Want to Understand the Future of HCI? Take a Trip Down Memory Lane (Book Review)

A review of
From Tool to Partner: The Evolution of Human-Computer Interaction

Book website

About this book

A good reference for UX Theory

Primary audience: Researchers and Designers with any experience with topic

Writing style: Mostly text

Publisher: Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 165 pages, 13 chapters

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Jonathan Grudin’s new book, “From Tool to Partner: The Evolution of Human-Computer Interaction,” is a detailed history of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) that spans from the 19th century “human-tool” period to 2015. Grudin has been writing and presenting about the history of HCI and the themes that have emerged from research and practice for more than 20 years. I’ve read some of his work and attended a CHI workshop that explored key issues in the HCI timeline – like the move from non-discretionary use of computing systems (the early days of mainframe computing and office automation) by trained experts to discretionary use by nearly anyone in the world (smartphone apps). Grudin is highly qualified to write about the history and emergent themes of HCI.

The field of HCI is broad and complex, and Grudin’s 165-page book is ambitious in trying to cover Artificial Intelligence (AI), Human Factors & Ergonomics (HFES), Participatory Design (PD), Information Science (IS), Computer-Human Interaction (CHI), Management Information Systems (MIS), and Office Automation (OA). Grudin tries to show why these fields developed, why colleagues in these fields did, or did not, interact much at a professional level, and what assumptions and issues shaped the fields that contribute to HCI. Grudin makes clear in Chapter 1 that any history is based on an individual’s perspective, training, and experience and thus will highlight some topics (e.g., information science in Grudin’s case) and neglect others (usability engineering and user experience) that are outside of the primary experience of the author. His analytical approach is to examine the similarities and differences between fields and professional, academic, government, and commercial organizations to extract patterns and themes that have contributed to the evolution of HCI.

Why would our colleagues want to read about the history of HCI? Grudin argues that many of us are focused on one discipline and there is much we can learn by “crossing over” and capturing the wisdom (and the failures) of others. I thought that my background from 40 years of practice was interdisciplinary, but when I read Chapters 7 and 8, I found that I had missed, almost entirely, the disciplines of information science and office automation – quite relevant to my career in the 1980s when I was working on – office automation! In modern-day HCI work, disciplines like social psychology and big data have much to contribute to the designs of computing systems. This book could be a clarion call to look outside our primary disciplines.

Grudin’s second reason for why one should read a history of HCI is that it can help us celebrate the accomplishments of past visionaries and inspire future colleagues. This the book did well. I found myself wishing that I could enter a time machine, get young, and restart my career with Grudin’s book as inspiration. Grudin’s stories and references to visionaries and their work provide many guilty pleasures for those who are interested in just how our field evolved. Grudin delights with stories of information systems that were precursors to the web and references to demonstrations like the “Mother of all Demos” where Douglas Engelbart demonstrates 1968 research technologies (the mouse, video conferencing, word processing, hypertext and more) that took several decades to be realized. Science fiction writer H. G. Wells, perhaps most famous for “War of the Worlds,” was highlighted for proposing an information system based on index cards and sorting stations that would filter and transmit answers to inquiries. Another “information system” visionary, Paul Otlet, worked with the Belgian government to create a record center in 1919 called the Mundaneum where millions of index cards and images where organized and cross-referenced and available to a wide audience – a fuzzy precursor to the Internet. Grudin finishes this chapter with references to the more familiar work of Vannevar Bush on “memex,” a personal workstation based on microfilm that would allow fast indexing, linking to related material, and retrieval of documents and images. These early ideas and efforts at making large masses of information accessible were the historical underpinnings and metaphors for our modern computing systems. Dipping into the myriad archival references was unadulterated joy and is still a potential source of ideas and metaphors.

Grudin’s third rationale for studying history is to understand why “some visions and prototypes were quickly converted to widespread application, others took decades to influence use, and a few [e.g., odor generation systems] remain unrealized” (p. 3). Grudin delves into why AI research has had a roller coaster ride with limited prototypes generating outlandish expectations, like those of Marvin Minsky who in a 1968 Life Magazine article predicted a machine with the “general intelligence of an average human being.” Grudin delves into forces that affect the course of visions including hardware capabilities and the trade-offs that come with the autonomous systems that may not have the contextual flexibility of humans to deal with unusual situations (e.g., how autonomous cars make decisions about who should be injured, passengers or pedestrians, when there is an unavoidable accident). Grudin notes that the future will go from Human-Computer Interaction to Human-Computer Integration where computing and communication systems are truly ubiquitous partners with humans.

The final rationale for a history of HCI is to extract trends and patterns that can guide the career plans of colleagues in a field that is expanding, like the universe, faster and faster. Chapters 9 through 12 provide insights and themes that could be valuable to colleagues.

While Grudin’s book kept my attention with historical details, good stories, and insights for future generations (I spent many hours reading historical references), there were a few minor details that could be improved. It felt like one more editorial pass was needed to remove some redundancy and improve the overall flow of the book. The richness and breadth of the field does pose a challenge for anyone trying to document the history of a complex field like HCI. The book is filled with acronyms, and I did appreciate the list of acronyms in the Glossary. I found myself using the Glossary often as I moved through chapters. There are only a few pages dedicated to the Usability Professionals Association/User Experience Professionals Association. I wish that Grudin had dug a bit more deeply into the impact of the UPXA organization and the value brought by practitioners of usability and UX.

To conclude, I would highly recommend this book for both understanding the grand history of HCI and also for providing food for thought on what might be important for the future of our HCI colleagues.

Challenges Facing Designers

Excerpt from page 100.

However, at least two serious challenges face designers and the rest of us. Just as an individual frequently has conflicting goals, software partners face divergent interests, such as satisfying the owner and diverse users of a website. Software that knows more about all parties might better resolve the trade-offs, but it will always be a balancing act. A collision avoidance system may have to choose between a course of action with a 30% chance of injuring its driver and another with a 70% chance of injuring a pedestrian. With autonomy comes responsibility. Second, a human partner who is knowledgeable, capable, and graceful in one context is generally the same in a related context, whereas software is often totally incapable outside a narrow focus. Designers must learn what people expect of partners, and we all must become familiar with non-human limitations of even the best machine partners.

Evolution of HCI over Generations

Excerpt from page 116.

HCI is now an all but invisible presence in product design, accessibility, sustainability, health care, supporting the aged, and other tasks. Just as builders are familiar with motors, developers embed interfaces without attending conferences or reading papers. J. C. R. Licklider anticipated that the most intellectually creative and exciting period in our history would be ushered in by the shift from digital tools to digital partners that smoothly take the initiative at times. To realize the potential will require researchers and developers who, like Licklider, see technological possibilities and understand the human partner. It will require familiar skills and others yet to be discovered. The first generation of computer designers, users, and researchers grew up without computers. Many of the second generation first encountered computers as university students and then entered workplaces and changed them. The current generation grew up using computers, game

consoles, and mobile phones. In primary schools, they searched, browsed, assessed, and synthesized. Now they message and photo-share on smartphones, author with multimedia, and embrace social networking. They have different takes on privacy and multitasking. Many absorbed a design aesthetic. They are entering workplaces, and will change everything once again.


Wilson, C. (2017). Want to Understand the Future of HCI? Take a Trip Down Memory Lane (Book Review). User Experience Magazine, 17(3).
Retrieved from http://uxpamagazine.org/want-to-understand-the-future-of-hci/

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