Saturday, March 31, 2012

UX Speakeasy Opening Salvo

If there is one thing I learned today while attending the UX Speakeasy Conference here in San Diego, it is that the UX field is dynamic and wide open for professionals from diverse backgrounds. I already had personal experience that UX (User Experience) was difficult to define, so I was gratified when the very first speaker, Russ Unger, zeroed in on the challenge. He set a motivational tone for the day: a hard to define title is not only ok but an incredible opportunity. As we clutched our morning coffees, teas, bananas and carb-loaded pastries Russ launched right in.

I loved it when he put up some of the crazy position descriptions seen in contemporary job ads. You may know them: the ones that ask for a list of skills and experience not embodied by any flesh and blood human. He referred to these job descriptions as Unicorns. How appropriate, considering we were meeting inside the San Diego Zoo. The audience really liked it when Russ introduced the acronym DTDT: Defining The Damn Thing. [Several of today's speakers did not mince words and invoked colorful language]. Sounded like they could relate.

Russ repeated what many career/life coaches, therapists and wise people have said before him: we are not defined by our job title. As we get wrapped up in our careers it is good to be reminded. He added that we should not be scared by job descriptions because of some fear that we have to do all the things in those lists. We may even want to do all those things, but we don't have to. Due to the newness of the field and the fluid understandings of what UX means, UX personnel get to define what they are all about. I agree and suggest that the principle is broader: the opportunity and power of self-definition applies to anyone who chooses to recognize it.

Russ said UX professionals (however defined) are hackers and should be proud of it. As these words came out, I harked back to the days when "hacker" was not a pejorative term. The lost meaning of "hacker", as invoked by Russ,  is someone who can solve problems - problems that in some cases have not even been thought of.

My favorite Russ example was of Jim Henson and the muppets. The person who guides a muppet usually crouches out of sight behind a barrier. Not only can the audience/camera not see the person, but the person cannot see the audience or camera. Henson came up with a setup whereby the person manipulating the muppet can watch a monitor that lets her or him see what the camera or audience is seeing. No one had done anything like this before. Think back several decades and you will realize how brilliant the idea was. It gets even better - Big Bird has a monitor and a heat dispensing fan in his suit. Imagine that!

Although I got a huge kick out of listening to the Rap music, Russ momentarily lost me when he played lyrics from Vanilla Ice and tied them one by one to UX. A musical deficit on my part I guess. However, many in the audience followed along just fine!

Key take-away words from this first, motivational, morning talk: caring is sharing, sharing is caring. As he closed, and in preparing us for the rest of the packed day, Russ exhorted the UX community to be collaborative, to reach out, be open, educate and help people.

I haven't forgotten my pledge in the previous posts to watch for psychology and NUIs. They are coming, along with a lot more about the UX Speakeasy conference!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Looking Forward to UX Speakeasy - Whither Psychology?

This weekend I will be attending the first UX Speakeasy conference - a San Diego based conference for User Experience (UX) enthusiasts. The conference has come together in a few months through the effort of a group of highly dedicated people in UX here in the San Diego area, many of whom did not know each other 8 months ago. They have managed to pull together an exciting group of speakers and workshop presenters. I can't wait for Saturday.

There are many things to look forward to and one of them for me, in particular, will be watching to see how much attention is given to psychology in UX. Why? Some surprising conversations on LinkedIn is why. Last year there was a fairly lengthy conversation on several UX LinkedIn groups about what role, if any, psychology should play in UX.

I was a bit flabbergasted. "If any"? The "X" in UX stands for "Experience" and experience is a holistic term based in great part upon how someone feels. What emotions they have - using more precise terminology, their "affect". In addition, their cognitive interpretations of the technology are critically important (since we are talking computing topics here I'll stick to the digital world of UX). Psychology provides the basis for understanding cognition and affect.

Affect + Cognition = The vast part of Experience. How can you evaluate/observe/comment on User Experience without reference to the psychological aspects of the interplay between user and technology?

Many of the LinkedIn group conversations revolve around technical issues - how tos, best practices, resource identification etc. Incredibly useful information and I learn from reading these posts. Thus my surprise to discover that when someone brought up the question of psychology in UX work, many (many) respondents took this as new information, a new perspective, something they had not thought of before. Happily, most posters were very excited by the idea of incorporating psychology (in one or more of its various forms) into their work.

Computing is always both a technical and social activity. In some situations this is more obvious than in others. In UX work, psychological considerations should be front and center if you want to really understand what is going on with your website/app/software/device. Think about it. If you are frustrated and pissed off, are you going to be efficient and productive? Will you come back (assuming you have a choice in the matter)? Will you go the extra mile to do more with the technology? Compare your answers to the same questions if you are pleased with your interactions.

We can count keystrokes, perform eye tracking, monitor time on page (etc) all we want, and these tasks provide valuable information. But without incorporating affect and cognition into the equation you have only part of the story.

Thus, this weekend I will be keeping all my senses attuned to monitor my full range of experiences, others' full range of experiences, and the speakers' full incorporation of experiences in their presentations. I will of course provide a report here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Philosophy Sneaks Up Via Technology

Bounding into the bizarre. That is how I felt, but I just couldn't stop going forward.

It all started when, quite some time ago, I picked up a book called "Technologies of the Self"*. I confess that the reason the book caught my attention was the word "technology" in the title. I had no clue what it was about, although the subtitle "A Seminar with Michel Foucault" might have been the give away. Had I ever done any formal readings in philosophy that is.

I took this orphan off the shelf and with me on a recent cross country plane ride. Having nowhere to escape to and no other resources to distract me (I declined to inquire about the "nominal fee" for inflight Internet) I plugged my way along through what turned out to be a nitty gritty voyage through historical conceptions of "Self". Who am I, what am I, how do I view me, how does society view me. Sometimes the reading was fascinating, as when the discussion involved comparative religion, historical literature, and mind bending leap frogging in and around Eastern and Western thought. At other times I thought I was going to be buried alive under the weight of 3 millenia of philosophical ideology and I wanted to cry out for more airplane coffee.

What kept me going during the incredibly dry moments was wondering when I was going to learn what the title meant. They (multiple authors) kept referring to "technology of self" as if it was self explanatory. I suppose to a graduate philosophy student it must be! Although they never did explain it (hence my conclusion that the phrase is an item of academic jargon common in the field), my clue came near the end with a passing reference to "techne".

Aha. I can look that up as an originating word. Linguistics is fun. Back to my new friend the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. There is therein an entry on "Episteme and Techne". Urg. I understand "epistemology": study and investigation of knowledge. Knowledge. In the greater sense of the word.  Been there - thank you to my graduate education theory classes. Techne... hmm. Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy pairs the two, as, essentially, theory and practice (see the link if you want all the details).

"Technologies of the Self".... practice of? art of (as in the act of implementation)? I am getting closer. How the self is viewed, how the self is constructed, how the self (capitalized Self) is conceptualized.

I think I get it. But this different usage of the word technology still intrigues me. In our science and engineering necks of the woods, we have a different intuition about what technology means. Don't we? Technology as an artifact, a tangible creation. We generally think of modern technology (say, since the Industrial Revolution) but I have heard it argued by colleagues in the arts that the term technology should rightfully be applied all the way back to stone knives and bear skins. Ok. Point taken.

But as a more abstract concept involving the notion of "Self". I'm still wrapping my head around the use of techne (practice as the complement of theory) for a non-tangible application to the notion of who I am. Or what I am. Or what I am not. Or who "they" think I am. Or am not.

You have to be careful what books you pick up! They can really mess with your mind. You gotta love it.

*"Technologies of the Self" book information

Friday, March 16, 2012

Sharing Research Over YouTube: Good Idea?

Wired Science posted an article today* about ongoing dissertation (doctoral) research in developing gesture based systems for guiding aircraft. Wired created their article in great part from an MIT news release from 2 days ago. Content issues aside (subject for another day) there are fascinating cultural issues inherent to these releases.

The PhD candidate conducting much of the research (Yale Song) posted a YouTube video describing his work (all these secondary links can be reached from the primary Wired article). What I find interesting is the manner he chose to go public - that he chose to Really Go Public via YouTube. Traditionally, academic doctoral research focuses dissemination on conferences and journals for other academics.

There are good reasons for this tradition. First, the details of computing and engineering doctoral research are often highly technical and most easily understood by one's academic peers. As it should be: obtaining a PhD is supposed to involve breaking new ground and exploring innovation. Meeting this expectation means you have to delve deep deep deep. If you are a researcher, you no doubt have experienced the rapid glazing over of eyes when you start to explain nuances of your work to a lay audience. Even a well educated lay audience. It takes skill and practice (lots of practice) to share cutting edge technical research with those inside your field, let alone those outside your field. Not for the faint of heart.

Second, the academic reward system values publications at journals and conferences, in some cases books, but almost never public media. Again, this makes sense: it is from peers who are well versed in your subject matter that you can receive informed critique, feedback and support. A strong argument can be made that traditional media is often ill equipped to deal with cutting edge technical research. I'm sure you don't need me to show you recent examples of mangled and inaccurate reporting of scientific research in the popular media.

However, we know that people engage with audio - visual information more readily than they do with text alone. (Academics may be the exception - we DO love to read :)  It seems only natural that we find ways to take advantage of non-traditional dissemination venues for research - doesn't it? 

Thus, I was both delighted, surprised, yet not surprised to see a doctoral student online very clearly explaining his work. Part of me wonders: why is he doing it? I can't imagine he gains any official value added for his CV (aka "resume"). Another part of me concludes: it is only natural for the current generation of up and coming researchers to break out and add YouTube videos to their professional portfolio. Video can be an incredibly effective communication medium.

Yet another part of me suggests: Researchers shouldn't have to confine themselves to traditional dissemination outlets and/or wait until they are well established to share their work with the greater public. Should they? There are so many potential benefits of intelligently sharing cutting edge research with the greater public.  Why aren't more people doing it?

*Wired Science article

Friday, March 9, 2012

Pondering Norman's Question About Programs As Art

In the most recent edition of ACM Inroads magazine, Victor Norman penned a column arguing that the creation of a computer program can be an artistic activity, and that a computer program can contain beauty*. The article ended with the open question, unaddressed:  
“Can a computer program itself be considered a piece of art?”

Curious, I did some research on definitions of “art” as a noun, across a variety of sources ranging from the mundane ( and Wikipedia) to the erudite (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Wherever I looked, I found general agreement that art (the noun) is typically understood to apply to visual media. There was also general agreement that to be considered a work of art, an object should have unusual or highly significant aesthetic qualities. Beyond these points, there is (according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) some disagreement based on era, culture and other factors.

How does a computer program fit in to these definitions if we stick to the two points of commonality: visual media and significant aesthetic qualities? Let's see. A computer program can be considered an object, albeit not one you can touch. Norman and others before him have explored the aesthetic qualities of code. A computer program does not fall into the category of traditional media, although in some cases it produces visual media when executed.

Execution and its attributes brings up an interesting point.  

When assessing the candidacy of a computer program for admission into the fold of “art”, does one evaluate the code itself, or the product of running the code? 

Most recent discussions of programming and beauty, including Norman’s article, study the code itself: how it was constructed. Why is the product of execution not considered as well? After all, 

the purpose of code is to be executed. Code has no reason for existence if it is not executed. 

Unless…one wants to claim that the lines of text are in and of themselves art. Art as a Noun.

All of which brings us back to those unusual or highly significant aesthetic qualities. Norman makes the parenthetical observation that “…we could find beauty in a computer program (a beauty perhaps only appreciable by skilled artisans of programming).” I’m not sure whether that caveat shoots his argument in the foot. In commonly accepted definitions of art, to what extent are the greater aesthetic qualities intended to be appreciable by a wide public audience?

Wikepedia notes that until the 17th Century, the widely accepted definition of art was broader than today, encompassing not just what we now refer to as “fine art” but also including crafts and the sciences. If we revert to this expanded definition of art, a computer program (and the result of its execution) will qualify. I think.

            What do you think? Under what circumstances (if any) does a computer program qualify as a piece of art?

*ACM Inroads 2012 March Vol 3 No. 1 pp. 46-48

Sunday, March 4, 2012

SIGCSE 2012: Robots, Mobile Apps, Visualization & More

Oh, wishing once again I could have been in several places at the conference at once! Perhaps someone out there can develop a Conference Clone. Saturday, although only a 3/4 length day, was as packed with events as the prior days. The torrential downpour in the morning played in my favor, as, in spite of sleep deprivation, by the time I walked the .8 mile to the convention center I was happily soaked and feeling full of life. Nature has a way of doing that.

First up were the presentations by finalists in the Undergraduate Student Research Competition. There were 5 students and all of them had done very nice work and made equally nice presentations. One of them was about "green computing" and energy consumption. The student was Stephanie Schmidt (Sonoma State University) and her research title: "Modeling the Power Consumption of Computer Systems with Graphics Processing Units (GPUs)". Another excellent presentation and body of research was presented by Elizabeth Skiba from SUNY Geneseo : "Experimentally Exploring Algorithmic Descriptions of Three-Dimensional Geometry". I had visited her poster the day before. Although I know very little about the subject matter (some serious physics here) I was able to follow her talk quite well and was not at all surprised when she subsequently won 2nd place in the competition. I believe Elizabeth is graduating soon - I hope she gets some great job offers.

Due to the lack of that Conference Clone, I was unable to attend the paper presentation "Mobile Apps for the Greater Good: A Socially Relevant Approach to Software Engineering" by Victor Pauca (Wake Forest University) and Richard Guy (University of Toronto) but I read the paper and was very excited by its contents. They write words close to my heart  about the potential for exciting more students about computing and career possibilities by presenting them with real life socially relevant projects to tackle. Strange coincidence, but the day before I left for the conference I turned in my next Inroads Magazine column (it will appear in about 3 months) which specifically targets mobile devices for innovation in the classroom. The SIGCSE paper discussed the authors' implementation of a software engineering class where students created assistive technology iOS apps for people with disabilities; student teams used the Scrum methodology in their projects for real clients. The authors bring up the challenge of intellectual property questions, which was also a hot topic at the conference (see yesterday's post about Hal Abelson's talk). Their work will be something to keep an eye on, especially if you teach and are interested in developing socially beneficial curriculum.

There was the Robot Circus which was so much fun!!! One of the little robots (shown here on the left) kept crossing over the official boundary and heading straight for my feet. Somehow, it always turned at the last moment. But then it came back. I think it liked me :)

If you were at the conference and attended Saturday lunch you heard the fascinating talk about data visualization by Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg from Google. They are interested in lay uses of visualization and visualizations as social catalysts. An interesting point they made was that the visualizations are not an end in themselves. Creating a fascinating visualization of wedding invitation data for example, is not just for observational purposes, but leads to action on the part of the wedding planners. I have virtually no formal musical training, but when they showed how their visualization tools could extract structure from musical scores I was able to immediately grasp complex differences between Led Zeppelin, Scott Joplin, Beethoven, John Coltrane and Clementine (yes, that simple little folk song!). And then there was the eye opening visualization of personal ads written by men. You would be amazed how often "I am married...but" "I am married...and" appear!

The conference is over and I am already looking forward to attending next year!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

SIGCSE 2012 - Hal Abelson, CS2013 Social and Professional Issues and More

Official registration at SIGCSE is 1278 as of Friday (yesterday) morning when we listened to Hal Abelson give the day's keynote talk. A very impassioned talk. Hal spoke at length about computers as instruments of intellectual empowerment. Computational Thinking -> Computational Values -> Computational Actions and the importance of generative platforms. A generative platform in this context is a platform (tool, application, etc) which can get used for something the people who created it had not thought of or planned for. A pedagogical tool, idea or lecture, a set of research results leads you or I to run in a different direction and produce something exciting for the classroom, for the community, for the academy (for anyone).  Hal  claimed that a war is underway for the soul of the university - there is a danger that the university is becoming more a marketplace for intellectual property and less a place for open sharing of intellectual ideas. (What does your experience tell you? Do you agree or disagree?)

As evidence, Hal provided impressive examples, such as copyright restrictions being placed upon faculty when they publish research results, such that they no longer own or can share their own research. He also shared a quote by one university general counsel (a large research university) stating that note taking in the classroom could constitute copyright infringement of faculty intellectual property; the suggestion was then made that faculty hand out a license agreement for students to sign at the beginning of the term.Wrap your head around that one if you can. Hal's talk was full of thought provoking information like this.

I visited the poster on display by the faculty group working on the Social and Professional Issues section of the new computing curricular guidelines (CS2013). Carol Spradling, Beth Hawthorne and Flo Appel and I had a fascinating conversation about what topics are generating the most discussion in the community - should they be part of the computing curriculum? Professional Communication is apparently a hot area. Some people believe it is critical and others believe it should not be included at all. In case you are curious, we are talking about (and now I quote from the draft document):

  • reading/understanding/summarizing technical material
  • source code and documentation
  • writing effective technical documentation
  • dynamics of oral, written, and electronic team and group communication 
  • communicating professionally with stakeholders 
  • utilizing collaboration tools. 

Also suggested:

  • dealing with cross-cultural environment
  • tradeoffs of competing risks in software projects, such as technology, structure/process, quality, people, market and financial

What do you think - should these topics have a place in the computer science curriculum?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

SIGCSE 2012 Thursday Report:Fred Brooks, Science Fiction and More

I'm here in Raleigh, North Carolina for the SIGCSE conference. Along with making appearances at a National Science Foundation showcase session on the COMTOR project, and helping run a Birds of a Feather session on the same project, I did my very best to visit as many interdisciplinary sessions as possible. There were too many to hit them all, especially as there were overlapping sessions and I haven't learned how to be two places at once yet - years of trying not withstanding. Here are some of my abbreviated observations and general thoughts on the conference today. This certainly isn't comprehensive.

The keynote speaker this morning was Fred Brooks, author of the famous "Mythical Man Month". He spoke about teaching as a design task and as a dynamic critiqued practice. He sprinkled his discussion with interesting historical notes. Perhaps my favorite was his reference to having learned to program, in 1952, in "octal absolute on the 701". Several of us in my row of seats began trying to guess what this referred to. 701 was probably the IBM 701. Octal absolute was a bit trickier. Some quick pondering suggested there was an Octal Absolute and an Octal Relative, and that Octal Absolute may have meant no assembler. I always loved that low level of dealing with the machine (I was about to say "of addressing the machine" :) ; fun to think about.

I attended a Special Session about the NSF funded Interdisciplinary Computing project that I participated in over the past year and reported on here. It was interesting to listen to the organizers (Boots Cassel and Ursula Wolz) present a recap of our progress and findings over the year and to then hear audience feedback. It was refreshing to hear spontaneous upbeat comments about how there are always people in other departments who are willing to work beyond traditional boundaries - we have to look for them. There were some useful comments about how to get started with obtaining funding in interdisciplinary computing before you have a track record. Part of this was addressed when one of the NSF program officers spoke briefly about the many program solicitations that are good fits for interdisicplinary work. Other suggestions, from the audience, included getting letters of support for your proposal/work from well known people who have a track record, and when appropriate, pairing with someone as a co Principle Investigator who has a track record. There was a fair amount of talk that started from the question of "is interdisciplinary computing scaleable?" and went in a several directions.

After lunch I boogied on over to hear a session on Science Fiction in Computer Science Education. I had to find out what all this was about and was it for real? It was. Several computing faculty described some very interesting ways they used sci-fi novels, books and movies as focus or starting point for deeper computing concepts. One faculty used an older story called "Maxon's Master" to launch into a series of discussions about algorithms, search algorithms in particular, AI and issues of cognition and robotics. Eventually a programming assignment materializes in a seemingly natural way. Other panelists used sci-fi literature and movies to get into virtual reality, virtual relationships, and the ubiquitous information stream and social capital. On of the writings she uses is "Super Sad True Love Story", a newer work. These were just two of the speakers in this session.

On a completely tangential side note, Michelle Obama is going to be in Raleigh tomorrow and staying at one of our conference hotels. Tomorrow is going to be interesting, as they are closing down portions of the streets, hotels, and the conference center. It would be nice if she dropped in for lunch but I'm not holding my breathe on that!

Artistic post to prevent you from driving your car up the sidewalk. Taken at night.