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MS in HCI...useful?

I'm planning on pursuing my Masters of Science in Human Computer Interaction.  This includes such things as usability, interface design, ubiquitous computing, etc.  Are there lots of job opportunities out there for someone with such a degree?  It's a very specialized field and I've heard that many employers who are looking for HCI are looking for PhDs.

Any comments will be greatly appreciated.

Osman

Osman Ullah
Wednesday, April 24, 2002

I've never heard of a company hiring an HCI specialist. It tends to be that the people in the decision making process don't think it's important and go for the flash over the usability. Designers who understand the importance of usability usually think they know enough about it to do it themselves.

The only time you'd hire an HCI expert is if a designer was in a decision making position and wasn't designing the UI him/herself.

Actually I heard of one instance of someone hiring someone to do HCI. It was a large shipping company looking to shave moments off of various interactions in the factory, making the whole process smoother. I believe there, where the commodity IS interaction (i.e. people interacting with computers, moving boxes, etc.) they can bottom dollar the value of an HCI specailist.

IMHO, YMMV, ETC.

MarkTAW
Wednesday, April 24, 2002

contrary to mark's opinion, some companies do hire usability desgners. sony is one. job opportunities are fewer than for software people, but it rather depends on what you want to do.

nope
Thursday, April 25, 2002

we used to have 3 such guys here around. They are morphing into something like functional analysts + HCI, otherwise there is not enough work for them.
I am currently in a webshop

Anon
Thursday, April 25, 2002

I typically hear of there being more demand for HCI experts in the hardware realm.  Particularly, the automobile industry.  Power steering has to have the right touch, radio buttons have to be easy to find when not looking at them, etc.  Regarding computer hardware, I'd figure companies like Logitech and the various joystick manufacturers are big on HCI.

In software, my impression of other "enlightened" developers' impressions is that HCI is vital, yet regarded as a luxury to all but the most successful companies.  In other words, you'll have a bit of an uphill battle simply justifying your usefulness to the Philistines.

Paul Brinkley
Thursday, April 25, 2002

I agree with Paul (in fact he beat me to it). There's a lot more HCI in hardware than software. CD player interfaces, mouse and keyboard interfaces. It seems the more it costs to put a button someplace, and the less convention there is surrounding that button's placement, the more thought goes in to it.

In software you can put a button someplace and change it with relative ease (the staff is already on the payroll v. the cost of manufacturing hardware), or release a 2.x with some assurance that the existing user population will upgrade.

With hardware, on the other hand... It costs more to put that button where it is, and a lot more people take it seriously. You're paying $20,000 for the car, any advantage it has over another car is important.

Also, in hardware there's alot more expense to real estate - the CD player can display a half dozen characters and a few symbols, they can't give you a monitor's worth of information.

You also live with your hardware more than with your software - the software is usually seen as a means to an end. I.e. Dreamweaver makes web pages, MS Word makes text documents, ProTools makes songs, etc. While a car can also be seen as a means to an end (the destination), car makers seem more concerned with making the trip livable.

My advice would be to study what you like. You don't want to study something you think will make money only to realize you hate doing it 5 years down the line and "if only" you had taken another path you could be making similar money, but doing something you love.

MarkTAW
Thursday, April 25, 2002

I've been a UI designer for six years, and started out in the field by getting a master's in HCI, so it can be done. There are not 'plenty' of jobs, but a designer in Boston / DC / Silicon Valley who's very good shouldn't have too much trouble staying employed.

Most employers are *not* looking for PhDs. Check out the jobs mailing list for the Boston SIG-CHI group:

http://www.topica.com/lists/gbsigchi.hotjobs/read?Act=view_archive&list_id=gbsigchi.hotjobs

The jobs typically fall into two categories: 'usability engineer' and 'UI designer'. The job situation for usability engineers right now is worse than it is for designers. My take on this is that there are a lot of people out there who can conduct a usability test, but fewer who can design good software.

So my advice: if you really want to design software for a living and think you have the talent for it, go for it. You'll get good experience, build up a portfolio, hopefully ride out the recession and maybe even get recruited out of school by a design firm. If you want to do 'usability', act more cautiously. Look for a way to do it part-time at your current job or at a new job.

There is a third path for non-designers, if you're serious about it and academically bent: get a human factors degree. Employers for this path (NASA, government, aviation) *do* want PhDs, however.

Jim Corban
Thursday, April 25, 2002

Thanks for the info!  Keep the answers coming...I'm still reading.  All this advice has given me something to think about.

Osman Ullah
Thursday, April 25, 2002

I graduated with a MS in HCI 6 months ago. Its difficult to find entry level jobs right now, although some do exist. Its tough to tell if this is a temporary condition in response to economic conditions, or if its a more permanent trend.

I think many companies realize the value of HCI, but aren't necessarily convinced that its worth the cost. Two observations about how companies have been dealing with this issue:

1) Contractors - Many companies hire HCI people for 3-9 month contract jobs in order to do UI design and usability testing. This way they company's products get some HCI advantages, but they also manage to keep costs down by not hiring a full time employee.

2) Multi skilled employees - I think there will be increased demands for people that can do HCI + another skill. This other skill might be tech writing, UI programming, graphic design, etc. Usability testing can be taught as a secondary skill to many current employees. Lets not fool ourselves, its not *that* hard.

I do think there will be the need for a small number of HCI specialist that do for example, User Research. But this is a luxury limited mostly to large companies.

Just my 2 cents.

- Learn to program, so you can talk to developers intelligently and code prototypes on your own.

- Learn basic graphic design skills, be able to work Photoshop, et al.

Paul Burkhead
Friday, April 26, 2002

What about being very opinionated so you can develop a 'cult of personality' and become a minor celebrity in the industry. Hopefully you can turn that into cash...

I've been tempted to do this from time to time. Every industry seems to have a few of them, and they're always controversial, in demand to speak at conventions, write for magazines, and usually start fairly successful business surrounding their core compentancies.

I don't have the quote handy but in Steve Krug's book on usability, there's a great quote in there along the lines of.

"A lot of my friends ask me why I would write a book on Usability, they think I'm writing my way out of a job. Well, I'm doing plenty of business and unless the internet boom bursts, I'll have a job for many years to come..."

MarkTAW
Saturday, April 27, 2002

Hmm, well I should point out that I have a BS in Computer Science, and I am currently doing software development for the government.

One angle of this that I forgot to mention to you is I AM looking for a job in software development, but I am wondering if my MS in HCI will help me by giving me some more marketable skills, or if I should look into a degree in some other field (like Software Engineering).

Osman Ullah
Tuesday, April 30, 2002

One of my pals has an MS in HCI and it has gotten him into more HCI work, however there isn't that much around. He said the coursework was not very rigorous (he did the MS while he was still working) and that if one could figure out a way to schmooze into an HCI job without the MS, two years of _HCI work experience_ would be worth a lot more than two years of grad school. YMMV.

bakataro
Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Osman, if you have aptitude for HCI, you would be better off getting a job in the field, if you can.

There are in general two types of jobs in HCI - staff jobs and research jobs. For research jobs, you need a PhD looking at some area of HCI, and not necessarily done within an HCI program.

For a staff job, your existing background would be suitable if you have an aptitude for HCI. You should be aware of the distinction between HCI as a discipline and HCI as an occupation.

Designers of all sorts - software and others - routinely carry out HCI. However HCI as an occupation often lionises psychologist backgrounds, and seeks to claim that no-one but a psychologist can apply HCI expertise, which is rubbish.

Artists, writers and architects don't do psychology degrees, and neither do software designers need to, if they have the aptitude.

Hugh Wells
Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Now is probably the worst time in the past 20 years to pursue a career in hci.  The MS degree will give you a better chance at the better jobs while reducing your chances at getting the worse jobs.  However, given the state of the job market, have something to fall back upon.

Ron Zeno
Saturday, May 11, 2002

How many schools offer M.S in HCI? has anyone have the list?

Ravi
Friday, January 24, 2003

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