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Web evolution:
Is HCI an endangered species?

(SIGCHI Bulletin November/December 2000)


The signs of a mass web extinction are mounting. Shares in e-venture companies are shaky, initial public offerings are failing and we have seen a number of high-profile calamities: the collapse of boo.com and the Intel/SAP joint e-commerce venture, Pandesic. To add to these darkening skies, Jakob Nielsen has forecast the death of web design as we know it (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20000723.html).

What does this mean for the web? Evolutionists are used to the idea of periodic mass extinctions. These evolutionary bottlenecks have a number of interesting effects. New species are able to take advantage of new opportunities, eventually leading to increased diversity and niche specialization. However in the short term relatively few species exist to compete in the harsh post-extinction environment, leading to possible domination by the best adapted. This is approximately what we saw in the user interface world following the extinction event known as "Personal Computing". Pre-PC, many user interface styles were in common use in mainframe and minicomputer environments. The Personal Computer opened the door for a new style of interface, the Graphical User Environment, with Windows eventually becoming the dominant species. Some may argue that this domination was bad for user interface design as a whole. But it was certainly good for users who could then concentrate on their own tasks rather than the interface idiosyncrasies of their application software. Nielsen predicts a similar future for the web. The diversity of web site styles and models will initially decline in the increasingly harsh e-commerce environment, with only a handful of approaches acting as the basis for most sites. Again, this is possibly bad for design, but good for users. Longer term, diversification will increase, but probably through speciation where individual approaches split to eventually become distinct.

And HCI? It seems to me that HCI ought to have a symbiotic relationship with web design. In practice though, this relationship appears to be more adversarial than cooperative. Usability, perhaps the most public face of HCI, is seen by many as an alternative to graphically elegant or entertaining web sites. There are a number of other issues that raise questions about the long-term relationship between HCI and the web. If most web site designs are based on only a handful of approaches, the impact of HCI-driven innovation will be substantially reduced. In addition, usability testing based on user goals and tasks may increasingly lack relevance to many types of site focused on entertainment. The profession's own view of itself and its relative importance to web design may be a further stumbling block. In reality usability is a small part of the complete user experience or of a web site's success. Highly usable web sites can still fail if attractive prices, service, security, entertainment and trust are not present in appropriate proportions.

To get HCI off the endangered species list for the web ecology, we need to adapt it to the changing environment. We need to work with graphic designers and marketers to produce elegant sites that also happen to be usable. It may also be that we are teaching the principles of HCI to the wrong people. Psychologists and software engineers are generally not involved in the right areas of web design to have the kind of impact that is required. It may be more to the point for HCI to be part of Internet marketing courses or MBA degrees in e-commerce.

The Author

William Hudson is principal consultant for Syntagm Ltd, based near Oxford in the UK. His experience ranges from firmware to desktop applications, but he started by writing interactive software in the early 1970's. For the past ten years his focus has been user interface design, object-oriented design and HCI.

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© 2001-2005 ACM. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in SIGCHI Bulletin, {Volume 32, November-December 2000} http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/362396.362405

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