Courtney Grant – MSc Reflections

Date of MSc: 2000-2001

Project Title: A Comparison of the effectiveness of different usability techniques for identifying usability problems on the world wide web

Pre-MSc Background: BA Psychology, University of Reading


Pre-MSc View of HCI/Cognitive Ergonomics:

As a child, I had always been fascinated by technology, which was largely down to growing up with a “genius” of an older brother who could program his own computer games on the Commodore 16 when he wasn’t even in double digits in age. Frustratingly, he wasted his talent through a lack of focus, but it probably set the seed for me in terms of my interest in technology.

I have also had a keen interest in transportation and the built environment since I was a child; I think that this was largely down to the fact that my Grandfather, who came to England from Jamaica in the 1950’s, had worked as a bus driver. My Grandfather was also a skilled builder, and taught that trade to my uncles (my Mum’s brothers). I have fond childhood memories of working with one of my uncles on various building extensions in West London during each of the summer holidays from the age of 12 to around 14. I suppose you could have referred to me as a “labourer”, and this really spawned my interest in the built environment.

My biggest talent though was drawing and art, my teachers would always gush about my natural flair for art, and in terms of the built environment, I wanted to take the “Grant legacy” to the next level by eventually becoming an Architect. I had a particular fascination for football ground architecture, and I remember when I was 15, we all had to arrange to do work experience over a two-week period. Whilst most people ended up working in offices, I decided to ring up every football club in London, and managed to secure one week of work experience at Arsenal and one week at Spurs. I’m a Spurs fan (I used to build mockups of White Hart Lane using cardboard, which probably formed the foundations for my ability to make physical mockups of computer screens etc. for workstation and control room user trials) and it made me sick that I had to settle for Arsenal for one of the weeks; I was turned down by West Ham, Millwall, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, QPR, Charlton, and even Fisher Athletic! However, if I’m really honest, that one week at Arsenal was a far better experience than the one week I had at Spurs, and at the time made me wonder whether I was supporting the right club (I soon snapped out of this thinking and stuck with Spurs)! Although I didn’t realise it at the time, the experience at Arsenal gave me my first real insight into Ergonomics of the built environment.

At Arsenal, I worked with the ground maintenance team (which at the time was at the old Arsenal Stadium, Highbury), and I remember telling them that I dreamed of being an Architect one day, and made some suggestions on how they could make the stadium better, and the ground maintenance team gave me some real insights into some of the key issues at the old stadium, which looking back at it now, were all to do with Physical Ergonomics; the access dimensions between the seat rows, the accessibility issues experienced by disabled fans, the inadequacy of the foot clearance space on the steps that take you up to the upper tiers (I remember one of the ground staff saying that it would just take one lady wearing high heels to misplace her foot for her to experience a bad injury).

My dream of being an Architect started to fade soon after 22nd April 1993 with the murder of Stephen Lawrence, who went to my secondary school and was three years older than me (and was a friend of my older brother). Stephen was in the final year of his A-levels in the sixth form, and was getting ready to study Architecture at university. His artwork inspired me to get even better at mine. However, the whole manner and circumstances of his death in an unprovoked racist attack put me off of my own Architectural dreams for some reason. Perhaps it was paranoia; perhaps I saw too many similarities between him and I, in terms of our family backgrounds (Jamaican heritage), in terms of our career dreams (Architecture), and in terms of being “nice guys” who just wanted to get ahead in life.

I think that a significant part of it was that, but I have to be honest and say that it was also in large part down to the fact that I was experiencing some real troubled times in my own life at that time, which led to a real interest in Clinical Psychology, and in turn led me to switch from my Architectural dreams to wanting to pursue a career in Clinical Psychology. I did however retain that interest in the built environment, which again was another seed that would later come back and blossom in terms of my eventual career direction.

After doing very well in my A-levels, I started my degree in Psychology at Reading University, and at this point I still had my heart set on eventually training to become a Clinical Psychologist. However, mid-way into my second year, I attended a particular Cognitive Psychology lecture, the last lecture of the day, and the lecturer started off by saying that the focus of this lecture would be on “Ergonomics”…I remember thinking to myself, “Ergonomics? Oh yeah, I had heard of it; it was to do with chairs and tables right? What’s that got to do with Psychology?”

At this point, I obviously didn’t appreciate the full breadth of the discipline, and obviously didn’t even realise that what those ground maintenance staff at Arsenal were telling me about were all Ergonomics issues as well (they probably didn’t realise this themselves either though to be fair).

This particular lecture was about “Cognitive Ergonomics”, and the importance of designing things with the end-user’s abilities and limitations clearly in mind. I can still vividly remember the way that this lecture ended; with a video about a tragic transport incident, in which “human error” was a key factor. I can still vividly remember the eerie silence that engulfed the lecture theatre as the video ended, with the lecturer breaking this silence by simply saying “ok guys, that’s it for today, thank you”.

I remember walking back to my halls of residence, still thinking about that lecture. Later that evening, I met up with some friends for drinks, and yet that lecture was still in the back of my mind. I remember saying to myself “this is what I need to get into, Ergonomics!!!!”

After finishing my Psychology degree, I decided to take a year out from studying, as I wanted to give myself the opportunity to really get into my music before going back for more studies. You see, making rap music was a big hobby of mine from the age of 16-17, and after I finished my Psychology degree, I went from being a bedroom MC to actually being a part of the UK Rap “industry”.

I applied for the HCI-E course at UCL / Birkbeck, and thankfully I got accepted onto the course. For that year out of studying, I split my time between working in various different jobs (ranging from being a security guard at the Thames Barrier to supporting people with severe physical disabilities), doing Hip Hop shows at places like the Brixton Jam supporting established rap artists from the United States, doing internet radio shows at the Vibe Bar on Brick Lane with various UK rap artists who would eventually go on to make it “big”, spending time making records in the studio, and reading books such as Donald Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things” in anticipation of my MSc. I think all of those experiences prior to my MSc really helped me in terms of a practical understanding of HCI and Ergonomics. For example, working with people who had severe physical disabilities, and using assistive technologies to support them in terms of their daily living, gave me a practical understanding of the importance of affordances, natural mapping and the intuitiveness of the controls etc., which were concepts that I had learned from Donald Norman’s book. Furthermore, working with Hip Hop producers gave me a better appreciation for the importance of the need for the user interface to support the producer in being able to perform their tasks effectively and efficiently (i.e. correctly lining up vocals on the tracks, properly looping samples etc. within the software application).

Post-MSc View of HCI/Cognitive Ergonomics:

I remember that first day of the HCI-E course, how it just felt right, how I knew that this was truly a life-changing opportunity for me, and one that I was not going to waste.

For me, the best aspects of the course were the various practical exercises that we did, such as building a software-based music player (which was obviously something I was bound to enjoy given my musical interests).

I also enjoyed the various visits to different companies, especially the visit to IDEO, which was a real eye opener to me in terms of their work culture and approach to solving real design problems. Even to this day, I continue to be inspired by this company in terms of their approach to design thinking and strategy.

I would say that for me, one of the key strengths of the course was the systematic approach that it took to HCI-E, i.e. the importance of desired performance (PD) and actual performance (PA) being equal when a Human-Computer Interaction occurs at the interface level. This systematic approach to the discipline is definitely something that I have taken forward in my career as a Human Factors Engineer.

I’m very proud of the fact that I achieved a distinction for my MSc project. I’m however more proud of the fact that Professor John Long said that I was a “good HCI-E all-rounder” based on the quality of my coursework etc.

The thing I remember the most are all the great characters from my year. We were such a close-knit unit; we studied together, socialised together, and after late nights at the Student Union, crashed out at each other’s homes! I remember a few of them staying over at mine one time, and me having a Hip Hop challenge with one of my fellow students (who was a DJ in his spare time), when I challenged him to name ANY Hip Hop song, and I would bet that I had a copy of it, whether it be on CD, Vinyl or tape. I didn’t lose the challenge!

I didn’t realise it at the time, but on reflection, I can see how that social element and the strong bond we had really benefited our ability to work very effectively as a team when we did the practical exercises as part of the course. I would say that, now, as a very experienced Human Factors professional, the best and most effective teams that I have worked in have all had that strong bond amongst the team members. This is one of the benefits of the course that I can appreciate now more than ever.

Shortly after finishing my MSc, I was offered a job at Atkins (in their Bristol office) as a Human Factors Consultant. I moved to Bristol in November 2001, worked on various projects in Defence, Aerospace and Nuclear, until 2004, in which I transferred to Atkins Rail in London. I had a great time in Bristol and became a part of the emerging Hip Hop scene there outside of work. When I moved back to London, I worked on various projects, mainly for London Underground, as well as for Network Rail. I spent 7 years at Atkins in total, and in 2008, I was offered a role at London Underground as part of their Human Factors team. In that time, I have worked on various major projects, such as the Human Factors Delivery Manager for the Victoria Line Upgrade, and Lead Human Factors Engineer for a range of modernisation projects.

It’s funny how my varied life experiences sometimes intersect in interesting ways. I remember back in 2004, I went over to my friend’s house (who also does rap music). At his house was one of the producers from “So-Solid Crew” (who’s single 21 Seconds” went to number one in the UK Pop charts in 2001). I remember the So-Solid Crew producer asking me what I do for a living, and him ending up being absolutely fascinated when I explained to him that I’m involved in the design of various different user interfaces. That was an unreal experience, with him sitting there glued to my every word about the importance of Human-Computer Interaction principles for good user interface design! I do however remember him starting the dialogue by saying “don’t tell me how you got into it and why, because I ain’t interested in all that”, so perhaps I can scratch him off of the list of people who will read my HCI-E reflections!!!

screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-14-21-51                                                                    End of a Sucessful Rap Supervision


Note – more details concerning Grant’s career can be found in the following Summary.

Courtney Grant – Career Summary