How I discovered User Experience

While taking Music Technology classes at NYU back in the late ’90s, I became curious about the use of audio in the computer user interface. Why wasn’t it used for more than alert beeps? At the time, the GUI (Graphical User Interface) was the big thing in computing, but I remembered my suite mate in college and wondered how blind people could use a GUI.

I found some research by Xerox PARC on audio interfaces. My slightly fuzzy memory is that they came up with the concept of rooms – audio rooms – for navigating a computer interface spatially. I also found the book Audio User Interfaces by T V Raman, a blind computer scientist who had created his own auditory user interface using Emacs. The description of his interface sounded nothing like the theoretical ones I had been reading about. Raman needed to be able to read technical documents including complex mathematical equations, and screen reading software couldn’t handle them. So first he wrote a program called AsTeR and then, when he wanted to be able to use the same functions for email, web surfing and other computer tasks, he created Emacspeak. With Emacspeak, audio cues and formatting gave context to words he heard read at a much higher speed than a sighted person would be comfortable processing. I realized that there was a important difference between designing for a hypothetical blind person (a blind version of me?) and designing for a real live person who navigated the world without sight.

My reading (and acronym) list grew: HCI (Human Computer Interaction), Alan Cooper, Computers as Theatre, SIGCHI (Special Interest Group for Computer-Human Interaction), Don Norman‘s Design of Everyday Things, UX, User and Task Analysis, so many ideas.

Then I went to work coding webpages and found that most of the people around me were unaware of most of  these ideas and how they could make websites better. User Experience wasn’t the buzzword it is today and many agencies were just starting to create positions for Information Architects. After the crash, I was able to use my knowledge to improve processes at the Red Cross September 11 Program, but it would be several more years before I would move back to working on the front-end/design side of the Internet.


How I discovered computers

My Dad likes gadgets, and so when the Timex Sinclair 1000 came out, he got one and brought it home. There wasn’t much you could do with the TS 1000 except learn to program. At the time, my siblings and I didn’t understand why anyone would want to learn to program that thing, so it sat around gathering dust.

Next came the Commodore 64 and it had possibilities: a cool space game, a typing game and even a word processing application. As the World’s Worst Typist (I’ve since improved) the concept of word processing was a godsend. No more Liquid Paper and starting pages over and over! Of course this was the early days of commercial software and the user interface was pretty primitive. The software was programmed so that the keys for Save and for Revert were right next to each other. During late night paper writing the chance of hitting the wrong key grew exponentially bigger as the hour got later. I thought computers were somewhat useful, but also annoying.

Then I met my suite-mate in college. Her name was Jana and she was almost completely blind; she could tell dark from light and that was about it. She carried a little machine (probably a VersaBraille) with her to class that had an eight-key chording keyboard and used cassette tapes for storage. She could read back what she typed because running the cassette caused a series of rubber-tipped pins to form braille letters.

That was cool, but what really impressed me was that she could also write papers on that thing. All she had to do was hook it up to a printer, which could be either braille or a regular dot-matrix. With this technology, plus some extra assistance from the school like readers and tutors, Jana was able to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Music. I began to see how useful computers could be.

A little more blogging

Inspired by some friends (thanks Emily!), I decided to start writing more regularly. Writing well takes practice and most of my writing lately has been of the more technical sort. My theme for this blog is still fairly general: things I find interesting. There will probably be posts about art, photography, design, work as an IA/UX professional, the role technology plays in the world around me and even some genealogy/history.

Last year I learned an interesting anecdote about my Aunt Pat’s life. I already know my Mom once learned how to program Cobol and even liked it. My Aunt Pat also studied computer programming back before people had home computers and also found she had a knack for it. So, she looked for and found a job as a programmer. When she got to the new place of employment, they took her to her new office and it was, basically, a small, dirty closet. While there, she was expected to sit by herself and code and not interact with anyone else all day. She told me she lasted only a few days and that was the end of her computer programming career.

I have to wonder how many women like her were discouraged by that sort of environment over the years. It wasn’t the work itself that was the problem, just the working environment. Computing may have lost her talents, but her language skills were certainly appreciated by all the English, French and ESL students she taught in the years to come.