Bly, Sara

Bly at CHI 1986
Susan Dray (on left) with Sara Bly at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Boston, MA in April 1986.

Sara Bly’s primary contribution to HCI has been in expanding the notion of user studies to include the context of an activity as well as the task itself. In the early 1980s, interaction studies were typically focused on usability studies. Working with others at Xerox PARC, Bly and her colleagues were one of the first groups of HCI designers and developers to combine their skills and perspectives with those of anthropologists and social scientists, such as Lucy Suchman, to conduct ethnographically-informed fieldwork. This multi-modal approach has now become an accepted part of user experience studies to inform computer technology design and development.

Bly at CSCW 2000
Sara Bly (left) with Jennifer Preece at the Conference on Computer-Supported Collaborative Work in Philadelphia, PA in December 2000.

At Xerox PARC, Bly was part of a team investigating the use of technology to enable people to connect in new ways, predating today’s social media tools. The team based their work practice on the premise that technologies to support work activity are inexorably intertwined with the social setting and the nature of the work, as well as with the formal features of the technology itself.

The team’s Media Space diverged from the video-conferencing of the 1980s to provide an “always-on” environment. From an HCI point of view, the significance was not in merely removing the requirement of premeditated action to ‘turn on’ and ‘turn off’ interactions. Rather, it provided a space that could support and facilitate observations and conversations as well as ad hoc collaborations in a more natural manner. Their explorations included a link between labs in Portland and Palo Alto, tools for shared drawing spaces, and an awareness interface between Palo Alto and Cambridge, England.

Bly was active in the formation of SIGCHI in 1982, participating as a liaison with SIGGRAPH, and then as an author and reviewer over the years. She received the SIGCHI Lifetime Service Award in 2005.

Bly at CHI 2002
Sara Bly (center) with Andrew Fiore, Jennifer Preece, Ben Shneiderman, and Catherine Plaisant (left to right) at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Minneapolis, MN in April 2002.

“Sara’s early support for SIGCHI and her promotion of ethnographic approaches with qualitative data collection, especially in industry settings, helped advance our discipline.  She managed the Collaborative Systems Group at PARC, where she initiated many projects that led to widely-used collaboration tools.  Sara’s playful side was often on display at SIGCHI conferences.  The SIGCHI Awards page sweetly and appropriately lists her as a ‘founding mother.'” – Ben Shneiderman


  • Ph.D. in Computer Science (“Sound and Information Presentation”), University of California, Davis
  • M.A. in Education, Stanford University
  • B.A. in Mathematics, University of Kansas


  • Sara Bly Consulting, User studies for Microsoft, Intel, FXPAL, etc. (1994 – Present)
  • Instructor, User-Centered Design, University of Toronto (2005) and Oregon Graduate Institute (1998)
  • Manager, Collaborative Systems Area; Rank Xerox EuroPARC Liaison; Member of the Research Staff; Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (1986 – 1994)
  • User Interface Designer, Xerox Information Systems Division (1984 – 1986)
  • Lead Engineer, Engineering Research Division; Project Manager for Graphic Simulation, Software Systems Division; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) (1972 – 1984)



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