This week we had a paper to review, courtesy of Edgar. The paper was “Using HCI Techniques to Design a More Usable Programming System” by Pane, Myers and Miller*, which was recently jointly awarded the “Most influential paper from approximately one decade ago” at the IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing (VL/HCC) 2012. That alone makes it worthy of reviewing, but a number of the group also have an interest in visual languages and designing systems to help novice programmers.

The paper gives quite a high level account of the design and initial testing of the HANDS programming system. The design is aimed at children of grade 5 and above, which Judith kindly translated for those of us not familiar with the US grade system as age 10 and over. The authors begin by undertaking a user study to see how non-programmers approached problems they designed, and what sort of constructs and language were used. The programming language and environment were then designed together, with the visual metaphors aiming to underpin the coding structure. This design was then re-tested.

The group (as ever) had a lively debate about the code structure they hit upon, some people saying they hadn’t simplified enough, others (Ellie!) saying that it looked a little ambiguous in places. Some people questioned the methodology (always). Eventually (via Jim) we hit on an apparently old question that is at the heart of the visual languages research: are you trying to come up with something to teach people how to go on and learn other programming languages? Or are you trying to create a new, complete, usable language?

After we finished with the paper we had a slight extension to the meeting. Katy had asked us to provide a student with some feedback on a paper prototype for a visual programming learning tool he (Chris) is designing. It was a lovely prototype, with some really nice touches. It followed on really well from the paper, and hopefully he got some useful feedback and ideas on what to do next. It will be great to see where he takes it.

Sadly no cake this week, but none of us were quite desperate enough to defrost the cakes in the freezer! Fortunately no one was harmed as a result of the lack of sugar (some slightly elderly mini-rolls were “tidied”). Next week we will have to remember biscuits…


*Pane, J.F., Myers, B. a. & Miller, L.B., 2002. Using HCI techniques to design a more usable programming system. Proceedings IEEE 2002 Symposia on Human Centric Computing Languages and Environments, (Hcc), pp.198–206. Available at: