Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Norm Cox

COMM 6480 Historical Figure Assignment

Fall Semester, 2009

Ann Marie McCarthy

For this assignment, I’d like to tell a story that is at once personal and historical. It’s a story about the beginning of graphical user interfaces and guess what—I’m in the story.

It was the mid-‘80s, and I was working in the third largest advertising agency in Boston as an artist. A lowlier position there has never been. We were poorly paid, and worked to the bone. Determined to rise above my circumstances, I watched the recruitment ads that we produced for the Boston Globe. This was a time before, when jobs were advertised in a section of the Sunday newspaper. Our agency produced those ads.

My opportunity arrived through an ad for a graphic designer at a mini-computer company called Data General. Digital Equipment Corporation is the famous Massachusetts mini-computer company. As was the way in those days, DEC had spawned a stepchild—the product of an embittered engineer who left DEC and started up his own company a few towns away. That company was Data General, and, for a while, it was a fierce competitor to Digital.

The competition, however, was no longer about manufacturing mini-computers. As I discovered during the interview process, the competition was now inside the computer. There was this new thing, I was told, “on screen graphics”, and that’s where Data General wanted to beat DEC and Wang and the other mini-computer makers. Problem was, they were a bunch of engineers. Simply stated, they couldn’t draw. They needed someone who could draw to put a graphical face on their proprietary suite of office products.

It looked better than continuing as an artist, so I left my Exacto knife behind and joined the Industrial Design Group at Data General. In between designing keyboard templates and nameplates for mini-computers, my job was to “infiltrate” the software engineering organization and persuade them that the Industrial Design Group could provide the services they needed to create on screen graphics.

Much of the early innovation in HCI was done in the mini-computer companies. In a few short years, we made incredible leaps as a profession. Working with Human Factors Engineers who had been hired originally to study the ergonomics of keyboards and flicker rates on CRTs, we developed a practice around graphical user interfaces, user-friendly design, and usability.

History moves quickly. The original Macintosh, introduced in 1984, had some commercial success. IBM entered the fray with personal computers and the clones followed. So many personal computers were in use that software was developed to run on all of them—with MS Windows in the lead. The mini-computer and its proprietary software were going the way of the dinosaur.

Employees were cast off and scattered to start ups. In each of those new companies, the same naïve question was raised: “Does anybody know someone who can draw? “

Soon I was moonlighting. It was while on one of these gigs that I first came to know the historical figure that continues to have a fundamental impact on both the field and me. I had been asked to provide an expert review of a graphical interface for a relational database management system software product. The human factors engineer who hired me gave me a report that had been written by Norm Cox, another designer who had done some work for her previously but was not available at this time. She gave me his phone number and said, “Give him a call if you want to talk.”

Norm Cox was the visual designer for the Xerox “Star” in the late ‘70s. The Star was the first product to include a graphical user interface, as we know it. Norm created the original bitmaps for the Star’s icons. To the best of my knowledge, Norm was the first designer to draw the document icon with the corner turned down, the folder icon, the printer icon, and so many others. Stop for a minute and consider the impact those bitmaps have had on our lives and our work. Norm’s background was in art/design/architecture. He’s described those first attempts at using early paint programs as being like trying to draw with a rock on the end of your pencil. And yet he was able to distill the essence of the desktop metaphor into 16x16 pixels in renderings so simple and clear that they have truly become iconic in the broadest sense of the word.

I had the good fortune to follow in Norm’s footsteps. I studied his report. I talked with him about the work I continued to do for our shared client. I confess that my first reports mimicked his very closely. He provided a model for the way to work.

When I reflect on that early work, I am struck by how different it was from the way I work today. The chief differences are thoroughness of thought, sole ownership of ideas, and care of communication.

The pace of work twenty years ago was much slower. It was not unusual to spend time learning a user interface. Research was conducted. Domain experts were interviewed. Specifications were read. Documentation was available. Products were learned and used. There was time to truly understand a software system. After a designer had a clear understanding of how a system worked, it’s strengths and weaknesses; there was time to think. Ideas were iterated, often using pencil and paper. More questions were asked and problems investigated. All of this learning and thinking was synthesized into a new design that advanced the previous design by solving problems and extending useful designs. A thoroughness of thought was allowed.

In contrast, a designer’s work today is often rushed and compartmentalized. The “knowledge base” of our profession has grown enormously. Instead of relying on basic tenets of design and communication, we employ rules of thumbs and patterns. If it’s more than so many clicks, it fails. If it adheres to a standard it is acceptable. We “check” for usability instead of knowing a product and thinking about the design.

I’m currently designing a study to provide baseline usability metrics for a large software system so that the usability of the current version can be measured against future versions. I am able to use very little of the software. I don’t know how. I seek out experts who may be able to perform the six tasks that make up the scenario. They are able to perform one task but are stumped by the next. The explanations are shocking. “Well, I worked on the team that developed this feature but that feature was developed up in Montreal. I don’t know how it works.” And yet, the user of the product moves from one task to the next in the same workflow.

That first report that I received from Norm Cox stood out because Norm solely owned it. There was a cohesiveness to work that is not always present today. Collaboration is valued more highly than solo design efforts. Teamwork is prized for its efficiency. Groups form and storm and norm. Ideas are brought to consensus. Although much work is accomplished in this way, the unique point of view of any one designer is lost. A single vision that may form is blurred. Design is homogenized.

Lastly, the report that Norm wrote was communication designed. It was many pages. It had a beginning, middle and end. It made sense and was easy to read. Fonts were carefully chosen. Pages were laid out. It was illustrated with pixel drawings that were embedded in the text so that you saw what he was talking about. Great care was taken in the way that his thoughts were communicated. It was a report to be printed and read more than once. The information density was high. It clearly articulated the way the product was designed, and where that design failed and succeeded. It recommended an improved design that could be executed. It represented a moment in time that was captured.

There’s only one word to describe communication of today: PowerPoint. Slides provide talking points. Stories are one-liners. Getting it done is what it’s all about. So much action is taken with so little thought or understanding.

In the last few decades, software design has matured. Graphical user interfaces have become the norm—and may become passé as voice, gesture and text interfaces become more useable. Mobile devices, ubiquitous computing, and computing in a cloud now overshadow the personal computer that eclipsed the mini-computer. The profession of design and usability has become institutionalized, no longer populated with talent borrowed from the worlds of writing, graphic arts, and architecture. What used to seem like the wild west of design now seems downright suburban.

Were Norm Cox and his pixel drawings a beginning or an end? Is thoroughness of thought and careful communication antiquated? Do synapses fire that much more quickly now? Have teams producing work replaced the sole designer creating ideas? Are bulleted list enough to act on? Debate will continue. But the influence of Norm Cox on this designer is treasured.

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