Advocating for HCI in Computer Science Departments

Recently, I’ve had a number of conversations where I’ve been asked whether I feel like I belong in a traditional Computer Science department. Given that my whole academic career has been centered on Computer Science (from declaring it as my major upon entry into undergrad to my current faculty position at U of M), I can definitely say that it is my community of practice. I get my funding from NSF CISE, I publish almost exclusively in ACM conferences, I teach only Computer Science courses — where else would I belong? But, I also realize that it is a salient question for many colleagues in my field, as HCI1 researchers are more and more likely to find their home in iSchools, Design, Psychology, Cognitive Science, and Human Factors programs. In this post, I want to articulate why I am of the opinion that Computer Science department and colleges/schools of Computing should be doing more to recruit and retain Computer Scientists trained in HCI.

Meaningful Evaluations – Most Computer Scientists develop algorithms and systems with the idea of improving upon some existing baseline. While some metrics of success may be straight-forward to articulate (e.g., time to run, prediction accuracy), many evaluations may require consideration of a richer and more nuanced set of factors. In the end, the most meaningful metrics look at how a system or algorithm performs in service of people. HCI is the branch of Computer Science where researchers have the training to plan and perform evaluations that lead to more meaningful, ecologically-valid comparisons. More importantly, Computer Scientists trained in HCI also have the fundamental understanding of the development process that allows them to carry out studies that lead not only to summative comparisons, but also to specific implications for how systems and algorithms can be improved in order to perform better in real-world evaluations. For example, an HCI evaluation may reveal the relative consequences of different types of algorithm accuracy errors, leading to an understanding of the kinds of improvements to accuracy that have most significant effects.

Diversity – Computer Science has a well-documented diversity problem, which has been growing in recent years. It has also been documented that both women and minorities are more interested in applying STEM to culturally-relevant broader impact contexts. Thus, it’s not surprising that of the few women and minority Computer Scientists who do make it through grad school, many choose focus on HCI. While CS departments should be making an extra effort to recruit and retain qualified women and minority candidates, my personal experience with faculty hiring is the opposite. I frequently see that given two candidates with similar training and publication records (in terms of venues and quantity), women are more likely to end up in iSchools while men are more likely to stay in Computer Science. If this trend is real, it is bad for CS because it is a lost opportunity to increase diversity. The problem is two-fold. First, a CS department may not make an offer to a qualified candidate due to a narrow definition of what constitutes technical work or a contribution to Computer Science. Second, even when an offer is made, the candidate may perceive a department culture that is unfriendly towards HCI work and elect to accept a competing iSchool offer (despite the fact that iSchools may pay less and have a higher teaching load).2 The New York Times recently ran an article showing that as more women go into specific field, salaries in that field decrease. We don’t know the mechanism by which this happens, but my worry is that this is the pattern that is emerging here. Of course, there could be a number of alternative explanations, but I think that it can’t hurt to collectively keep an eye on this.

Learner-Centered Teaching – There are many CS courses that do not require any specific area specialization to teach, most notably introductory classes to CS, computing courses for non-majors, and freshmen seminars. There are many reasons why HCI faculty may be particularly well-suited to achieve excellent outcomes in such courses: (1) there is a clear transfer of skills between designing user-centered systems and designing learner-centered curricula, (2) HCI research can be presented in these courses as a counter-example to popular misperceptions of Computer Science as an asocial, solitary pursuit, and (3) HCI faculty may provide stereotype-threat-breaking role models, given the larger proportion of women and minority faculty in HCI. In my opinion, Computer Science departments with a strong undergraduate education mandate should be actively seeking to recruit Computer Science HCI faculty.

I wanted to keep it to these three top reasons, but there are a number of other ways that Computer Science as a whole benefits from the specific skills that Computer Scientists trained in HCI bring to the table, including more interdisciplinary work, broader impact of research, and considerations of critical issues (e.g., bias) at design stage.

If you are currently in a Computer Science department and you agree with my arguments, there are a few clear steps you can take to help your department: (1) advocate for soliciting and hiring Computer Science candidates trained in HCI, (2) confront and question arguments against hiring a candidate that focus on vague concern of “not being technical enough” (especially, when candidate is trained in Computer Science and publishes in computing venues), and (3) articulate narratives of Computer Science that include rather than exclude HCI.

1. I use HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) here as the broader discipline, but this includes many related disciplines including HRI, Game Studies, Social Computing, Mobile & Ubiquitous Computing, etc.
2. I am uncomfortable calling out specific schools and contrasting specific people. I am basing this entirely from my personal experience on the job market 3 years ago. I received 3 offers from iSchools and 3 offers from CS departments. Your mileage may vary.

Community Engagement in the CS Classroom

This past semester, I taught a user interface course (basically, an intro to HCI class with an app development project). I tried something a bit different. Instead of letting students come up with their own projects, I asked them to select from a set of local community partners that needed apps developed for their non-profit organizations. I worked with our community engagement program to recruit organizations and also sent out a few feelers myself. Here is the final list of community partners and the mobile apps the students developed for them:

  • Communities United Against Police Brutality:  an internal app for managing their social media calendar and online presence; an external app as a guide for civil rights when dealing with the police.
  • Dakhota Language Society: a vocabulary quiz game app; a storytelling app for reading/listening to Dakhota folk tales in both Dakhota and English.
  • Early Childhood Family Education: an app to help the parents and educators easily message each other, potentially anonymously (i.e., like YikYak for parents).
  • Frogtown Green: an app for capturing and reporting illegal trash dumping in the neighborhood to the city.
  • Campus Wellness Program: several apps for tracking activity and program points. This project was not done with a community partner but rather with a university faculty member interested in this domain.
  • All Parks Alliance for Change: curated community F.A.Q. and community support forum app for people living in mobile home parks in the Twin Cities Area.
  • Hope Community Outreach: two apps for literacy outreach, one to provide curated learning resources to parents and another for vocabulary practice for kids; one app for the youth gardening program to help children plan and budget a vegetable garden.

At the end of the semester, I surveyed both community partners and students about their experiences. I’ll share the findings below…

Questionnaire responses from students and community partners regarding these kinds of partnerships for future projects.

Questionnaire responses from students and community partners regarding these kinds of partnerships for future projects.

Six of the organizations responded to the questionnaire and the responses were largely positive. All of them agreed or strongly agreed that this program should continue in the future, that they would recommend that other organizations participate, and that the students met or exceeded expectations on the project. However, there was some mixed feedback about how the expectations were communicated, with two of the groups not being sure about what to expect from the student teams. Additionally, there was some confusion about who should be a regular contact point for students, with some groups not roping every relevant person into the process (particularly common when the organization included both community and university partners).

Sixty students responded to the questionnaire as well. I was interested in understanding how community projects affected the students’ learning, with two competing theories that could be influencing this. On one hand, the learning theory of constructionism suggests that students work best when working on personally meaningful projects. Indeed, 25% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would have preferred to choose their own project. On the other hand, the theory of thick authenticity suggests that students learn well when they view the work they’re doing as authentic and in line with “real world” work. 83% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that working with community partners made them see the project as realistic and authentic; additionally 73% of the students felt that the work was contributing to a bigger cause. However, only 54% agreed or strongly agreed that working on a community project helped them learn. Overall, the class was split: 62% agreed or strongly agreed that future classes should do this, 30% were neutral, and 38% disagreed.

Why did the students who were negative about the idea respond this way? Looking through the free response comments, the major con of working with community partners mentioned by the teams was that scheduling was a pain and that the partners were not technical enough to help guide the project. I see this as a pro, not a con of working with community partners! If there is anything this class is supposed to teach the students it is that working with real users is tough and requires a different set of skills than just programming! The second issue mentioned by the students was that there was a great deal of inconsistency between the partners and teams in terms of partner commitment and availability. This is actually a valid and real problem! I tried to grade around it, but this is certainly something that I would like to level if I am to try this again in future iterations of this course.

Will I do this again? I will likely try this again in some shape or form in the future, but I think I will need to make more of an effort to create a better experience for the students. I think it would be reasonable to set more specific expectations for the organizations that want to participate in the program, particularly in terms of scheduling and availability to meet and work with the students.

Have you ever tried something similar in one of your classes? How did it go?

Sketching with Computer Science Students

Last semester, as part of my Design Methods class (more here, if you want any of the materials), I attempted to teach Computer Science students how to sketch. Each student had to practice sketching and submit at least one of their own sketches as part of the project milestone. While initially, this prospect caused some anxiety for the students, most were able to find a style and an approach to creating visual content that worked for them.

We relied heavily on Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook (Saul Greenberg, Sheelagh Carpendale, Nicolai Marquardt, and Bill Buxton), which does a great job explaining the benefits of sketching to the overall design process and providing some strategies for those who are less artistically inclined. Particularly, the books tutorials on storyboarding, simplified figures (e.g., stick figures), and photo tracing were used by the students with great results.

Students successfully used storyboarding, simplified figures, and photo tracing in sketching their design ideas.

Students successfully used storyboarding, simplified figures, and photo tracing in sketching their design ideas.

We added another skill to our sketching repertoire that was not covered in the workbook, namely constructing two-point perspectives. I chose to add this to the curriculum because I’ve found the rule-based approach of this method is generally well-received by engineers and is particularly useful in sketching and considering physical computing prototypes.

Many students were very successful in constructing two-point perspective sketches, even if they were resistant to less structured sketching approaches.

Many students were very successful in constructing two-point perspective sketches, even if they were resistant to less structured sketching approaches.

I found that the process of sketching out ideas helped students think divergently. For the last milestone, the students were asked to develop two prototypes that they found to be most promising, with a special focus on diversity of modalities and ideas in the final prototypes they chose to pursue. I was very impressed with the results!

prototypes

Some of the physical prototypes students developed from their sketches for the final class milestone.

In final student evaluations of course content, sketching was the component that worried me most. This is so different from a standard Computer Science skill or activity that I had to wonder whether students would find it valuable in retrospect. Indeed, in their final ranking of the thirteen components and skills covered in the class, sketching came in at #4! It was one of the most valued components of the class, despite (or maybe because of?) any initial trepidation students expressed about their drawing skills. I’ll definitely continue including this unit in the course in the future!

(Note: Images are used with permission from each project group, asked and received after the submission of final grades.)