World’s First Usability Engineer

Exclusive interview with Herodotus Faks on technology, user interface design, and the profession of usability.

While the likes of Nielsen, Norman, Spool, and Raskin get the headlines today, they all owe a debt to Herodotus Faks, the world’s first usability engineer, who pioneered many of the techniques and guidelines that remain relevant today. Still active and working, and still as feisty as ever, Faks remains an über-guru without peer, and with a unique perspective that can only come from working with user interfaces throughout nearly the entire history of computer technology. My mentor and my personal source of inspiration, I sat down with him over lunch earlier today for this interview at Cafe la Brioche in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

MZ: Usability is older than many think, being an established discipline well before the advent of the web. You were there at the beginning, way back in the 1970s.

HF: Actually, it was around the year 101,000 BCE.

MZ: Well, a long time ago, anyway. Digital technology must have been much different back then than today.

HF: The technological advances have been staggering. When I first started, the latest computers had only 10 MB, and that was considered a lot of monkeys.

MZ: Monkeys?

HF: A lot of people forget that the M in MB originally stood for “monkey.” We called them monkeys, even though usually they were apes.

MZ: And the G in GB?

HF: Gibbons. Kinda the same thing only bigger. Users used to boast, “Oh, I got 256 monkeys in my computer” or “I’ve upgraded to 512 monkeys.” Of course, when you get that many monkeys all in one place, it’s only a matter of time before they get lice and fleas and stuff, and eventually the performance degrades. You have dump them from the Chimp Processing Unit and debug them. Some monkeys are really ornery. It could get rough.

MZ: I bet. But if the M in MB stands for “monkey,” what about the bytes?

HF: Oh, if you wash them right away, they usually healed quickly.

MZ: So, it’s safe to say that using and maintaining computers is much better than back then.

HF: Well, it’s easier, but do you know what I miss? The teamwork that would come from using a computer. It wasn’t a solitary activity like it is today. Back in those days a mouse weighed about 6000 pounds and was the size of a Cooper Mini. Moore’s law, you know, or something like it. You had to get everyone around the mouse to push it over the mouse pad. It wasn’t so much a mouse as a hippopotamus. We’d take turns on who gets to jump on the button. It was a great way for the whole neighborhood to be together.

MZ: So controls were more difficult for the single user. What about the displays?

HF: Our monitors were about 100 feet thick but had only a 1 inch diagonal. Resolution was 2×2 pixels, but that didn’t matter much since they had only one color.

MZ: Ah, yes, monochrome screens.

HF: No, I mean they had one color. It really tends to limit your font selection when the foreground and background are the same.

MZ: What color was it?

HF: Basalt. It was what you call a solid crystal display.

MZ: It must’ve been tough to get anything done with controls and displays like that. Did users complain?

HF: It always amazes me what users put up with just because they don’t know any better. Take retrieving files from the hard drive. Users used have to shimmy out on a log over a huge spinning disk and scoop up the files as they went by. Once in a while, a user would fall off and zing! They’d land in the next valley. And they blame themselves, “I should’ve held on better.” I put handles on the log. It was considered a brilliant idea.

MZ: But with simpler machines, there was less to worry about, right? Did early users have to deal with the complications we have today, like computer security?

HF: Users didn’t worry about itty-bitty things like worms and viruses. They worried about great big things like prowling saber-toothed cats. A user would get engrossed with the computer, and not see one sneaking up from behind, and then, whop! Gulp! We had one less user. It really undermines trust when users feel they have to check over their shoulder constantly. It affects the bottom-line.

MZ: You had to implement security measures, then?

HF: Yes, I was assigned to see if I could do something on the UI side. I put big stone walls around the workstation with a heavy granite slab for access, and it worked. Users stopped looking over their shoulders. They knew there was nothing to see but rock. Of course, saber-toothed cats would just climb on top of the wall and scoop up the user like catching a salmon in a shallow pool –we called it “fishing” –but I made the walls really thick so it looked impressive to the users.

MZ: But that doesn’t make it any more secure does it?

HF: The point is to give the user the experience of being secure.

MZ: What would you say was your greatest success in developing user interfaces?

HF: I invented the keyboard. A lot of research went into getting the keys the right size and with the right tactile feedback. I believe it could’ve sparked a computer revolution, but it turned out to be ahead of its time. All keys were blank since language hadn’t been invented yet. The UI was limited to point and grunt.

MZ: Aside from your contributions, what would you say was the greatest user interface invention of all time?

HF: That would have to be the menu.

MZ: Because it means using recognition rather than recall?

HF: No, because it means I don’t have to cook tonight.

MZ: What about the iPod with its simple and innovative UI? Does that impress you?

HF: The iPod is nothing new. I was on a team that developed the first mp-3 player. My user interface was even simpler than the iPod. No buttons or click wheel or even earphones. Just hold it up to your ear and listen. And it looked gorgeous. I’d see users leaving it on the coffee table just for decoration.

MZ: What did you listen to with it?

HF: Mostly sounds of the ocean. Very soothing. The player fit perfectly in your hand and was relatively compact, about the size of a seashell. Okay, it was a seashell.

MZ: The internet itself was a major innovation. Going from email, to blogs, to Web 2.0, the evolution of the internet has changed the very nature of interpersonal communication, hasn’t it?

HF: From a user interface standpoint, early information networks had serious limitations on bandwidth. You could only send a little information at a time. But human speech was pretty primitive way back then, so it was manageable. A typical message in its entirety might nothing more than “UMG! RUTFM!!!” Transmissions were made using bamboo tubes and gerbils-

MZ: While today we’re text-messaging and Twittering thanks to wireless!

HF: So, as I was saying, things really haven’t changed.

MZ: When you started usability engineering, did you encounter resistance from the developers on the team?

HF: Oh, the most extreme resistance. We got in these heated fights during design meetings. But you know, a superior UI design has a way of winning once you demonstrate it.

MZ: You mean you arranged for them to see a user benefiting from an effective interface?

HF: In a sense. I knew how to make a club that was easy to hold on to. They kept dropping theirs.

MZ: Were developers the hardest to get along with?

HF: They’re not so bad. At least they want to make a quality product that’s easy to use. They’re just misguided on how to do it. When I’m doing web sites, I’ve always gotten more trouble with the marketing types. They don’t care if the users get the content they really need or not. They just wanted the users’ eyeballs.

MZ: Why?

HF: I never understood that, but we’d ship them anyway, using egg cartons. I think they considered them trophies.

MZ: You conducted the world’s first usability test. How did it go?

HF: It was a dismal failure, even after all the preparation I put into it to get it right. I had an excellent prototype and a set of specific and relevant tasks. I had the means to record everything: mouse movements, key-logging, eye-tracking, facial expressions, vocalizations –the works. I had a detailed debriefing protocol. The whole team gathered around with anticipation, and took a total of 7 hours of data… and we got absolutely no useful information at all. But you learn from your mistakes. I said, “Hey, I’ve an idea. Let’s try again but this time we’ll have a user too.”

MZ: What was your greatest challenge in doing user research?

HF: That had to have been studying Neanderthals. It’s really hard to grasp a user’s mental model when they’re a different species.

MZ: Were they also not very bright?

HF: No, that’s a common myth. To some it seemed that way because they weren’t into art and aesthetics. Or bathing much. That could be an issue for some of the longer interviews. But it wasn’t because they were dumb. They were just very pragmatic. As a group they were at least as smart as us, and real whizzes with technology too. But then they all went extinct when they got so wrapped up in a game of World of Warcraft that they forgot to reproduce.

MZ: You mentioned aesthetics. I’m sure one change from the old days is that today usability engineers have to make more concessions for style and fashion.

HF: Well, style and fashion have always been around, and there have always been conflicts with usability. At the beginning, fire was the hip thing, it being a new technology and all. Everything had to have fire to sell, the more the better. Now a little fire is attractive, and it can improve usability –it allows you to use the product at night, for instance. But we had these tremendous flaming cell phones and PDAs. I argued that it harmed usability. It’s tricky to use a UI that is constantly threatening to incinerate you. I lost that argument, and, while we sold a lot of units, our repeat business just went up in smoke.

MZ: Over time, we’ve seen a proliferation of specialties within the user experience community. Do you still consider yourself a usability engineer, or an information architect, or interaction designer, or any of the other related practitioners?

HF: Yes.

MZ: There are those who look at Google and say commandline is the future for user interfaces, and those who look at the iPhone and say gestures are the future. What do you see in the future of user interfaces?

HF: That at the rate we’re going, I’ll have plenty of work for another 100,000 years.

MZ: Given all your experience, what one piece of advice do you have for young professionals today?

HF: When you know you’re right, summon your courage and stand your ground against any opposition, unless the opposition is a stampeding herd of woolly mammoths, in which case, run like an overclocked RISC CPU.

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