1982-83 Yvonne Rogers

Date of MSc: 1983-84


Project Title: An Exploration of Compatibility Problems Found in Everyday Situations


Pre-MSc Background: BA Psychology, University of Wales


Pre-MSc View of HCI/Cognitive Ergonomics:

I first came across Ergonomics when I took a third year option in my undergraduate degree at Swansea University. We were introduced to the notion of man-machine interfaces and the importance of understanding people (from a cognitive, organisational and social perspective) when evaluating how effective technologies were for work settings. I became fascinated from then on with understanding how people and computers could work together in new and symbiotic ways.

My early experience of computers occurred whilst there were big changes afoot; first, I started learning to program using a mainframe and punch cards, then started using a workstation for doing stats tests; and then spending hours on a BBC microcomputer running psychology experiments but also playing lots of video games. HCI was just emerging as a field and I had no idea what it was.  But my journey moving from a non-interactive machine to a highly enjoyable user experience set me up for understanding what makes for a bad and good interface. That has stayed with me ever since.

My third year undergraduate project was concerned with measuring different forms of information processing for cognitive and motor tasks when under the influence of alcohol and caffeine. It involved asking a number of students to drink a large amount of vodka and orange early in the morning followed by a cup of strong coffee to see how their interaction affected their motor and cognitive performance. The findings from this study were surprising; dispelling the myth that coffee sobers you up. Instead I found it made reaction time worse. Even more surprising, was receiving the Undergraduate Award for best dissertation at the Ergonomics Conference in the following year. This recognition spurred me on to greater things; wanting to know more about how human performance is affected by context.

In sum, I really didn’t have much of an idea for what I had signed up for when embarking on the Masters Course in Ergonomics at UCL. But instinctively I knew it was right for me.

Post-MSc View of HCI/Cognitive Ergonomics:

The Ergonomics MSc at UCL opened my eyes to the value of studying many different subjects rather than only delving deeply into one. Every day, we traipsed to a different London college to study the various contributions to Ergonomics; for example, studying lighting at the Bartlett, physiology at Chelsea College, biomechanics at the Royal Free and Cognitive Psychology at Birkbeck College.  Being exposed to so many different areas and cultures (‘old school’ Birkbeck was quite different from ‘new medical school’ Royal Free) could be overwhelming at times. But it paved the way for new insights, instilling in me why and how multidisciplinarity is central to HCI and Ergonomics when trying to frame questions and generate new ideas in the context of understanding the relationship between people and technology. I was also able to study a few subjects in more depth, such as cognitive psychology and organizational psychology. This enabled me to explore more theory, learn how to model users and conduct experiments to investigate the usability of user interfaces.

What has stuck with me most from my time on the Masters degree are my fond memories of the many visits we went on as part of the course to industrial places, such as Wall’s factory (where they make sausages), a now extinct coalmine in the Midlands and a control centre in the London Underground. We learnt so much more about real people, work and machinery than you could ever put across in a lecture.

Subsequent-to-MSc View of HCI/Cognitive Ergonomics

After obtaining my Masters degree I became increasingly interested in technology, interfaces and interaction design. I knew I wanted to continue studying after completing the course. I got a job as a research demonstrator and begun my PhD in earnest, investigating the cognitive, semiotic and aesthetic properties of graphical representations, with a particular focus on iconic interfaces. It was exciting to be at the start of a new zeitgeist.  I was inspired to think about future interfaces – having battled for so long with command-based interfaces.  The field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) came into its fore and I became part of that movement, exploring how to augment and extend a diversity of human experiences with new technologies. While I continued to have an interest in Ergonomics, for me, the action and excitement was now in HCI.

Additional Reflections

In September 2011, I took up the directorship of UCLIC, following in Professor Ann Blandford’s footsteps. She had done an excellent job during the previous 6 years overseeing the HCI and Ergonomics Master’s course, keeping it up-to-date, while expanding it to match the changes taking place in the field. UCLIC has grown and changed considerably since when I remember it as the old Ergonomics Unit back in the 80s. In the beginning there were about 15 students each year on the course. Now, there are between 30-50 students per year from all over the world. I am always amazed at the backgrounds, skills and previous experiences of our students. This includes music, media, philosophy, computer science, languages, psychology and history of art. It makes for an eclectic and vibey mix.

There is a world of difference when looking back between my time on the course and the current course.  For one, the student experience is very different. The course is more integrated in what and how it teaches the different strands of HCI and Ergonomics. Technology is central to everything, from the way we teach, what we teach and how the students learn. Many of the modules are more practice-based. The students have access to fantastic online learning resources. They also learn how to use a number of software tools that are industry standard so they are better equipped to go into the world of UX.

Sadly the visits are no longer – it is simply too impractical, time-consuming and expensive to organize for 50 students each year.  One legacy that remains is the course being available to students who want to study it part-time. We still get a number of students who work in a diversity of industries taking this route. It is one of our strengths to be able to mix a full-time with part-time student experience, so both can benefit.

At first it felt strange to be on the other side of the fence at UCL with such strong memories of my time here before; being the professor and the director now instead of the student. But it did not take long for me to fit into my new leadership role. My vision is to continue to grow UCLIC and evolve and update the Masters course to meet the ever-changing needs of industry and academia. Right now we are in the middle of revising the whole course. We have lots of discussions about how we might achieve this. As part of that process, we want to introduce more design thinking, physical computing and prototyping. It is a joy to address the many challenges and take up the opportunities that come our way while retaining the legacy, specialness and quality of the old Ergonomics Masters course.