Thursday, July 19, 2007

Alon Halevy on the Database and HCI Communities

Alon Halevy is a former professor of computer science at University of Washington, now at Google. This latest entry from his blog on databases and HCI struck me as interesting for two reasons:


It is tempting to push these problems [of how users work with structured data and their information seeking needs - JIH] to the HCI community, but I would argue this is a mistake. These problems will not be high enough on the agenda of the HCI community (there, if your device doesn’t move or perform magic, it’s uninteresting), whereas for us they are crucial for identifying good research directions and evaluating them. As a community, we need to find a way to encourage research on usability and to learn from the HCI community how to evaluate such research. We need to bring this agenda squarely into our conferences.


The first interesting point is that he sees HCI primarily as being interested in wickedly cool devices. This isn't too far off the mark, unfortunately so in my opinion.

The second is that there needs to be more collaboration between HCI and databases. Overall, I would agree (heck, I'd agree that there needs to be more collaboration between HCI and pretty much every field in computer science).

One problem is that HCI people are often given funny looks by people who don't consider it a hard science, because after all, you only get interesting results from hard sciences that give you measurable numbers.

Another problem, true of all interdisciplinary work, is that there needs to be a challenging research problem from all parties involved. HCI has to be treated as a true partner, not as a service.

A third problem, a reality I have been lamenting, is that you need money to make things happen. For money, it depends on who you get on your grant reviews. For cybersecurity, the CUPS group has been doing really well in combining hci and security. Brad Myers has also been doing really well with respect to software development and hci. For other areas, it's a real toss-up.

A fourth problem is that there aren't really all that many HCI researchers, and most of them are limited to just a few universities. It's hard to do collaborations when a partner isn't there.

I think these issues can be overcome, though. It will just take some more time and a lot more evangelism from all sides to make things happen.

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