Summary: A core group of elite corporate research labs (and a few universities) defined the field of human-computer interaction and established much of whatever ease of use we now enjoy. With big labs disappearing, the future of HCI research is in jeopardy.
Web design and usability are subsets of the greater discipline of human-computer interaction (HCI). Dating back to Vannevar Bush's description of hypertext in 1945, Doug Engelbart 's invention of the mouse in 1964, and many other early projects, HCI has a rich history of research that has defined the way we interact with technology today.
Even though good HCI research occurs at hundreds of worldwide locations, a few research labs have defined the field and nurtured the most important work. Here's my list of the best.
The Dawn of Time: 1945-1979
Gold: Stanford Research Institute (SRI)
Silver: Xerox PARC
Bronze: Bell Laboratories
Gold: Xerox PARC
Silver: IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights
Bronze: MIT Media Lab
Gold: Bell Communications Research (Bellcore)
Silver: Apple Computer Advanced Technology Group
Bronze: Xerox PARC
A First Look: 2000-2010
It's early yet to truly evaluate research labs' contribution to this decade, so check back in 2010 for the final score. Currently, my assessment of the best HCI research labs is:
Gold: Microsoft Research
Silver: Xerox PARC
Bronze: Carnegie Mellon University
(Update 2013: I think my assessment in 2002 proved fairly predictive for the decade, because now with the benefit of hindsight I would still give out the same "medals.")
Making the List: Criteria
These lists obviously reflect my preferences as to what constitutes important research topics. I tend to place more weight on fundamental advances in two areas: understanding how people use technology and understanding the best methods for designing for humans (both of which were emphasized by the Bell system and the old IBM research group). I place less weight on demonstrations of new interface gadgets (as emphasized by the Media Lab, Apple, and Microsoft).
Long-Term Trend: The Fall of the Good
What do these lists of best HCI labs through history tell us? First, that PARC has been really good . It is the only lab to make the list every decade.
Unfortunately, the second and more striking conclusion is that the list highlights the rise and fall of the mighty . Very few labs that dominated during the 20th Century have any kind of prominence in HCI today. Also, besides Xerox, only the Bell system made the list more than once.
I certainly don't think that companies go downhill because they fund good user interface research. However, there might be a tendency for companies to reach the top of the HCI field when they've already peaked. Unfortunately, HCI has rarely been the first priority of new research organizations, so by the time research managers recognize the need for it and build up a world-class HCI team, it's often too late.
The Future of Corporate Research
It's striking that only two of the 12 research medals went to universities. I think this is because university departments seem to view the best HCI research as both too mundane and too resource intensive . Many academics disdain research topics that are closely connected to real-world needs. For proof, look no further than the appalling lack of Web usability research. There are more papers on unworkable, esoteric 3-D browsers than on how hundreds of millions of people use the biggest real-time collaborative system ever built.
Although HCI research can be conducted on a small budget, most of the best projects do require the lavish resources that leading corporate labs have historically provided. Now, however, the future of the field is in dire straits because there are almost no big-budget labs left. Will it be worth making a best-of list for 2010-2020? One can only hope.