Murray Turoff
Distinguished Professor
Department of Computer and Information Science

New Jersey Institute of Technology


Could you tell us a little about your educational and professional background and how you came to be interested in computers as a career field?
When I entered Physics graduate school at Brandies in 1958, they decided (quite arbitrarily) to give me the IBM fellowship. Along with that they gave me a FORTRAN manual and told me to go visit MIT, sit in some seminars, and learn to program so I could do what ever any of the faculty wanted programmed. I became the computer "gru" of the department. When my thesis advisor went on a sabbatical for a year I took a year off to work full time for IBM and then while doing my thesis I worked part time for IBM. When I got my degree in theoretical astrophysics I went to a non-profit as a physicist but they had so many problems dealing with computers and the related area of command and control that I started doing more and more work on computer problems. Then five years later I went into a rather unique government situation as a senior operations research analyst and had a chance to work with the very latest technology in time sharing systems. That is where I had a chance to build the first Groupware system that had ever been created (1970), although we called it Computer Conferencing in those days. My primary interest had not been computers in those days but in the problems of humans dealing as groups with complex problems that required input from a wide range of different talents. This was based upon work I did during that period on the Delphi Method as a group communication method to tackle complex problems. Today people would call this Group Decision Support Systems in computer jargon. The computer to me was a device for being able to structure group communications and interaction protocols.

I was very interested in your online hand-outs, especially the "Folklore of Interactive Systems" group. You seem to be saying that users and designers of interactive systems have very different perspectives of the system. Is that true and, if so, what are the implications for those of us in the design business?
For a long time computers were very expensive and therefore it was common to sacrifice the human user to reduce hardware and software costs. A lot of people trained in this philosophy don't even realize they have been trained to do this and are just not conscious of real user considerations. Now that computers are so common we have a slightly different problem. Most of the software is being built for the masses. If you want to play music very easily you buy a CD player. But an expert musician would rather pick up a violin. Too much of the software out there is designed for the CD music players and not for real experts in even areas like writing. The word processors may have thousands of functions but not much to help the writers of books or large documents.

I was also really intrigued by your statement that "Value Will Overcome Poor Interface." That seems to run counter to a lot of current thinking. Do you still stand by that statement and, if so, how do you define value?
In the early days of word processors on personal computers we had a group of magazine writers on the EIES system at NJIT. They were reviewing word processors for the first edition of the Whole Earth Software catalog. Basically they all sort of said "my word processor is great" and were exhibiting the basic phenomena that the best word processor is the one you learn first because of the effort to learn a new one with a different interface. (Why doesn't everyone use the more optimum keyboard design?) At one point someone said they had tried a new word processor and it did not have any of the real formatting power of what they were using (WordStar I think) but that they were going to change to use that one. Over the next two months almost every one of the 25 writers changed to that one word processor that far fewer functions than any of the others. That was "think-tank" the first system to allow writers to do outlining and fill in the outlines. Most of these professional writers learned to write with outlining and it gave them a much higher level of cognitive support. They were willing to give up the fancier editors for the one that this ability that was much more valuable to their way of writing than the fancy formatting features. The real secret of good design is understanding the problem solving processes employed by your users to solve their problems. I can pin point many examples in systems to day where we do that poorly. As long as our users are typified by novices we are not delivering systems that are valuable to the experts. Philosophically and as an academic it is bothersome that we are not really designing the sort of the systems that would allow novices to migrate to becoming experts. Look at all the professional papers on the fact that users have all sorts of hidden errors in spreadsheets leading to who knows how many wrong decisions by organizations and groups. The spreadsheet may be easy to use but it is does not allow a user to carefully and systematically error check the results. It is not that the users are some how mentally retarded, but that we have not designed systems they can learn more sophisticated debugging procedures from.

You said "the real secret of good design is understanding the problem solving processes employed by your users to solve their problems. " Can you suggest some ways that designers can do this (or describe an innovative way that you have seen it done "in real life")?
There are a number of standard methods in the evaluation literature. In cognitive sciences is the method of protocol analysis. In anthropology there is the method of participant observation which means you become a user for a while and learn to do the things the user does - live with the tribe. But even to use these methods you have to become trusted by the users. Other related methods are using the Delphi method and/or Focus Groups to gather information on requirements from a wider sample of the user community and avoid relying on the squeaky wheels that are the first to come forward. The problem is providing the user community meaningful mechanism of involvement without putting control of the design in their hands. Most users are not able to understand the difference between what they believe they want now and what they will really want after using a system for a period of time. The designer is usually in a better position, if he knows the field, to project future needs than the user themselves. Sometimes it is clear, even in their current problem solving processes that the computer can provide improvements they don't realize are possible. In the real world it is difficult to get the resource to do the requirements development and design the right way. In this situation the designer is faced with using a lot of his intuition and awareness of what is going on with the efforts at the forefront of the particular or related application areas.

One of your major accomplishments is to develop the Policy Delphi technique. Could you give us a brief overview of Delphi, in general, and Policy Delphi, specifically? Are these techniques that researchers in instructional technology could make use of?
The original concept of the Delphi method as first evolved was to aid a large heterogeneous group to reach consensus on various complex problems like projecting when computers would obtain a major new processing speed through the introduction of a new technology (e.g. technological forecasting). It is a written communication structure where people are sent an initial round that summaries the obvious things and asks them to fill in what is not so obvious. After this first round of exploring and elaborating on the topic they will vote and try to reach some consensus. On the third round they are shown the disagreements and asked to give justifications for disagreements or to change their views. They are all anonymous so no one looses face by changing their mind. The policy Delphi recognized that on many policy issues people could not agree because they represented certain unique interests, values, and/or organizational commitments. The Policy Delphi was designed to allow people to express the strongest possible disagreements (e.g. a Hegelian Inquiry process) so that the sponsor or final decision maker(s) could see what the best information was for any of the alternative resolutions to the policy issue. It was the first Delphi designed to promote disagreement and encourage it rather than fostering a consensus. Some proprietary Delphis in organizations have been used as a mechanism to gather requirements form users as a group communication process. They have a chance to see what everyone wants and express group oriented priority voting for the benefit of the designers. There is a good introductory article on Delphi on my homepage.

Your online paper "Alternative Futures of Distance Learning: The Force and the Darkside", provides some sobering thoughts on the changing nature of tenure for higher education faculty. Will tenure as we know it today still be available in 10 years? Is technology being used by administrators to erode tenure?
I am very concerned that state institutions are going to gradually be forced to give up tenure and that the quality of education will suffer considerably. For some reason the general public has lost sight of the college education mission of state governments. Part of this is the money that the states have wasted on political decisions to put community colleges in every county and the huge resulting maintenance bill for the operation of too many second rate institutions. As a result some of the first rate state universities are going to suffer or are already suffering. There will always be the elite Universities with tenure and a quality education for those that can afford them. In the past decade the actual income distribution in this country has gotten worse (more wealth to fewer people) so that the net result is going to be less quality education for those that cannot afford it. The opening of web based learning delivery will also result in numerous diploma mills that will make people think they are getting an education for low cost. Our most recent evaluation studies show that attempts to deliver an automated course where the student acts as an individual leaner with pre defined materials and assignments and is just graded on his or her assignment are clearly inferior to face to face classes. But that the use of collaborative learning approaches with groups of students is just as good. All the administrators have these dreams of a 1000 students with a team of graders doing the cheap individual approach. Many students coming out of working class families and less educated family backgrounds have no perception of the differences between accredited programs and non accredited programs. I hope for the emergence of organizations like a consumer union for degree programs so that the consumer gets some impartial idea of what he or she is getting. The whole problem could be improved considerably if accreditation agencies ever realized they need to accredit the individual teachers and not just a program.

Are there 2-3 books, maybe not directly related to computers, that you found especially interesting personally or especially helpful in your career?
C. W. Churchman's book on the Design of Inquiry Systems made the connection between philosophy and the design of Information- Communication Systems for me and has had a great deal of influence on how I view the application of computers. Ludwig von Bertalanffy's book on General Systems Theory, 1968 was a book that helped firm up for me an interdisciplinary view of the world that has yet to be realized on most college and university campuses. Torgerson's Theory and Methods of Scaling which gave me a real appreciation for the problems of dealing with human judgments and showed meaningful theoretical foundations for such a subject. All the above books are very related to someone who is interested in designing group communication systems that operate through a computer network.

Could you describe a development project that you have been involved in that was especially interesting (or especially horrible) and what made it so?
I think we have all been in some horrible ones and it is particularly horrible when the nature of the organization is to promise more than can ever be delivered with in the scope of the available effort. My most satisfying development and design effort was the original EIES (Electronic Information Exchange System) effort in 1974-1978 under NSF sponsorship. There were no constraints and sort of complete freedom to innovate. Too many R&D sponsors today seem to have gone to the extreme of wanting to feel that the "R&D effort" will be assured of 100% success so that they can be insulated from possible criticism. There is some sort of paradox about assuming that the R&D has to be shown to be successful before it is attempted. More and more efforts want consortiums including industry commitment which is another way of stating: "Look we already know we are going to have a product!" True scientific R&D is an art of doing multiple risk investment with an expectation of like 1 out of 10 investments paying off a hundred fold. As a result I do worry about the state of innovative R&D efforts coming out of traditional sources of R&D funding.

What are you professional plans for the next few years?
It is time to get a group oriented Decision Support tool kit available on the WEB and I am encouraging some students to turn their efforts in that direction. Things like Java and Visual Basic 5 are going to make it rather easy to prototype much more sophisticated facilities than have been possible in the past. We are entering another shift in the industry where the economics are beginning to return to making software rather than always buying it. I still want to see the web based automation of the Delphi processes which incorporates the true graphic oriented communication structures that were traditionally used via paper and pencil and many of the more sophisticated data analysis tools that are possible for scaling human judgments and to improve the ability of humans to truly understand one another.