An Interview with Dr. Mike Best,Part 1

An Interview with Dr. Mike Best,Part 1
November 25, 2014

In our lives we are alienated from technologies because of the lack of thought of the human being in the process of their design’- Dr. Mike Best, HCDD Workshop Instructor

 We sat down with Dr. Mike Best, an Associate Professor at the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, while he was here at ITU to teach a week-long workshop on Human-Centered Digital Design (HCDD) to talk about  HCDD; the workshop and the discipline. 

Q:  What do you aim to accomplish through this 5-day workshop here at ITU? What is your personal aim as an instructor?

 MB: I would say we have two main learning goals.  The first is centered around Human-Centered Design, which is about trying to teach engineers to start with a human, not to begin with a technology. Designers and engineers need to realize that their solutions need to have a human focus, as solutions are ultimately designed for human users.

So, the design process under HCDD is very focused on ensuring that the end-users, for whatever the solution is; in this case we’re focusing on mobile phone applications, are in the loop and remain a part of the design process. Here we’re  not just about talking about what they (the users) need, but also what makes for a good design in a solution – and even how you evaluate the end-product. That’s learning goal number one for the HCDD workshop.

As for learning goal number two, we are using a particular platform for the development of android applications called AppInventor. So, that’s a very practical learning goal – which is for the students in the workshop to become fluent in the development of mobile apps on this platform.  Some participants are creating the very first app in their life in this workshop. Others have made phones apps before but are new to AppInventor.

 Q: So, AppInventor is opensource?

 MB: Yes, it is.

 Q:  Is it adding to participants’ employability? How are they benefitting from learning this platform?

 MB: AppInventor shows how powerful you are as potential technology designers. It builds confidence. One of the great things about AppInventor it that it’s really easy to build basic phone apps on it. It demystifies the magic of phone applications.  It makes it clear that not only the biggest nerds who have taken a decade learning the intricacies of some particular technology can do this. It is something that folks that who have even the most basic technological literacy and a good design sense can easily use.

Q:  When you talk about HCDD, are you talking about its usability i.e.  the user experience, or do you focus on the visual aesthetics of it as well?

 MB: Yes, both but in the context of this workshop, the computer-interaction and user-interface design component is more important than the visual aesthetics. Right now we are more thinking more about user-interface than the visual aesthetic, especially given that we have just five days here.

I: Now, delving into the term Human-Centered Digital Design; isn’t every product basically designed to be human-centered?  Why is there a need to demarcate the term? Is this something new? Is this actually a new approach?

 MB:  I believe all technology should be human-centered, as you described. And I also believe that very few actually are; it’s something that is rarely done. I will give an example. Now I have a PhD from MIT so you would think that I can figure out how the thermostats in this building (Arfa Software Technology Park) work, and yet I can’t!  The thermostats in the classroom where the workshop takes place are so obscure that it took three days and conversations with three different technicians just to get the temperature to the desired 23 degrees Celsius. Whoever designed this system was just basically focusing on pulling up a quick solution to an engineering problem rather than thinking in terms of a design which would not be complicated and arcane to the human-being who is eventually the end-user. Actually, there is not even a design to it; it’s just engineers building a thing without any concept of design or people.

In our lives we are alienated from technologies because of the lack of thought of the human being in the process of their design.  I think this workshop brings a great and much needed addition to the training ITU students are getting as part of their computer science and electrical engineering degrees.

When a typical computer science student shows up for a class in HCDD- and this frequently happens in my undergraduate class in the United States, and finds out that we are not going to touch a technology or look at anything directly computing related for days, she or he feels a little unmoored. Instead, HCDD classes and workshops focus on getting computer scientists and engineers to talk to people, and think about ideation, about design, about challenges, and not about solutions.  It’s really difficult for students to do this because they are not trained to do it.  It takes classes like HCDD workshop to get them to begin to realize the value of not immediately hacking at a solution.

 Dr. Best is an associate professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology where he directs the Technologies and International Development Lab. Dr. Best is director of the PhD Program within the Sam Nunn School. He is also a faculty associate of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Professor Best is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the widely read journal, Information Technologies and International Development. He holds a Ph.D. from MIT and has served as director of Media Lab Asia in India and head of the eDevelopment group at the MIT Media Lab.