All posts by Austin Henderson

Austin Henderson’s 50-year career has focused on the use of tools and services in accomplishing work. His background is in human-computer interaction. From the narrow questions of ease-of-use, his focus has broadened to concerns about what is needed to do the work, and further to the framing of working itself and the place of tools in it. His work has been grounded in observational interaction (ethnographic and conversational) with people at work, analytical reframing of the work and its setting, and exploratory development (prototyping and evolutionary deployment) of socio-technical systems. Austin has engaged a broad spectrum of perspectives of tool use across disciplines, work practices and cultures. His work has encompassed: - strategic industrial design (Fitch, and as an independent consultant), and - corporate research and architecture (MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, Bolt Beranek and Newman, Xerox Research -both PARC and EuroPARC, Apple Computer, and Pitney Bowes), and - commercial and research applications development in many domains (including manufacturing, programming languages, air traffic control, electronic mail user interface design tools, computer workspace management, distributed collaboration, and user-evolvable). He focuses on regularity and diversity in socio-technical systems, the interaction of people with the mechanisms in those systems, and the practices and tools of system development and evolution. The primary goal of his work is to better meet user needs, both by improving system development to better anticipate those needs, and by improving system capability to enable users themselves to better respond to unanticipated needs when they arise in a rich and changing world.

Rooms: The Use of Multiple Virtual Workspaces to Reduce Space Contention in a Window-Based Graphical User Interface

D. Austin Henderson, Jr.  and Stuart Card

A key constraint on the effectiveness of window-based human-computer interfaces is that the display screen is too small for many applications. This results in “window thrashing,” in which the user must expend considerable effort to keep desired windows visible. Rooms is a window manager that overcomes small screen size by exploiting the statistics of window access, dividing the user’s workspace into a suite of virtual workspaces with transitions among them. Mechanisms are described for solving the problems of navigation and simultaneous access to separated information that arise from multiple workspaces.

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A Multiple, Virtual-Workspace Interface to Support User Task Switching

Stuart K. Card and Austin Henderson, Jr.


An interface is presented that is designed to help users switch among tasks on which they are concurrently working. Nine desirable properties for such an interface are derived It is argued that a key constraint to building interfaces that support task switching is that low user-overhead switching among tasks requires a large amount of display space, whereas actual display space is limited A virtual workspace design is presented that greatly speeds the inevitable task-switching induced window faulting The resulting interface is presented as a study in theory-based human-interface design. It is shown how in this case theory is important in inspiring a design, but design entailments outside the theory raise new issues that must be faced to make the design viable. These design experiences, in turn, help inspire new theory.

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Conversational Alignment

Austin Henderson, Jed Harris

interactions, May-June, 2011; On Modeling Forum

People invent and revise their conversation midsentence. People assume they understand enough to converse and then simply jump in; all the while they monitor and correct when things appear to go astray from the purposes at hand. This article explores how this adaptive regime works, and how it meshes with less adaptive regimes of machines and systems.

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Following Procedures – A Detective Story

Austin Henderson

in Thomas Erickson and David W. McDonald (eds), HCI Remixed: Reflections on Works That Have Influenced the HCI Community, MIT Press, Boston, MA USA. 2008

HCI Remix is a collection of essays by those in the HCI field in response to a request for accounts of how a piece of work (at least 10 years old, and by someone other than yourself) has made a big difference to me in my work over my lifetime.

This essay is my response, concerning the paper:  Lucy Suchman, “Office Procedures as Practical Action: Models of Work and System Design”.

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Making Contact

Austin Henderson

in Steve Harrison, Media Space. Reflecting on 20+ years of mediated life, Springer, New York, NY USA. (2009)

I think the problems in making contact in Media Spaces can be solved only by considering the whole technical- social design of the human activity of making contact. I think new developments in making contact in Media Spaces are essential to making space as central to our communicating as sound is.

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VideoConferencing and Connected Rooms

Austin Henderson, Lynne Henderson

in Steve Harrison, Media Space. Reflecting on 20+ years of mediated life, Springer, New York, NY USA. (2009)

This chapter contrasts two practices, video conferencing and connected rooms, for using video to support distributed meetings. The differences in these practices are based in differing models of the social interaction in distributed meetings. At heart, the users’ conceptual model of Video Conferencing is that a distributed meeting is composed of two local meetings that are interacting with each other; the users’ conceptual model of Connected Rooms is that a distributed meeting is a single meeting taking place in a virtual space spanning two sites.

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Constructing Space

Austin Henderson

in Steve Harrison, Media Space. Reflecting on 20+ years of mediated life, Springer, New York, NY USA. (2009)

This chapter chronicles the growth of the author’s understanding of MediaSpace through his 20-year experience with coupling spaces using video. Key ideas from research studies and practice are presented, and contrasts with other genres of communication are made. The implications for distributed collaboration are explored.

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Conceptual Models: Core to Good Design

Jeff Johnson, Austin Henderson

Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2011

People make use of software applications in their activities, applying them as tools in carrying out tasks. That this use should be good for people–easy, effective, efficient, and enjoyable–is a principal goal of design. In this book, we present the notion of Conceptual Models, and argue that Conceptual Models are core to achieving good design. From years of helping companies create software applications, we have come to believe that building applications without Conceptual Models is just asking for designs that will be confusing and difficult to learn, remember, and use.

We show how Conceptual Models are the central link between the elements involved in application use: people’s tasks (task domains), the use of tools to perform the tasks, the conceptual structure of those tools, the presentation of the conceptual model (i.e., the user interface), the language used to describe it, its implementation, and the learning that people must do to use the application. We further show that putting a Conceptual Model at the center of the design and development process can pay rich dividends: designs that are simpler and mesh better with users’ tasks, avoidance of unnecessary features, easier documentation, faster development, improved customer uptake, and decreased need for training and customer support.

(on Amazon)

Making Sense of Sensing Systems

Five Questions for Designers and Researchers

Victoria Bellotti, Maribeth Back, W. Keith Edwards, Rebecca E. Grinter, Austin Henderson, and Cristina Lopes

This paper borrows ideas from social science to inform the design of novel “sensing” user-interfaces for computing technology. Specifically, we present five design challenges inspired by analysis of human-human communication that are mundanely addressed by traditional graphical user interface designs (GUIs). Although classic GUI conventions allow us to finesse these questions, recent research into innovative interaction techniques such as ‘Ubiquitous Computing’ and ‘Tangible Interfaces’ has begun to expose the interaction challenges and problems they pose. By making them explicit we open a discourse on how an approach similar to that used by social scientists in studying human-human interaction might inform the design of novel interaction mechanisms that can be used to handle human-computer communication accomplishments.

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The Trillium User Interface Design Environment

D. Austin Henderson, Jr.
Intelligent Systems Laboratory
Xerox Palo Alto Research Center
Palo Alto, California, 94304

Proceedings, CHI’86, April, 1986

Trillium is a computer-based environment for simulating and experimenting with interfaces for simple machines. For the past four years it has been use by Xerox designers for fast prototyping of interfaces for copiers and printers. This paper defines the class of “functioning frame” which Trillium is used to design, discusses the major presentations of the machine and its parts; concerns that have driven the design of Trillium, and describes the Trillium mechanisms chosen to satisfy them.

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