Last week the world lost Dr. Randy Pausch, professor of computer science and HCI probably best known for his amazing "last lecture" Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, to pancreatic cancer. I asked my friend Lee Fuhr, an interaction designer and former student at Carnegie Mellon, to share his memories of Dr. Pausch:
I am a professional critical thinker. My job titles vacillate in the arenas of design and usability, but my core skill – and the one I’m most proud of – is my ability to abandon the stationary momentum of the status quo and think critically. The seed of this skill was sown at Carnegie Mellon, and Randy Pausch was its primary catalyst.
CMU added a Human-Computer Interaction major in 1997, one of the first in the nation. In HCI, I finally found a program that fit me. I declared at the end of my sophomore year, and I started my junior year with Intro to Human-Computer Interaction, taught by Dr Pausch. He was energetic, animated, and passionate about doing good by users. He was also confident almost to a fault, but never quite so.
Our first assignment was to design an alarm clock, coded in Visual Basic. I proudly set about faithfully re-creating the alarm clock I grew up with, the old familiar LCD screen with the blank "8"s that selectively illuminate to display any number. It took me forever, and I eagerly presented my hard work when it was my turn. His eyes welled with disapproval. He gave the class a chance to respond, but we were timid neophytes and no one mustered a response.
Frustrated, he asked "Why did you make it look like an LCD clock?". As I told him I was trying to emulate my alarm clock, it became clear I had no suitable rationale. He took the opportunity to make a lesson of it, pointedly asking the class "Why limit your design to old technology that limits the usability of your design? These old LCD clocks are hard to read, but it was the best technology at the time." I shrank into my chair.
But that lesson stuck. Not only the superficial "don’t mindlessly emulate old technology" lesson. More importantly, I felt like I was shaken awake with something more profound. We so quickly fall into the trap of well-worn solutions, but the pride and the beauty is to be found outside that trampled space. This is the nexus of how I’ve approached a fairly successful career and a satisfying personal philosophy. I am grateful to Randy Pausch for shaking me awake.