are there humans (psychology), there are groups of humans too.

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