HCI Students’ Questions: Answered (Part 1)

This weekend I returned to my design roots and met a ton of Indiana University’s current HCI/d students.

A room full of designers
A room full of designers

I was pleased to be a member of the Alumni panel and was impressed by the questions that the students asked. I was so impressed, in fact, that I think many of the questions they asked are worth answering for myself and others. I’m going to try to do my best to provide some answers to these questions. I’ll do a few questions each day for the next few days. Let’s give this a shot.

  1. How you you describe HCI/design to people?

    Easy: HCI is the academic field that studies how people interact with machines in their environment. Design is about making things that fit well into peoples’ lives. So, HCI/design is all about making machines that fit well into peoples’ lives. Not necessarily an elegant explanation, but it does the trick.

    Outside of academia, people talk much less about the field of HCI, though it tends to be an impressive moniker when you bring it up. Professionally, I am more likely to talk about User Experience than I am about HCI. And I often leave out the whole concept of design when speaking with some audiences. Many people think of the term design as making things pretty, or relate design to fashion. That’s not the way I think about it, so I often avoid the topic altogether. Business stakeholders want to hear that you’re going to make systems that are easy to use and enjoyable, so as long as you can do that, you’re golden. Be aware of the words you use, and be mindful of your audiences’ interpretations.

  2. I have my masters degree (in HCI), now what?

    Now the fun begins! Consider your degree a starting point, rather than an end goal. Once you’ve earned the degree, it’s time to start thinking about your next goals. You’ll have to reassess these goals throughout your career and life, so make sure you plan on doing that early and often. Even the people you consider to have “made it” are constantly adjusting. You should too.

    Your degree in HCI should open some doors for you, but don’t expect it to work magic. You’ll still have to work hard every day to prove your worth. My dad used to say to me (warning: baseball analogy ahead), “Josh, you’re only as good as your next at bat.” I like that. It means that you’re only as good as the next opportunity that is provided. You can never rest on your past successes. Keep getting better with each project. But while you’re at it, make sure to realize that you have a long career ahead. Make sure you enjoy it.

  3. How do you personally stay up to date with design?

    This question was originally asked in the context of academic papers and journals, and I have to admit that I’m pretty out of sync when it comes to those publications. The first problem I have with them is that they’re expensive. It burns a little bit that I would have to spend $19 to read a paper I wrote. But I guess the publishers have to make money. That’s why I tend to read more books than articles. I get more bang for my buck when I’m buying a whole book, and my employers do too.

    In particular, I like to read the books published by Rosenfeld Media. They’re typically pretty dense, but aren’t so long that I can’t give them a quick read over a weekend. They’re nice summaries of a topic, and they go much deeper than many blogs. I also geek out on books by other publishers. I’d estimate that I read 5-8 industry-related books per year.

    Of course, there’s also plenty to read on the internet. These days I follow Hacker News pretty closely. There are often articles posted there that cause me to think deeply about design. I get a lot of other random articles from the people I follow on Twitter. In fact, looking at recommended articles has replaced my addiction to Google Reader.

    I also try to attend conferences, but that gets tough sometimes. Conferences are fun, but they’re costly in terms of the amount of time away from work, as well as the pure cost of attendance.

More to come soon…

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