Thumbnail: Aaron Marcus
Cliff is a Senior Usability Engineer at Ally Bank. He has been doing usability work for over 20 years.
User experience (UX) is inherently a multi-disciplinary field, and most UX practitioners use both sides of their brains as a matter of course. Some, however, do so more than others. Aaron Marcus is just one of those practitioners.
Both Sides of the Brain
Aaron started drawing on both sides of his brain early on: "Since I was a child, I loved science and math and philosophy, but I also liked to draw, and later do calligraphy, and paint, and do photographs."
As an undergraduate, however, Aaron leaned to the left side, studying math and physics at Princeton. At the same time, though, he wasn't fully satisfied. "So, I reached escape velocity from physics," he jokes, "and landed at Yale in their Master of Fine Arts in graphic design program."
It seemed to agree with him. "I realized I was having so much fun that I practically didn't sleep for three years," he laughs.
Putting It All Together
At Yale, Aaron also made sure he did a little left-brain thinking too: "I decided to learn programming, which I'd never done for my physics work. So, I was one of the few students at an art school going to the computer center back in 1966."
This, in turn, led to an internship at AT&T's famous Bell Labs. Aaron wondered what he could do with his unique background, but was assured by his interviewers that they were "looking for someone exactly like you."
At Bell Labs, Aaron was exposed to people like Mike Noll, "one of the first people to create computer art," Ken Knowlton, "a real pioneer in computer animation," Max Matthews, "among the first people to work with computer music," and Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie, the inventors of UNIX.
There, he worked on "a prototype interactive page layout system for the Yellow Pages." "I was trying to figure out how I could make screen layouts that would work interactively for the first time with the raster scan displays that had been recently developed at Bell Labs, just around the corner from me."
That was also his first introduction "to thinking about the user - the so-called user experience, how to make things easy to understand, how to make things comprehensible. All of the issues that we think about today, in miniature, I was starting to explore, back in the late 60s."
"I never knew how all those things would go together," he notes, "It wasn't really until I got to graduate school."
Aaron continued in academia, teaching and doing research at Princeton, Hebrew University (in Jerusalem), UC-Berkeley, the East-West Center in Honolulu, and the Lawrence Berkley Lab.
Creating His Own Opportunities
Aaron's ground-breaking work also continued when he started his own firm, "among the first, if not the very first, graphic design studio that was based completely in computers." Aaron Marcus and Associates began in 1982 and is still going strong.
Marcus explains the switch to industry by admitting that, "if things had been different, I probably would've just continued in academia." "I love learning about things; I love teaching," he explains, "but it was very difficult to find a university circumstance that would allow me to do the kinds of things I wanted to. My interests were so broad I really couldn't pursue them all in the ways I wanted."
"I finally decided," he continues, "to take a deep breath, bite the bullet, leap off the cliff, and try to create to something that didn't exist, which was a design firm based in computers that served the computer technology field and that would do analysis as well as design."
One of his firm's first projects was for DARPA, and involved "visualizing the C programming language more effectively." It also involved "doing things that today we would call ethnographic observations." "We were living with the programmers," Aaron points out. "By that time, we were pretty deeply involved with almost all aspects of thinking about users, what they would require, looking at them in detail."
That kind of ground-breaking work continues to this day. "The most exciting projects are the ones where we have no idea what to do," explains Aaron. "We've been in business for 27 years, and we've seen just about everything, from supercomputers to mobile devices to wrist-tops."
One particular project he remembers involved a "pen-top" UI for one of the first smart pens. "There was very little literature about pen-top UI design," Aaron recalls. "The opportunity and the excitement were really high, and the challenges were extreme, trying to think out what would make sense for a user. We couldn't interview and test people with this kind of product because no such thing had ever existed."
Aaron sums up the projects his company likes by saying that "we take on a lot of projects that are extremely complex, ones that our competitors, our colleagues, our friends say, ‘Here you take this one. We don't want to touch this.'" Overall, he and his company have "been able to pursue a body of work that combine interests and expertise in usability, human factors, information design, visual design, and cross-cultural studies. We've been able to pursue complex, interesting projects that are extremely appealing to us."
Connecting with the Community
Though himself a groundbreaker, Aaron also credits the UX community with helping him learn more about the user. "My connections with UPA," he explains, "certainly broadened my understanding of testing and informing ourselves about users. Of all the techniques my company's talked about, that we've written about, a lot of those are techniques that have been acquired and been refined through contact with the usability and user experience community."
In recognition of his own contributions, Aaron has been made an AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Artists) fellow and been elected to the CHI Academy, where he was "one of the first designers ever to be allowed entry." In fact, Aaron's not quite sure where he falls today. "At this point in time," he jokes, "I'm probably viewed a little suspiciously by some members of both communities. In terms of practice, I'm much more involved in user experience and development than any of the traditional, print-oriented graphic design activities."
Aaron also likes to give back to the community as well. He is Editor-in-Chief of UPA's own User Experience magazine (as well as serving on the editorial board of four other publications) and has himself authored and co-authored five books and over 250 articles. He has also "done a lot of tutoring and lecturing" too, and has been a keynote or plenary speaker at conferences for ACM/SIGCHI, UPA, and the Human Factors and Ergonomic Society.
As for his motivation, Aaron points to his "cultural, religious, and Midwestern background." "I'm trying to leave the world a better place than it was when I came in," he points out. "I want to try and do what I can to make things better and improve things in some way. I get satisfaction in that."
Aaron's background also explains his lifelong interest in multicultural issues: "Because I was born and raised in the Midwest, spent a lot of time in Ivy League schools on the East Coast, and now live on the West Coast [in addition to spending considerable time in Japan, Germany, and Israel], I've always been involved in moving through multiple cultures, through multiple geographies, multiple disciplines."
His switch from physics to graphic design was particularly telling. "I had no idea what anyone was talking about," he jokes. "I thought that I might be in an insane asylum. I was cutting out little pieces of colored paper, and, I could swear, the semester before, I was studying quantum electro-mechanics and relativity theory. The activities came to have meaning, though, and I eventually learned the language of graphic design and visual communication."
"One of my abilities, and of the associates in my firm," he points out, "is to be able to talk the talk of another group. And that means being able to understand their viewpoint."
Aaron counsels usability practitioners to "spend some time with that other group or other discipline in order to understand their point of view." "It's like immersing yourself in another culture. Understand what the signs, the symbols, the rituals, the practices, the heroes and heroines of this other community are, and try to appreciate them. Don't view them simply as an obstacle or an impediment or the enemy or the Other."
Appreciating other cultures and disciplines is something that comes naturally to Aaron. "There are people for whom both sides of the brain are firing," he notes. "I was able to combine them. I was fortunate to be able to do that."
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