With great sadness we share the news that Dick Horst has passed away. Cory Lebson and Chris Hass share their memories of Dick.
“I don’t know if things can be made better in heaven but if so, I’m sure Dick is up there doing research and telling God what to improve” said the pastor at the memorial service for Dick Horst. I sat in a pew and looked around, struck by how many other local UX researchers were in attendance.
Tristan Wilson had contacted me prior to the memorial, mentioned that he was collecting anecdotes to give a eulogy on behalf of the UserWorks staff and asked me if I’d like to add something. So I relayed the narrative of how one of my professors at University of Maryland had connected me with Dick back in 1994, how Dick had given me my first research job and how that moment had basically put my career on its current trajectory. Tristan responded, “Our stories are so similar!”
And when I mentioned to Dick last year that my daughter, Talya, was looking for an internship as a part of her high school graduation requirements, Dick took her on as a second-generation intern as well.
Dick not only put my career on its current trajectory, but he’s the reason that I became involved in UXPA – then UPA – when he first encouraged me to present at a conference so many years ago. And as a respected thought leader himself and recipient of a UXPA lifetime achievement award, he was frequently found presenting at UXPA and other UX-oriented conferences. The last time we got to speak in person was at UXPA 2021 in Baltimore.
The UX world lost a great man last week. Dick was passionate about research – not just doing it himself, but also by mentoring so many others through the years and decades. He launched numerous UX careers and helped so many researchers build their skills, giving guidance in his soft-spoken and humble way.
Dick – You’ve been such an ever-present colleague, mentor, boss and friend to me over the course of almost thirty years. Thank you for all that you did – for who you were. I’ll miss you a lot, and your presence will be missed by so many others in our community as well. And since we all know that there’s nothing that can’t be improved with research, I’m sure that you’ve already gotten to work helping everyone up there learn how to iterate and improve heaven.
In July of 2019 I had the privilege of publicly interviewing Dr. Dick Horst for UXPA International conference attendees after he received the UXPA Lifetime Achievement Award. Being able to walk through his career with him and to illuminate how many of his professional and personal contributions helped set the pace for the field was an honor. As preparation for that interview Dick and I met a handful of times and he was kind enough to share his professional bona fides, his thoughts on the evolution of the UX field, and his perspective on his thirty-plus years in the field.
As we talked, Dick shared his love for the field, traced his professional origins to advanced degrees from Carnegie-Mellon, and how in 1989 he founded UserWorks (originally Man-Made Systems Corporation). He was UserWorks’ president and owner for thirty three years. Professionally, he was an experimental psychologist and human factors engineer with extensive experience in applied behavioral research, systems development, and usability engineering. In addition, he spoke earnestly about his roles as a barbershop chorus member, choir singer, and devoted grandfather.
Dick was regarded by his peers as an industry expert in developing, aiding, and presenting usable services and products through work in private, nonprofit, government, and academic sectors. His work included the design and evaluation of office equipment, medical devices, paper forms, websites, and kiosks, among other products.
Many of Dick’s colleagues credit him with hiring them into their first UX-related job and that that initial position, with his mentorship, provided an invaluable start to their meaningful careers. They praised not only his mentorship but his long-standing community outreach as a speaker and thought leader to HCI/IA students at the University of Maryland College Park and the University of Maryland Baltimore County. In addition, he regularly hosted class visits to UserWorks where students received firsthand looks at the inner workings of a UX firm.
Through UserWorks, Dr. Horst conducted numerous projects for the U.S. Dept of Education, Federal Student Aid (for more than 10 years), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the U.S. Postal Service, Spotify, and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In response to my requests for anecdotes, Dick’s peers had much to say, referring to him as “an innovator,” “a great mentor,” and “completely unflappable.” To illustrate his “unflappability,” Dana Douglas of Answer Lab shared: “During the momentous 2011 DC earthquake, Dick was running a usability session. Outside the lab, the rest of the office was abuzz during and after the earthquake, clutching our purses and chatting excitedly after knowing we had survived. But inside the lab (as evidenced by the session recording), Dick and the participant were so deeply engrossed in conversation about navigation menus or hyperlinks on some government website that they briefly acknowledged the earthquake and then Dick promptly continued with “So tell me more about why you clicked there…” Clearly, not even acts of God can come between Dick and his commitment to good UX!”
During our discussions leading up to his receiving the 2019 UXPA International Lifetime Achievement Award, Dick seemed a little incredulous. He asked several times, quietly, if the interview was a smokescreen- would it in fact be a roast? (This is not an uncommon question in these circumstances.) I repeatedly assured him that the interview was a straightforward acknowledgement of his contributions to the field. An opportunity to receive the accolades of his peers, and a chance for UX practitioners and hopefuls to learn about his work, his impact, and to recognize those contributions in their daily practice. How important it is that UXers of all stripes see that they are connected to a vibrant, evolving field, and that the tactics, mores, and standards we strive to uphold came from individuals like themselves making tangible contributions to the field and to each other.
At the conclusion of the interview, when the attendees’ applause had quieted, Dick held his wife Brenda’s hand quietly, tightly – visibly moved as attendees thanked him for sharing his reflections on a lifetime of quiet, thoughtful action. We don’t often get a chance to see ourselves or our professional lives reflected in the mirror of our peers, and it was apparent he was still a bit surprised, a bit overwhelmed, and deeply appreciative of UXPA’s recognition. Dr. Horst lives on in our memories, our professional practices, his family, and the ongoing work of those he mentored.