An interview with RusCHI's Ivan Burmistrov
Apala Chavan interviews SIGRusCHI's Ivan Burmistrov, discussing the state of HCI in Russia.
This is the first in a series of ‘interviews’ from local
chapters/prospective chapters from around the world. This first
interview is of Ivan Burmistrov of RusCHI in Russia.
1. Can you give us some background about the state of HCI in Russia?In starting a conversation about HCI and usability in Russia, I’d rather begin from a more wide picture of current situation with IT and software development in the country. Among all Central and Eastern Europe, Russia has the highest spending on IT today. It is well known that Russia is the second largest region of offshore software development after India. Statistics put the number of programmers in the country at 1.3 million, and according to the World Bank, Russia has one more million specialists who are capable of quickly joining the IT sector. The main prerequisite for this flow of specialists is high number of engineers per capita in Russia (55 per 10,000 people), which puts the country fourth in the world behind Is-rael, the United States and Japan.
In the structure of Russian IT market, software and services now account for 12% (much larger sectors are telecommunications and hardware), but namely software and services are the fastest growing IT sectors: their annual growth rate on the Russian market was 25-30% in 2003. And, of course, namely this growth stimulates the software industry’s interest in HCI and usability.
Today there exist a number of usability departments in software companies in Russia, mostly in financial, web development and telecommunication software development sectors. Also, there are two companies in Russia that fully specialize in usability engineering and consul-tancy: Usethics (www.usethics.ru) and UIDesign Group (www.uidesign.ru). Established in 2001, Usethics became the first Russian usability and user inter-face design company. At that time, there were doubts about the possibility of selling “pure” usability services in the Rus-sian market. But three years of the company’s suc-cess-ful work proved that it is not only pos-sible but also profitable. Another company, UIDesign Group has entered the rapidly growing IT market in 2003. The successful pro-jects accomplished by these companies include online banking, e-commerce, elec-tric power trad-ing, document workflow, ERP, billing, education, multimedia and enter-tainment, insurance, hotel business, and web-site usability.
There are courses in HCI taught at a number of universities, for example, “Software Ergonomics” at Moscow Institute of Radio-engineering, Electronics and Automation (MIREA), and “Human-Computer Interaction” at Novosibirsk State University and Novgorod State University. Department of Psychology at Moscow State University, which pioneered research in HCI since the late 80s, offers student course works and diploma projects in HCI and usability, and there are three HCI/usability PhDs in progress at the moment.
A number of companies offer commercial courses, for example, “Human-Computer Interaction” at the Internet University of Information Technologies, “Website usability” at Machaon, “Introduction to user interface design”, “GUI design”, “Website usability” and “Basics of display design for process control systems” at Usethics.
A number of books were translated into Russian; among bestselling authors are: Jakob Nielsen, Jeff Raskin, Alan Cooper, and Theo Mandel.
2. How many professionals are there are in Russia, in this field?My estimate is around 30-40 and definitely not more than a hundred. Seven years ago when I have been hiring personnel for the first usability department in a Russian software company, it was extremely difficult to find the staff for our team. All the candidates had only academic experience, without even rough ideas of industrial software development processes and software life cycles. Today such a task would be much more simple. On the other hand, now in 2004, the vast majority of HCI/usability specialists work in the software industry while only a few are academicians, and this is a serious imbalance as well.
3. How long has there been an effort to organize a local CHI?The Russian HCI movement has a rather eccentric history. Having a long prehistory and deep roots in both academy and industry of the Soviet era, the Russian HCI and usability movement became internationally visible only in 1991 with the fall of the “iron curtain” and the First International Workshop on Human-Computer Interaction held in Moscow. Follow-ing the success of this workshop, a series of annual East-West Conferences on Human-Computer Interaction (EWHCI) took place in Moscow and St.-Petersburg in 1992-96. The EWHCI conferences were at-tended by many brilliant researchers from the West, and the overall quality of presentations was very high. Selected papers from EWHCI ’93, ’94 and ’95 were published by Springer-Verlag in their Lecture Notes in Computer Science series. Very positive conference reports for EWHCI ’92, ’93 and ’94 were pub-lished in the old SIGCHI Bulletin. No doubt, in 1992-95, EWHCI was a world-level forum in the HCI field. And in 1993, Russian local SIG of the ACM SIGCHI (MosCHI, later renamed Russia SIGCHI) was launched and Juri Gornostaev became its first Chair.
However, by the mid-90s, the situation got worse. Forced by de-structive “economical reforms”, drastic reduction of manufacturing industries, large-scale deindustrialization, and the grave crisis in higher education and science, many Russian researchers and practitioners gave up their HCI-re-lated careers for new sales- and busi-ness-re-lated jobs (not concerned with HCI) that offered higher salaries. (By the way, our state-of-the-art usability laboratory at the Moscow University functioned (in parallel to research activities) as a film editing and dubbing studio during several years in the mid-90s. But that was the only way for us to earn some money for living… and for research.) The “brain drain” among the Rus-sian HCI community was considerable.
As a result, Eastern attendance and quality of pres-entations at the EWHCI were down from year to year, the con-ference transforming into “a meeting for Westerners, but on Rus-sian territory.” 1996 became the last year of EWHCI. Somewhere near that date, Russian SIG Chair Juri Gornostaev moved to the telecommunication business. Then, the organized HCI movement in Russia completely collapsed. Thus, the first, I would name it “post-Soviet”, or “academic” period of HCI/usability history in Russia came to its end…
But in 1997, the RTS Stock Exchange, the oldest Russian fully electronic system for trade in securities, created a usability department within their software development branch, and this opened the contemporary, “New Russia’s”, or “industrial” period of Russian HCI/usability history.
4. You have taken the initiative to revive the local CHI chapter. What prompted you to take this initiative?The informal “special interest group” in HCI existed here since February 2001, when the First Russian Work-shop on Usability was held in Moscow. The prehistory of this meeting was unusual, if compared to many other local SIGCHI chapters. In 1999, my colleague Yaroslav Perevalov and I created a web site “Usability in Russia” (www.usability.ru) with a discussion forum as a part of this site. Very quickly we discovered that our Usability Forum had broken the “wall of silence” that reigned in Russian HCI since the last EWHCI conference. The forum turned out to be a very popular and much demanded resource, and after a period of virtual communication, Russian usability specialists met each other at the real workshop. It be-came a regular event, and now the community is preparing to or-ganize the 14th meet-ing in this series. Usually about 25 to 40 people from European Russia participate in these work-shops with a constant core of participants of about 15 persons.
Examples of the reports at the workshops are: “In-house usability in Russia: current state of the market and prospects,” “Peculiarities of the usability work for a large Western company: experiences from Borland,” a review of the book “The ethnographic interview” by James Spradley, “The usability life cycle in Nokia”, “The usability of alerts and alarms,” “My experiences of working as a usability engineer in Germany.”
Inevitably, one day we started thinking about the official standing of our community. Different people proposed different ways of organization (to establish an independent Russian usability society or to affiliate with UPA, HFES, IEA, IFIP etc.). As a former member of the “old” Russian SIG, I always insisted on the affiliation with the ACM SIGCHI. After visiting CHI’04 in Vienna, Alexey Kopylov (UIDesign Group) and I presented a report of the conference with a special stress on our community’s prospects as a branch of SIGCHI. People were very impressed and intrigued, and our propaganda finally turned the “public opinion” to affiliation with SIGCHI.
5. Tell us about the recent meeting you had.Our last meeting held on June 16th was just the “constituent assembly” of the Russian SIG. We discussed the bylaws and elected chapter officers and standing committee chairs via a democratic procedure. We also invented a new short name for the Russian SIG – RusCHI – in order to accentuate the fact that this is a new community and not a sequel of the former unsuccessful chapter. Now we are waiting for an official recognition of our group as Russian local SIG.
6. What are the most important issues facing by local HCI professionals?Our problems are in many cases common to all developing countries, but there is serious difference between countries with and without extensive software development. For example, Romania has no doubt the strongest HCI community in the Eastern Europe and I envy their success. However, their community is fully academic, because there are simply no jobs in the Romanian software industry for usability specialists. The situation in Russia is quite opposite: new usability positions are being announced almost every week, but the number of trained professionals is absolutely insufficient to fill these positions. There is a real danger that our profession might be discredited by people who tend to call themselves “usabilitists” without any good reason.
And it is quite clear why we have such a scenario: Russian universities and academic institutions are still in a state of collapse. The Dean of the Department of Psychology at the Moscow State University in his recent speech about the prospects of the department, honestly told the audience that nobody can promise that the department could function in the future “even at the survival level.” (And this is the largest and richest university in Russia!) This terrible imbalance between the flourishing software industry and moribund education and academic research is the main obstacle to successful HCI and usability development in the country.
Of course, we tackle all other problems usual to many other developing countries too. Problems such as: the absence of professional standards and certification in the field, the lack of understanding of the role and positions of usability specialists in software industry, the predomination of technological concerns to IT systems development, and the low demand for the quality of UI from the customers. By the way, the latter is a specific “cultural” issue in Russia. Of course, I know that users do not complain in other countries too, but among Russians it is a “national trait.” Russians are particularly taught not to complain from their infancy. (This “stoicism” is especially characteristic to the older generation.) People in Russia are too accustomed to that well-known “misanthropic look” typical to many Russian (or, to put it more precisely, Soviet) products and services. Fortunately, the younger generation is more inclined to demand “humane interfaces” to the material world.