Saturday, March 17, 2007

Steven Pemberton

I was delighted when I received email from Steven Permberton a couple of weeks ago saying that he'd be visiting the San Francisco Bay Area and asking whether I'd be available to get together.

I was fortunate to have worked with Steven when we were both on the SIGCHI Executive Committee several years ago. Steven was Editor-In-Chief of SIGCHI Bulletin for several years when SIGCHI Bulletin was actually a substantive publication; he was subsequently Editor-In-Chief of interactions magazine (1998-2004). Steven also helped found SIGCHI.NL, SIGCHI's chapter in the Netherlands; hence, Steven also participated in workshops I gave when I was SIGCHI's Local Chapters Chair.

Steven was visiting the area for a meeting of one of the two W3C Working Groups he chairs. This work and some of his other "Projects Past and Present" are described on his home page, where he states:
"If there is one thread that runs through these projects, it is about people. In particular, what are the changes that need to be made to the system architecture to make the resulting system more human oriented."
Steven shared the following elaboration with me:
"One of the main problems with current systems is that they are not built to support usability. Designers are forced to add usability as a layer over the underlying system. And then time and again, for each program anew. Imagine if systems didn't support filestores but only the ability to write bytes to the disk. Then for each program you would have to write the code to deal with files, and you can be sure that each program would have its own filestore bugs, programs wouldn't be interoperable at the filestore level, and there would be acres of guidelines on designing filestores. Well, that's what we have with usability today but on a far grander scale. System architecture is designed by technicians who don't realise the far-reaching effects their design decisions are having. And as a result, usability is a band-aid over the top of bad system architecture."
I asked Steven about the challenges he encounters in his work for W3C in addressing this problem:
"W3C is, of course, essentially technological, though there are areas that are people-oriented, in particular accessibility and internationalisation. I think the problem is two-fold: firstly, W3C is balkanised along the major design axes. There are people thinking about accessibility, device independence, internationalization, and so on, but they are not in general embedded in the groups doing the actual designs, so that often the non-design groups end up writing guidelines - band-aids. Secondly, W3C is member-driven. This is a good thing in general, but it creates a vicious circle: if W3C doesn't do usability, no one from usability will join, and if no one from usability joins, there is no one to demand that it be done. As a result, there is no group responsible for usability within W3C and therefore not enough attention is paid to it."
Steven travels a lot giving keynotes and other invited talks about his perspectives and his work for W3C. Slides from many of his presentations are accessible via his home page, along with audio of various interviews (most in Dutch).

Are you familiar with the concept and experience of a Dutch auction? Over a drink, Steven told me about his first-hand experience. Wikipedia includes a description, but that description fails to mention the second stage that is included for auctions of residences, a process via which Steven and his partner Astrid purchased the residence next to theirs enabling them to expand their residence to accomodate their growing family (those are their two sons riding on the front of Steven's bicycle).

Perhaps Steven and Astrid should expand their award-winning guide to Amsterdam to address Dutch auctions in full. Be sure to access that guide should you be planning a trip to their wonderful city.

Top photo of Steven by Barbara Mensink.