Thumbnail: Charlie Kreitzberg
By Clifford Anderson
Cliff Anderson is a Senior Usability Engineer at Wachovia, the fourth largest bank in the US. He has been doing usability work for almost 20 years.
Charlie Kreitzberg has seen a lot changes since he set eyes on his first computer, way back in 1964. "I was a student at The High School of Music and Art in New York and I got a scholarship to Dartmouth College for the summer to study music," he remembers. "Well, I happened to lock myself out of my dorm room one night. So I started wandering around the campus, and I went to the only room with a light on, which turned out to be the computer center. That was the first time in my life I had ever seen a computer. It was a huge mainframe with lots of blinking lights, and I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen."
Charlie continues: "The next day I found out that anyone could use it. I went to the bookstore and, for 50 cents, I bought myself a copy of the mimeographed manual for BASIC, the programming language that Dartmouth had invented, and started teaching myself programming. That was a transformational experience. Getting involved with computers changed the way I saw the world."
But Charlie was no techno geek. He quickly saw the human side of the equation: "I developed a passion for bringing this technology to other people, because it had such a profound effect on me. That was the beginning of the usability perspective for me. I really became interested in how you could bring this technology to people and make it so easy and so attractive and so simple that other people could share in this absolutely wondrous technology."
When it came time for Charlie to go to college full-time, he quickly declared a major in computing (at The City College of New York) and "immediately got a job at the computer center." At CCNY, he made friends with "another fellow who had the same passion," Ben Shneiderman.
Collaborating with Ben Shneiderman
"Ben and I got really interested in this field of usability and we decided to write a book, at the age of 20!" Charlie laughs. The book was The Elements of FORTRAN Style, "an attempt to be the first style guide that had ever been created for a programming language. It was published in 1972, but when you read it today, it reads like a usability book. All the way back then, we were very excited about usability." They followed that up with the best-selling, FORTAN Programming: A Spiral Approach, a text designed around a cognitive model of how people could learn programming.
Together again later in their careers, Charlie and Ben worked on HyperTies, one of the precursors of Web browsers. "HyperTies is a good story," Charlie remembers fondly, "one of the big career things I feel very good about. Ben came up with the idea of underlining pieces of text, and when you click on them, you would jump somewhere else. Well, I was visiting Ben one day, and he showed me a prototype (then called TIES), and I became extremely excited. I realized the enormous potential." Charlie negotiated a license to commercialize this technology, built a product based on it, and then sold this product to companies like Bell Labs, Hewlett Packard, and Union Carbide.
Charlie started his work with HyperTies shortly after having started his own company, Cognetics, in 1982. After getting his MS in computer science and while working on his PhD in cognitive psychology, he joined the staff of Educational Testing Services (ETS), in Princeton, New Jersey. When the company started to go through cutbacks, though, he saw his chance: "I got very excited about microcomputers, and ETS was offering a nine-month package, so I thought, if I want to go out on my own, this is the time to do it."
Cognetics has seen a lot of changes too in its 25 years of existence. "Cognetics has reinvented itself a number of times," Charlie relates. "That's really important if you want to stay in business." The company has published a virtual-world game, SAT preparation software, and a Muppets CD. On the usability side, Cognetics has concentrated on work in financial services, telecommunications, publishing, and healthcare.
The company's usability work has typically concentrated on design. "I really consider myself an interaction designer more than anything else," Charlie confesses. Within that realm, Charlie considers himself "very much an intuitive designer. I'm not someone to follow a lot of rules or a standardized approach. To me, it's all intuitive. I look at something and I see where it should go."
As for running his own company, Charlie confides that he "was never a business person," though he does "love" having his own business. "I'm very impatient," he explains. "I don't have the patience to work my way through the corporate process. I'm very much of a visionary, and I get a vision, and I get it fast, and I want to make it happen. I'd much rather work with corporations. I enjoy jumping from project to project. Usually, I'm there at the exciting, early part, and I can contribute a lot to the vision and the design, then I move on to the next project."
LUCID - A Framework for Interaction Design
One of Cognetics' main accomplishments was the development of LUCID, a framework for interaction design. Once again, the motivation was "that passion of bring it to people. We knew what good design could do, and we wanted to make the framework available to other companies."
He is currently working on the next version of LUCID, a version that emphasizes the people and organizational aspects of design and usability. Over the years, Charlie has discovered that "usability is as much about organizations and people as it is about products and UIs. That's why I started studying organizational theory and change and how people operate in organizations." Working with his wife Anne, a specialist on leaders and teams who teaches in the Executive Education Program at the Wharton School, he has been able to incorporate organizational and team effectiveness into his consulting, into his plans for the next version of LUCID, and into a separate product called In the Know!
Working with UPA
In addition to keeping his company going, Charlie has also been very active in the professional community. He has been particularly happy working with UPA. "I wanted to reach out and get more people engaged with usability," he explains. "When I found this group called UPA. I really didn't know much about them, so I went to a conference and I found out what really nice people they are. I really liked them, so I get involved in UPA." That included joining the board, starting The UPA Voice, and becoming the Founding Editor of User Experience. "I had never done a magazine before," he confides, "and I had no idea of how to do one. But I'm very proud of what we've done and delighted at how the editorial board has carried it forward."
Reflecting on the Usability Field
Looking back over his many years in usability, Charlie is very positive about the future of the profession: "If we've done anything, we've seriously underestimated our importance and our influence. I think that's changing in very substantial ways. I used to have to explain what I did, but now people say 'I need a usability person.' It's very exciting that people realize this is something they need to do. I think we're at a turning point."
"Usability people are some of the nicest people in the world," Charlie concludes. "We are the people who care about what other people's experiences are. We're a great group to work with. I feel really, really blessed to have so many great colleagues."
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