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HCI in Australasia: Towards INTERACT'97

Rachel Croft and Susan Wolfe

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In July this year, Australia will be hosting its first international HCI conference, INTERACT'97. As you plan your trips to Australia, we will be running a number of articles in the Bulletin to raise awareness of HCI activities in this part of the world and to whet your appetites for the conference. In preparation for this first article, we contacted our colleagues around Australia and New Zealand to survey what they were up to and to get their opinions on practicing HCI `down under'. What follows is an overview of the field, based on these interviews.

The History of HCI in Australia and New Zealand

CHISIG (Computer-Human Interaction Special Interest Group), the professional association for HCI research and practice in Australia and New Zealand, came into being in 1985, as a special interest group of the Ergonomics Society of Australia and New Zealand. At that time, there was little systematic research into HCI in either country, and the activities of CHISIG members focused on raising awareness of their field through free seminars. In 1987, CHISIG held its first major event, a one day workshop at Monash University in Melbourne. By 1990, the professional body had enough members to hold a two day conference. Keynote speakers from overseas sent videotapes of their presentations to Australia, and took questions via teleconferencing. The `OZCHI' conference is now an annual four-day event. It attracts around 200 participants and these days, keynote speakers travel to Australia.

As the HCI field in Australasia has grown, awareness of usability and user interface design has increased. In the 1980s, members of CHISIG spent much of their time giving free lectures on Computer Science and Psychology courses, trying to raise awareness of their profession. Their efforts brought results. There are now postgraduate courses in HCI at two universities in Australia, the University of Technology in Sydney and Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. Swinburne University also recently established the first research centre in Australia dedicated to HCI; the Swinburne Computer Human Interaction Laboratory (SCHIL). There are additional groups of HCI researchers at the Commonwealth, Science and Industry Research Organisation (CSIRO), the University of Canberra, the University of Melbourne, the University of New South Wales, the University of Wollongong, Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia, Bond University in Queensland and Massey and Waikato universities in New Zealand.

Awareness of HCI has also grown in industry and the public sector, although perhaps at a slower pace than in academia. There are now established usability groups at Telstra (Australia's largest telecommunications operator), Reuters, the Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET) and the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO). There are also several companies providing consultancy services in usability and user interface design. The largest is The Hiser Group, which has 23 consultants located at offices in both Sydney and Melbourne. Others include Logica, located in Sydney and Melbourne, Gitte Lindgaard and Associates, located in Melbourne and Human Solutions in Tasmania.

While interest in HCI has grown in Australia and New Zealand in recent years, the field is still small compared to Europe or the USA, and its size and relative isolation from the rest of the world create both barriers and opportunities for HCI practitioners. As Steve Howard of Swinburne University's Computer Human Interaction Laboratory put it, "there is a real sense of starting something new [in Australia], of being able to contribute to major and permanent change, and that's exciting, but it comes at a cost. The community is small and we spend a lot of time just trying to get usability on the agenda". We now take a closer look at the highs and lows of pioneering HCI in Australasia.

Big Fish in a Little Pond

Since the HCI community in Australasia is relatively small, it offers great opportunities for the few who practice here. Sarah Bloomer, Director of The Hiser Group observes, "we are in a unique position in that we can pioneer new ways of doing user interface design because as a field, it has been slow to arrive here, and we have little competition. There is big software development from several large companies who consider themselves pioneers or leaders and this gives The Hiser Group the opportunity to join them in breaking new ground". The size of the market in Australasia also promotes diversity in the work of HCI practitioners. As Mike Regan of Victoria's Road Safety Department put it, "you have to be a `Jack/Jill' of all trades" to practice HCI in Australia. For some practitioners, this means working on a wide variety of interesting projects. Sarah Bloomer observes, "at The Hiser Group, we get to do lots of different things, from intranet development to user interface design, style guide development and organisational usability. This means we can apply our expertise across a range of issues, ideas and designs". However, for other practitioners, the smaller market has meant a need to combine HCI work with others types of work. Michael Rochford, Director of Human Solutions in Tasmania, found that to operate in the Australasian market he had to build his business "around HCI rather than in HCI".

A Broad and Practical Approach to HCI

Due to the relative immaturity of the field in Australasia, HCI practitioners have found it particularly difficult to convince the software industry of the value of their work. Janis McKauge, a Brisbane-based usability consultant comments, "there is very little perceived need [for HCI] in the marketplace. Not only do you have to sell your services, but you have to bring awareness of the need first. That's really hard. You have to create your market as you go". Creating the market as you go often means starting small in order to demonstrate to clients that you can deliver value within a limited budget. One response to this problem has been the development of a practical approach to HCI, another is the emphasis placed on cost-benefit analysis. As one practitioner put it, "[HCI] will not take off in a big way unless we can demonstrate to managers and developers that it pays to invest in HCI. We must be able to `sell' HCI based on a simple financial analysis of the ... investment".

The Australasian approach to HCI is not only practical, it is also broad, being influenced by a wide range of disciplinary and regional perspectives. Helen Hasan of the University of Wollongong observes, "we appreciate the American and European approaches to HCI and research in general and this gives us a broader concept of the discipline of HCI", while Judy Hammond of the University of Technology in Sydney comments "we are fortunate as we can stand back a bit from both [Europe and America], and make decisions about what approach to take wherever it fits best". This blending of European and American influences is also assured by the large number of HCI practitioners who have migrated from these continents to work in Australasia. Until recently, there was a shortage of appropriately qualified Australians and New Zealanders, and many HCI positions were filled by applicants from overseas.

Diversity in the HCI field in Australasia has also been influenced by the lack of opportunity for formal education in the discipline. The first postgraduate course in HCI was only established in Australia in 1993. As a result, fewer practitioners in the region have received what has come to be the `standard' formal training for HCI, based in the traditions of Computer Science and Psychology. Many have come to the field via other routes, such as training, technical writing, music and visual arts, bringing with them the skills and perspectives of a broad range of disciplines and professions. Multi-culturalism and the influence of Asia Australia and New Zealand are among the most multi-cultural countries in the world. The cultural diversity of their populations both increases the significance of cross-cultural design issues and provides an opportunity for understanding these issues. Greg Ralph of The Hiser Group comments, "given the range of ethnic backgrounds that make up our society, there's a potential to tap into groups of people to help us learn about what makes a good user interface design for a range of cultures". The importance of understanding cross-cultural design issues is also heightened by the country's position within the Asia-Pacific region. As one practitioner observed, "Asia is beginning to be aware of the importance of HCI. Being geographically close to Asia may open a lot of opportunities for us". Whether or not we are able to take advantage of these opportunities will depend to some extent on our ability to design with cultural sensitivity.

Overcoming Isolation

Australia is a big country of wide open spaces. Its population of approximately 18 million is scattered over an area roughly the size of continental USA. Penny Collings of the University of Canberra observes that Australia's geographical situation opens up "particular opportunities [in HCI] due to the size of the country and the importance of IT to support groups of people separated by long distances", while Helen Hasan suggests that it is the huge distances between population centres which has made Australians so willing to adopt technology to overcome the isolation. Australians are, indeed, famous for their quick acceptance and adoption of new technology. So much so that many multinationals use Australia as a testing ground for new products, which, as several practitioners noted, provides great opportunities for HCI research.

While the relative isolation of population centres within Australia and New Zealand provides opportunities for HCI practitioners, the isolation of the region within the rest of the world is also one of the most significant barriers. Almost all the practitioners interviewed for this article cited the difficulty of getting to conferences and interacting with colleagues in Europe and the United States as one of the greatest problems that they faced. However, the geographical isolation has been offset to some degree in recent years by new communication technologies. As one practitioner put it, "where would we be without the net?!". The multimedia boom Australia is currently undergoing a boom in the multimedia industry as a result of significant investment by both federal and state governments. Co-operative Multimedia Centres (CMCs) have been established at several locations around the country, and the state of Victoria has even gone so far as to appoint a Minister for Multimedia. As Sarah Bloomer observes, this puts Australia "in a unique position with regard to multimedia since multimedia is receiving so much attention from the government. I think that Australia can become leaders in multimedia production, and that one way they can distinguish themselves from the rest of the world is by giving a greater priority to the usability component". However, as Fiona Ingram of The Hiser Group notes, in order to benefit from the current interest in multimedia, the HCI community needs to raise awareness of the value of usability within the multimedia industry and to put significant effort into adapting its methods to suit this new industry. The outlook HCI practitioners in Australia and New Zealand experience many of the same difficulties as their colleagues overseas, such as a lack of recognition and poor support and funding for HCI projects. In addition, they have to contend with the limitations imposed by the geographical isolation of the region and the poor awareness of usability that accompanies a fledgling HCI field. Yet these sometimes trying circumstances have also influenced the Australasian approach to HCI in a positive way. While Australasia certainly looks to Europe and the United States for new HCI techniques, it is able to filter these techniques within its own context, resulting in a broad and practical approach to HCI. As Sarah Bloomer notes, "Australia often thinks it's behind the times [in HCI], and yet when we attend conferences in the States, we find that we are in fact not behind at all, but leading in several aspects".

The outlook for the future of HCI in Australasia looks promising. While there is still work to be done in promoting HCI, usability is now on the agenda. In January this year, Dr. Penny Sanderson takes up her position as the first Australian Chair of HCI and Director of Swinburne's Computer Human Interaction Laboratory and later this year, Australia hosts its first international HCI conference, INTERACT'97. The theme of the conference is `discovering new worlds of HCI' and the Australasian HCI community invites you to do just that. As Judy Hammond, Chair of INTERACT'97 put it, "come and try the Australian flavour at INTERACT'97 next year. It will be unique, exciting, and put a whole new slant on all that is happening in the HCI world".

INTERACT'97, the Sixth IFIP Conference on Human Computer Interaction is being held from 14-18 July in Sydney, Australia. Further information is available from:
Web site: http://www.acs.org.au/interact97
Email: interact97@acs.org.au
Australian Convention and Travel Services GPO box 2200 Canberra ACT 2601, Australia
Phone: +61 6 257 3299
Fax: +61 6 257 3256

About the Authors

Rachel Croft is a consultant with The Hiser Group based in Melbourne, Australia. She can be reached at rachelc@werple.net.au.

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

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank the following people who contributed to this article: Steve Howard, Gitte Lindgaard, Judy Hammond, Sarah Bloomer, Penny Collings, Janis McKauge, John Fabre, John Grundy, Helen Kieboom, Helen Hasan, Michael Bromham, Greg Ralph, Mike Regan, Michael Rochford, Ying Leung, Mark Apperley, Chris Phillips, Fiona Ingram.

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SIGCHI Bulletin
Vol.29 No.1, January 1997
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