User Interface Races:

Sporting Competition for Power Users



Ben Shneiderman

Head, Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory

Department of Computer Science

University of Maryland

College Park, MD 20742


Draft: October 16, 1988


Published as:

Shneiderman, Ben, User interface races, In (B. Laurel, Ed.), The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, Addison-Wesley Publ., Reading, MA (1990), 221-224.



Competition can be a powerful stimulant to high performance.  Car or boat races, rodeos, tennis matches, and chess tournaments are lively sporting events that encourage high levels of skill, training, mastery, and accomplishment.  Marathons and 100-yard dashes focus on physical ability, while chess tournaments and spelling bees are intellectually oriented.  Yacht racing or rodeo events combine intellectual, physical, and technological challenges.  In almost every field there are acknowledged masters who have won the admiration of their colleagues by facing the competition and winning.


The computer field has it share of challenges in terms of marketing competition and the race to build the fastest supercomputer.  A more refined contest is the Annual Computer Chess Championship sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery.  Supporters assert that these are good fun, good publicity, and even that such contests help advance research goals. 


I propose user interface races for the same reasons: fun, publicity, and the advancement of user interface research.  I think that it would be a nice addition to computer conferences and expos if there were public user interface races.  The media always like a good contest, the participants would have fun and win prizes, and I suggest that we would all learn a lot about what makes for successful user interfaces.


I have tried a user interface race with my students in an advanced Computer Science Department seminar on User Interface Design at the University of Maryland.   My simple word processor race had three timed parts:


1) type in an 81 word quote from a textbook.

2) put the words in alphabetical order with one word per line, except duplicate words should be repeated on the same line.

3) repeat part (2)


The times ranged from 1 min 48 secs to 6 min 56 secs for part (1), basically demonstrating a moderate three to one ratio in typing speed.  For part (2) there was an enormous range from 3 min 8 secs to 49 min 30 secs revealing a dramatic difference in tools and skill.  Finally, for part (3) the range was from 2 min 30 secs to 47 min 3 secs, but more than half of the users cut their times by 40%. 


This data was the basis for a lively discussion about which strategies and tools were most efficient, predictions of performance as a function to text length, guesses about the impact of using a mouse, arguments about which macro facilities would be best, and discussions about screen sizes, fonts, multiple windows, pointing devices, response times, display rates, function keys, keyboard design, etc.  We had several conjectures about what facilities should be added to word processors to speed this task.  The student with the fastest time for part (3) received a box of candies and in a non-competitive spirit he offered to share it with the entire class.  Students repeated the three parts once on a IBM-like command environment and once on a Macintosh-like WYSIWYG enivronment, but no clear winner emerged here.  The fastest times were usually with facilities that permitted macro creation or had some sorting capability.


It was a successful class exercise, but I would like to encourage user interface races in more public places with well organized rules, serious prizes,  and judges.  Adherence to the rules would have to be checked, penalties would have to applied for errors in the completed product or for violations in the rules, and there would have to be appeals processes. 



A variety of races


Let me suggest a few user interface races, recognizing that these can be refined and that others may come up with more satisfying challenges:


      * Word processor word shuffle: Each participant receives a file containing a standard text such as a quote, poem, or song.  They can use whatever word processor and hardware they prefer, but cannot exit to a programming language.  The goal is to put the words in ascending order of length, one word per line, except that duplicate words appear on the same line.  Words of the same length (number of characters), should be alphabetically arranged.  Penalty of five seconds for each error in placement.  The winner is the person who completes the task in the shortest time.


      * Directory handler descrambler: Each participant receives a hierarchical directory with 26 files distributed throughout three levels.  The files are named AA through ZZ and contain a single line with the name of a person beginning with A through Z (for example, Albert through Zelda).  The goal is to print the full list of names in alphabetic order, one per line, in the shortest amount of time.


      * Graphic editor gambit: Each participant starts with a blank screen and must draw a version of the word ONE from the back of the US $1 bill (complete with shading and shadow) in letters 2 inches high.  (Other possible drawings might the logos of a computer company, famous pictures such as Robert Indiana's LOVE, a state or city flag, or a technical drawing such as a circuit diagram or flowchart.)  Each contestant gets five minutes and the judges rate the quality on a 1.0 to 6.0 scale (similar to figure skating).


      * Spreadsheet superstar showdown: Each participant starts with a blank spreadsheet and constructs a personal budget sheet for a 12 month year (labelled across the top with the full names of the months), with categories down the side for (INCOME, HOUSING, FOOD, ENTERTAINMENT, TRANSPORTATION, and SAVINGS).  Housing is a constant cost of $800/month, food costs $16 times the number of days in the month, entertainment costs $150/month in the spring and fall and $80/month in winter and summer, transportation costs $240/month except for during August when a vacation trip increases the amount to $800.  Income is fixed at $2,000/month, so you can compute savings as the difference between expenses and income.  Compute row and column sums.  Winner is the first to compute the full spreadsheet.


      *Communications chain competition:  This is a form of team competition.  There are equal numbers of memebers in each team, say 6.  The lead participant for each team sends a message with the time of day and their name on a single line.  The next person adds their name and the time.  The team passes the growing message around till all team members have added their name and the time.  The winning team is the first to get the full message sent back to the lead participant.


      * Networking challenge:  Another communications challenge could involve people remotely connected.  Each participant gets a modem and communications software and can send messages to whatever bulletin boards or mail systems they know asking for people to reply by sending their name and birthdates.  The first person to get 100 responses is the winner.  This one has the danger of clogging some nets so some precautions should be taken.


      * Database query quiz: Prepare a database with two columns and 1000 rows.  The first column should contain a randomly chosen letter (A-Z) and the second column should contain a randomly chosen (0-9).  Participants must produce a three column database with the first two columns indicating letter-number pairs that occur more than once and the third column containing the actual frequency.


      * Charting contest: Produce a labelled bar chart showing yesterday's minimum, maximum, and average temperatures (three vertical bars) at 6 cities. The six city names must appear under each bar, the x-axis must be labelled, and there must be a title "Yesterday's temperatures".


Of course, organizers can create their own races, just as gold course designers create their own challenges to attract players.  We all have to learn about what makes for a good or bad user interface race.



Future fantasy


Who know's maybe someday you'll turn on the television and hear:  This is Howard Cosell broadcasting from beautiful College Park, Maryland where today we will witness the finals at the International Word Processing and Spreadsheet Olympics...