By Cheri Siebken
Ellie Poley has never been one to accept convention. She's an artist, writer -- and computer programmer. To her, the combination makes perfect sense. "Computer science is about taking a real-world problem, deconstructing it, and designing a creative solution. It's an interesting intersection of engineering and art form."
So when it came time to choose her Honors project, Poley decided to take on the accepted, even celebrated, standard computer interface used by non-programmers to develop Web pages. The interface is called WYSIWYG, an acronym for "What You See Is What You Get." With programs using the WYSIWYG interface, supposedly anyone can create a Web page -- just highlight a word and click a button to make it bold, change its color, or make it a different size.
Unfortunately, WYSIWYG programs tend to generate Web pages with complex code and generally do not comply with standards, such as those for people with disabilities. So Poley abandoned the WYSIWYG model. "I decided to just completely throw it out the window and try something different."
She designed a program that uses simple mark-up language that's very readable--like using a pair of asterisks to emphasize a phrase. "My goal was to simplify the task of Web design and allow the user to make fewer choices about the visual presentation and have them focus on writing the content, so they can generate a website really quickly and get it out the door," she says. "It also prevents users from designing the kind of Web sites that come out of a lot of WYSIWYG programs -- like ones with a magenta background and yellow text."
She developed the software the summer before her senior year. During the fall, she tested it on students, asking them to perform simple tasks using both her program and a commercially available WYSIWYG program so that she could compare the user experience and code generated between the two programs. Over winter break, she did more extensive testing.
Her findings? While users found the WYSIWYG program immediately intuitive, after three hours of use they still hadn't fully mastered the software. Users of her program found it unfamiliar at first but were confident in using it after the three hours.
But the biggest test came when she took the sites the students created and showed the code created by the programs to professional Web designers. The site generated from her software outperformed the website generated by the WYSIWYG program in every capacity. Poley's response? "It was pretty neat."
Poley isn't the only one who thought it was pretty neat. At CHI 2010, the premier international conference for the field of human-computer interaction held in Atlanta last spring, Poley's research won first place in the student research competition. And the contacts she made at the conference led to a job offer from Adobe Systems. She now lives in Seattle, where she is a user experience implementation engineer, working with software designers and developers to improve the user experience.
About her new career, Poley says, "It's exactly what I was looking for."
Poley is encouraged by the positive response her program has received and hopes to continue developing it as an open source project. "I really do see this as a way to change the way people think about Web content authoring and would like to get more people involved."
She would like to see people not only look at Web content authoring differently, but to look more broadly at the field of computer science and the people it attracts. "I think that we're not valuing the different ways that someone can get interested in computer science," says Poley. "There is this mentality that all computer scientists and programmers got interested in the field because they liked taking their parents' old computers apart in the basement."
Poley feels that for the field of computer science to move forward, it needs to be promoted in a way that isn't perceived as nerdy or requiring an amassing of technical knowledge. "Things like human-computer interaction -- looking at how humans are affected by computer systems -- I think these are things that would generally interest more people. There's this perception that computer science is all nerdy, all the time -- that there isn't a creative component or social awareness that's possible in the field. But there definitely is."