Malmö point-of-view: CHI is coming around

The full name is ACM International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, but everybody just calls it CHI. It is the most important academic conference in the field of human-computer interaction and interaction design, held annually since 1982.

Jonas Löwgren reports from CHI ’12 where three papers written by Medea researchers were presented.

When I was starting my academic career, I went to CHI every year from 1989 to 1995. After those years, my research interests had developed in directions that deviated from main CHI topics, so I kind of gave it up. I went to one conference in 2006, and came back quite disappointed. My sense then was that the CHI community was still mostly concerned with making more efficient interfaces for individual use, and that more mature notions of design, experience, communication and sociality were largely missing.

In May 2012, however, there were five of us from K3 and Medea going to this year’s CHI conference in Austin, Texas. Bo Reimer and I gave a paper on collaborative media and how that challenges CHI notions of design processes and designer roles; Pelle Ehn and Per Linde together with a few co-authors gave a design-theoretical paper on things and infrastructuring. Both of those were in the same session, which was quite well attended and received. Finally, Mads Høbye presented his Touchbox as part of the exhibition and it was selected part of the “permanent collection”, which basically meant that Mads got the opportunity to show it throughout the conference.

Pelle and Per giving their talk, performed as a conversation.
Pelle and Per giving their talk, performed as a conversation.
Invited speaker Richard Shusterman and technical program chair Kia Höök enjoying the Touchbox.
Invited speaker Richard Shusterman and technical program chair Kia Höök enjoying the Touchbox.

Summarizing a four-day conference with 2500+ attendees and 100+ sessions is very hard, of course, but I do have a few general impressions that might capture some of the essence.

The mainstream of the CHI conference and community is still mainstream. Meaning that much research is devoted to the individual user doing her tasks and how new digital technology can help her do those tasks in more efficient ways. Mainstream CHI also implies that the way to validate a new design idea is to test it with users and preferably collect quantitative data on the improvements.

Having said that, this year’s CHI conference showed clear signs of opening up towards approaches that would feel more familiar to us in Malmö. For one thing, there is a slowly but steadily growing interest in design research and in questions of what it means to do design as part of academic knowledge construction processes.

Another growing trend in the CHI community seems to be experiments in interaction technology, oriented towards exploring materials and opening design possibilities rather than solving existing problems. There were several presentations and demonstrations, mostly originating from Asia, that were clearly “no no pah-puss” (i.e., of no purpose in the mainstream, instrumental sense).

Bo and I claimed in our paper that for most people, most of the time, the computer today is a medium for communicating with other people (as opposed to a tool for doing individual tasks). This is clearly still a fringe perspective at CHI, but we found the occasional nugget of support in the conference program. For instance, the opening keynote was given by Margaret Gould Stewart, who is the Director of User Experience at Youtube. Her talk, called “Connecting the world through video”, was a terribly one-sided and romantic marketing version of how Youtube empowers creativity and liberating expression, but still the topic was there (and we were able to latch onto it in our talk later on the same day).

Margaret Gould Stewart giving the opening keynote on Youtube user experience and, essentially, collaborative media.
Margaret Gould Stewart giving the opening keynote on Youtube user experience and, essentially, collaborative media.

Finally, it was interesting to walk around the exhibition looking for ideas that we have covered at K3 during the last decade. At times, I felt like I was back at graduation week at Beijerskajen in the mid 00s; there must have been at least ten pieces in the exhibition that I immediately recognized from our excellent students’ and colleagues’ work from way back. Here are three examples: A vending machine for local crowdsourcing of expert work, an installation with cashier slip printers printing tweetstreams, and a system for projecting and sharing mobile phone content.

A vending machine for local crowdsourcing of expert work.
A vending machine for local crowdsourcing of expert work.
An installation with cashier slip printers printing tweetstreams.
An installation with cashier slip printers printing tweetstreams.
A system for projecting and sharing mobile phone content.
A system for projecting and sharing mobile phone content.

My conclusion is that we have actually done a fair bit of pioneering work in interaction design over the years, as was our original intention, and that this work is now increasingly validated in terms of academic mainstream acceptance. That seems like a promising takeaway for the years to come.

Image credits: CC-BY Mads Høbye, Jonas Löwgren.

Related publications
Designing Collaborative Media: A Challenge for CHI?
What is the Object of Design?
Touchbox: Intriguing touch between strangers