icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an  ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.


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A missing discipline for the world of data?

About the sad story of HCI, user experience or information interaction design

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2021). A missing discipline for the world of data? About the sad story of HCI, user experience or information interaction design. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 10.4 (April). http://www.icm2re.com/2021-4.html

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2021). A missing discipline for the world of data. About the sad story of HCI, user experience or information interaction design. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 10.4 (April). http://www.icm2re.com/2021-4.html

London, 1st August July 2021 - Following up icm2re 10.1, The years ahead. About choosing and changing our data future, I have been resisting for several months the idea of writing this note. In fact, it touches personal chords with the uncomfortable and bitter taste of having failed to make an impact in a very much loved area of the information sciences kaleidoscope. But... that's life!

The first version of this article dates back to 2018, actually, and eventually I conceded to myself that I really feel this note is needed: I cannot end my icm2re magazine without publishing it or I would regret it forever (you might have noticed my editorial home page saying this is the 10th and last year of icm2re).

I am talking about a discipline that does not have a clear name anymore and perhaps it had never consistently got one from the academic establishment: it was said to be, at the beginning of the internet era, just "human computer interaction" or "ergonomics in computer science", continuing a tradition of engineering the interfaces between machines and human beings, established and very much needed in the early age of computers.

Then several expressions came along including the very popular "user experience" (with a fashionable X in capital letters spread all around the blogs and posts of the Web 2.0 age).

Less geek and trendy but more open to humanities and social sciences contributions was the expression "information interaction design", that resonated very well with me and my personal endeavours in the field.

The unlucky discipline consists of a mix of theoretical and empirical principles developed and understood around the best ways to design interfaces - from the first ATM machines to the World Wide Web: sometimes art and sometimes science, HCI for the Web seems to have entered a cul-de-sac with the development of data analytics: when the right values of "engagements" are reached and related analytics justifications are quickly and simply available who needs to understand more about users expectations or frustrations?

The discipline has not established itself as a field of professional, trusted practice for the design of web artefacts and services but for some fringes of marketing and creative exercises. Most of the times web interfaces are nowadays the product of automated designs and made easy to implement, manage and update through sophisticated software dashboards.

Procrastination as the new normal of interface design

Procrastination seems to be the new normal of interface design. The ultimate imperative: waste the time of the users, so that they can generate more traffic.

Everybody who appreciates the convenience of shopping online knows what I mean: surviving the categorical, deliberate disorder of e-commerce's databases and remaining concentrated on what you really need to buy is the constant fatigue of the modern web user experience, while we are told that everything is our "choice".

If you think I am going to state that the design and organisation of websites tend not to progress at all and instead tend to expose all of us to a growing proliferation of scams and traps and frauds... well, yes, you are right. But it is not just that. I still believe it is a matter of civilisation not to abuse of the attention, emotions, cognition and time of people - offline as well as online.

Because of the pandemic, many conferences and symposia have been taking place as virtual events. The quality of live streaming and recorded video on demand productions is, generally speaking, good enough to really enjoy the experience and to concentrate on the purpose of the event and the communication through a number of configurations.

But what about the design and organisation of websites' contents, agendas, programmes, indexes, search functions, general presentations, synopsis or summaries?

I have found a terribly messy, unbearably disorganised amass of web pages, blogs, redirected domains and subdomains. Enough to transform the experience of browsing from what could be a simple stroll in the park in a heavy digging mission in the middle of an unknown forest!

In one occasion, I spent half a day trying to understand how to simply access three or four short live streaming sessions among several hundreds available simply because I had a list of things I wanted to know and there was no other way to get them through the pre-organised navigational pathways: when eventually it seemed I had nailed them down to tag them and save them for later, the connection was reset, the videos were no longer available or something else happened and I had to restart the whole "discovery" journey the day after.

Producers, designers and publishers are interested in prolonging the time we spend online. Procrastination is good for web masters alike, as the web design and interaction design guru I have often quoted, Don Norman, taught us. Not sure it is always good for the user too.

A missing bridge?

Unborn discipline, at the crossroad of humanities, behavioural sciences and engineering, Human Computer Interaction has gone through a systematic demolition of its foundations.

Nobody really cares about what the user says or wants or does, because that would not be necessarily reflected within the needed set of analytics. Even among experts there is a belief that the purpose of profitability for e-commerce websites and digital display advertising justifies wasting the time of the user, that once upon a time we would considered an insult, a shame, a complete nonsense.

I advised, designed and delivered training courses about web design and project management between 1996 and 2005. It was a time in which the literature on these subjects, in Italian, was still not existent or very scarce. Clients expected to be told we had spent time designing web interfaces in a certain controlled, or systematic, way to achieve certain goals, providing comprehensible and easy routines to update and use databases and other software.

The academic interests for the field were still in their infancy when I started looking into it and over the years have not developed too much, in spite of some calls to invent a "web science" or a "user experience" science. Data science and the movements advocating open data have surely encountered more success among commercial and public stakeholders.

The American HCIBIB.org collection of links to publications, sources, scholars was the online resource that I was used to recommend to all my customers and pupils that wanted to develop some know how and mature the practice of information design for the Web.

Sadly, the HCI Bibliography was last updated in 2016, five years ago, whereas twenty years ago it was sprouting new resources every week. Not a great sign of vitality but, as they say... never look a gift horse in the mouth! It still offers access to remarkably useful resources and it has an historical value for scholars and practitioners.

But for a laconic note on the website that says all the reasons why and how that happened, very concisely, effectively but also depressing: "the HCI Bibliogaphy was moved to a new server 2015-05-12 and again 2016-01-05, substantially degrading the environment for making updates. There are no plans to add to the database". Surely, a case of ...dis-graceful degradation!

Poor destiny for a discipline that could have turned centuries of know how and practices in classification and organisation of knowledge in a very intelligent, interdisciplinary and multifunctional taxonomic infrastructure for online contents and services, bridging standards from the ergonomic tradition of design and system engineering with the new empiricism of web usability, web languages and distributed systems.

SIGCHI.org, another website in the umbrella of the ACM, was used to be a familiar, reassuring place for me twenty years ago. I remember the ACM sent me a life time - membership medal and certificate I had proudly hanged in my home in Milan in the early 2000s but since then many things changed, again and again, unravelling the digital modern as a roller coaster of disrupting and disrupted working practices. HCI became another home lost and found in my professional digital journey, anticipating and mirroring the tragedy and trauma I would go through experiencing homelessness.

Today content management systems embedded within the web platforms, fast methods of producing texts and audiovisual contents, live experiments, A/B testing and data analytics allow digital teams to show off "results" of "campaigns" through live dashboard, infographics, numbers and visualisation in a matter of seconds. Either you reach your target or you do not.

The ethical and technical substance of the discipline has been eroded year after year, transforming the field it in an aseptic gigantic shell for all sorts of posh, trendy and cultural stereotyped ideas of how to design and account things for the online world: there is still space to attract and enthuse young designers and troubled software developers towards matters of visual art, accessibility or interactivity and meaning. But around the corner there is the spectre and commitment of data analytics: "user experience" specialists are called to correct "erroneous mental models" users may have, making sure that they are nudged and fed with the right keywords and the right links at the right time towards a predictable outcome. All these quite predictable steps of the digital journeys will become the "data oil" discovered through analytics.

And I thought, silly of me, the sense of analytics was the other way around: not to create or construct a parallel reality, but to represent and understand the world behind the data.

Perhaps it would be too much to say data analytics has killed the analysis, the critical thinking and creativity needed for good information interaction design. But I wish new generations of information designers to challenge themselves with the privilege of "erroneous" mental models and eventually try to see the world of data in more various, complex and beautiful ways than through the analytics dashboards.