Incoming rants… duck!
A lot of you may know, or have an inkling based on everything that goes on on this blog, that design is not insignificant in my life, whether it’s good design or bad being a separate matter. I like design but fear I’d get genuinely bored if that was all I had to do in life, but wasn’t sure I wanted to spend my whole life behind a desk coding…
We found a compromise, and such a good one that I hate to use the word ‘compromise’ on it: I found an entire interdisciplinary field out there that combined the two aspects, and many more disciplines, but was way more than the sum of the whole: human-computer interaction. The area that concerns how people use, work with, and understand technology of any sort. From interfaces to entire new technologies, webpage layouts to answering “how many new features can a phone introduce before users start throwing their phones against the wall screaming and check into the nearest isolation ward?” (although admittedly, today with COVID and everything, that question could just mean a tracing app alert…), everything to do with people using technology is the realm of human computer interaction.
Naturally then, it checks into all the different components that rule people, and technology: it’s a bit of computer science, naturally!; good design, psychology to know people better, linguistics, for phones to be able to talk to people better, you can see how many different angles this can bring in!
A professor I knew of spent years building technology that worked with hand gestures, but was on paper. No screens, and it wasn’t a phone. It was very cool. He brought the concept of a computer out into the real world, and built something he called the paper Windows. The year was 2004. It was more of a proof of concept admittedly, it made use of projectors, but that’s the spirit of HCI, anyway. How do humans interact with technology, and how can they?
(Spoiler, e-ink technology was definitely a hit with him. His next invention? The paper phone! He also made the first foldable, organic phone that he wrapped around his wrist, a concept I see Samsung eventually learned of.)
So it’s an extremely interesting field, and contrary to what the above may make you think, it’s not just restricted to novelty labs tucked into universities on exclusive papers marked ‘Academic research only’, but one major component of it, user interface and experience design, is a pretty well known concept.
The only trouble in my eyes is that knowledge about it both is and isn’t. User experience (UX) involves researching about the people who will use your product, designing your product with those people, good design principles, and accessibility (ideally, but practically as I’m seeing it, only where budget permits and a larger proportion of users exist) in mind.
Lots of workshops litter the internet that will teach you how to make your first wireframe (a mock snapshot of your website/app’s final look, particularly if it’s a digital product you’re building), what goes into user research, and an emphasis on how badly good design is needed (My mother spent a month trying to click a button on Amazon’s website for a return to no avail. It’s genuinely one of the worst websites in the world. I’ve seen the button).
Perhaps for exactly that reason, there’s a lot of basic knowledge about it out there, but not the decisive expert’s eye. I’ve been trying to make something decent out of what I know for a couple of years now. It’s pretty basic. More importantly, it’s nowhere near enough. (I did warn you in line 1 this was a rant. Sure I deviated to give you a lecture on one of my interests on the way, but this remains at heart, a rant. I don’t have to be right about what I’m saying to rant.) University courses are all about the software development, maybe some about the theory, but in the rigour of more “mainstream” computer science courses, I’d honestly just forgotten for almost a year that I was really interested in HCI, that that was what I wanted to do. Getting caught up in the thick of it, I spent a lot of last year fretting about my strengths and weaknesses, and that I couldn’t find an interest within my own field. It wasn’t until I came across our course calendar this year that I remembered HCI was a thing. My thing.
I’m taking the HCI course next semester, and I have a course on UX next year. I’m super excited about them. But the fact that in all four years, I could only find those two courses was a bit of a downer. I know I’m an undergrad. We don’t specialise. But I get to see my friends in specific game design courses in second year itself, I get to see them in specialised software development streams that focus on the ins and outs of the software process. I get to wait till third year to take one course a year hereon that’s relevant to me.
It would be helpful to actually get to go into the thing I think I like and figure out if I really like it practically, or not. (Computer science is a great field to go into theoretically. The courses are fun, the things you can do with it are mindblowingly incredible. You kinda forget that once you leave that institution of possibilities for a real-world job in computing with real-world expectations and responsibilities. It can also be a drag.) I’d like to learn as early on as possible whether I’ve wasted the last two years gearing towards something I found out was actually only just okay. After all, as no matter how confident you sound in an application, you can’t possibly know whether you like what you think you like, from having done a 7-day free trial (okay, not free) on training wheels.
Still, all of that would be okay if the expectations matched the reality. Most computing students at the same level won’t have too much experience with fields like these that are still only in the process of being formalised, except for a few notable institutions (data science I think is another similar field, where most colleges won’t have specialised studies, but will sort of try and beef you up with your math and stats instead). The trouble is, the outside world still has such high expectations of anyone trying for human computer interaction and I just find myself thinking… how on earth do you ever fill your vacancies? You haven’t described a college grad, no sir. The entire planet is collectively still trying to figure out what interaction really entails and you’ve decided who the ideal candidate is? It’s also always candidate this, candidate that; anything you’ve ever done just has to be resume-ready, or it’s a waste.
I’m honestly quite proud of the trifle projects I’ve done. I think they look good. I think they were thought through. I also know that they’ll never be enough. (I just applied to internships to a place that had both HCI and software development postings, and I got passed through to a stage 2 for the development one, and flat out rejected for the HCI one, which for no real reason makes me so mad because I know if they asked me about the development position, I’d hecking say yes because why wouldn’t I, and then I get more dev experience and no HCI experience, and that puts me in a stronger position to apply as a developer in the future, and that means I get more dev projects and the HCI thing looks weak in comparison and gets pushed to the bottom again, until we’re at that embarrassing position in life where about five years later, I’ll rediscover this blog and go, “oh my goodness! I’d completely forgotten I wanted to do something in HCI!” and well, quarterlife crisis will hit early my friends.)
And I guess that was the central fire of this rant. I hate that I, inadvertently and circumstantially, will likely be heading towards something I’m only meh about, because I have too many years of lifeblood left in me to do something I’m meh about. And it looks like quarterlife crisis will come down to staging an intervention and answering some pretty touchy questions, and what makes me mad is I thought I’d already asked me those questions and got the answers. I could ask them today and still get the same answers. But it seems that what you say, even to yourself, can differ from what you do.
Is 20 too early for a quarterlife crisis?
(Yes, I could’ve ranted to my mum, but it’s 4 AM and she’s sleeping, besides, she’s heard this all before and is sick of it and I did promise you more writing. Relish in the dramatic anguish.
[Exit stage left]
(Trust me, I know what I’m doing, I’m in the playwriting course this year.)