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World-Wide CHI: The Internet and HCI in Australasia

Dean Wood and Susan Wolfe

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In the previous edition of the SIGCHI Bulletin, Rachel Croft and Susan Wolfe presented an overview of how Australasian HCI professionals perceive their field in relation to their peers in other countries. A strong theme in that article was that the Internet is perceived as a vital tool for overcoming distance between HCI professionals within Australasia and their colleagues in other parts of the world. In this article we explore these issues further to find out how the Internet is used by Australasian HCI professionals and how they see themselves using the Internet in the future. The information for this article was gathered via a survey sent to our colleagues in the lead up to Christmas and only thirteen HCI professionals were able to respond in time, so the small sample size should be considered in the responses reported below. For the purpose of this article, the term "Internet" is used to refer to all web browsing, FTP, Listservs, discussion groups, e-mail and related systems.

A Snap-Shot of Current Internet Usage by Australasian HCI Professionals

The responses indicate that HCI professionals currently use the Internet for a wide range of tasks. The most frequently identified uses of the Internet were searching and browsing information (particularly conference information), reports, research papers and prototype systems. Some respondents suggested that they use the Internet to find and down-load new products.

The majority of respondents also report using Listservs and discussion groups to find out the latest developments in HCI and to discuss methods and interface design concepts. Resources currently used by respondents include UTEST, Contextual Connection and CHISIG list (a Listserv used by the Australian Computer-Human Interaction Special Interest Group). Respondents also report using discussion groups on British HCI, Cognitive Science and Design Management. E-mail was reported as a valuable tool for teleworking and for exchanging files on geographically distributed projects. E-mail was also reported as a good way of keeping in touch with remote friends and colleagues met at conferences. The web was reported as a good means of locating people with complementary skills and interests though one respondent suggested that it is hard work to locate and maintain these contacts. Other respondents report using the Internet to give or receive training and mentoring. Interestingly, few respondents use the Internet for conducting usability evaluations, marketing themselves or searching for new clients.

Internet Projects in Australasia

Respondents identified a diverse array of Internet projects that have commenced in Australasia. John Grundy of the University of Waikato reports working on a project to design an extended web browser to support distributed co-operative work and another project to design web-based software development tools. Penny Collings of the University of Canberra reports working on a project to use the Internet as a front-end to support flexible delivery of the University's courses. Janis McKauge, Director of VisionDesign in Brisbane, referenced an Internet project to publicise Australian music acts to overseas markets, particularly Asia. Susan Wolfe from The Hiser Group identified several projects that the company has completed in the web area, including Internet and intranet facilitation, design and evaluations, all with clients in both the public and private sectors.

How the Internet Could Better Support Australasian HCI Professionals

Apart from the anticipated requests for greater speed and reliability, respondents expressed a number of requirements for ways that Internet products and services could support them more effectively. Many respondents requested better facilities to search and sort information. Janis McKauge suggested that she would subscribe to more services if there were better management tools for filtering and organising information so it can be accessed when needed. Anne Miller of Telstra and others also suggest that the time needed to search for information is a significant dis-incentive to using the Internet at this stage. Mike Floyd of The Hiser Group sums up the need for improved search tools by suggesting that "word of mouth is still what gets me the most useful sites". As a result, Australasian HCI practitioners express a strong need for search tools that can be tailored and refined to match their needs and also pro-actively find information that seems relevant to current and future projects.

Karen Redhead of The Hiser Group expressed a need for the web to be technically simple if it is to remain useful to the average user. The pace of change to web browsers and plug-ins could prevent an increasing number of users from accessing the information they need because their machines have not been set up with the latest technologies. Karen also noted the trend towards high quality information becoming costly, which could impact on its future usefulness.

John Grundy suggests that he requires tools to better support information sharing as well as process modelling to co-ordinate work via the Internet. Another respondent requested Internet tools to support richer, more dynamic and spontaneous collaboration in distributed teams working on interface designs.

How HCI Professionals See Themselves Using the Internet in Five Years

When HCI professionals were asked how they see themselves using the Internet in five years, their responses varied widely. Several respondents see themselves using the Internet in a similar manner to the way they use it at present but with better search and information management tools. Some suggested that they see themselves using the Internet more to complete day-to-day tasks like finding and purchasing products, paying bills and booking trips.

Janis McKauge and others see the Internet as presenting significant scope for designing new products and services. Janis sees herself using Internet tools that integrate her phone, fax, voice mail, television, video and sound systems. Janis also notes that the Internet is leading to more flexible and distributed work systems and may also bring change to the way that HCI practitioners work. The Internet offers scope to put together distributed teams of specialist consultants and organisations to design more personalised products for global niche markets. Janis suggests that the Internet is fostering new work systems and the attention of HCI professionals could move to more of a living / life-style focus. HCI professionals could assist people put together technological and work packages that help them achieve control over where and how they work to improve their quality of life.

Some respondents see themselves delivering and receiving training via the Internet. The expansion of the use of the Internet for flexible delivery of courses to surrounding countries is likely to provide a significant opportunity for Australasia, though this will necessitate interface designs that are sensitive to cultural differences and highlight the importance of a multi-cultural usability strategy. Some respondents see themselves using the Internet specifically for training and mentoring in the area of HCI as part of their on-going professional development. Australia has a long history in distance education and the lessons learned from this experience are being rapidly applied to the Internet.

The responses to the questionnaire highlight the fact that Australasian HCI professionals are exploring a diverse array of possibilities for how the Internet can change our work, social lives and education. Although young, the Australasian HCI community is taking every opportunity to overcome distance and collaborate with their international HCI colleagues to shape the future design and application of the Internet. INTERACT '97 offers us all an ideal opportunity to meet and explore emerging usability issues, opportunities, designs and applications for the Internet in a country where isolation has often necessitated innovation. INTERACT '97 will be held from 1418 July 1997 in Sydney, Australia and offers scope for Usability professionals in the international HCI community to show-case their work and collaborate on conceptualising new Internet tools to support HCI practitioners and other user groups.

About the Authors

Dean Wood is a consultant with the Hiser Group based in Melbourne, Australia.

Susan Wolfe is Principal Consultant and Consultant Development Manager with The Hiser Group based in Sydney, Australia. Susan is also the Adjunct International Chair of SIGCHI for the Asia Pacific region. She can be reached at 105312.1477@compuserve.com.

The authors would like to thank those who responded to the questionnaire distributed to gather information for the article.

Same topic in earlier issue
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Vol.29 No.2, April 1997
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