Well, CHI is finally over and it’s a bittersweet feeling. It’s been an overwhelming and overstimlating experience. The final day of CHI held a number of really cool talks:
Social software in the office
The area of enterprise social software is always one I’m always interested in so I was very excited about this session. The first talk was describing a study on blog reading and writing at HP labs. They did a series of semi-structured interviews with HP employees all around the company with a focus on the diversity of input. Everything for new employees to people who had been there for 30 years and across all different continents. The results highlight some of the benifits but also problems of blogging. I related to this paper a lot, finding out that other people had the same issues with blogging that I do. In particular, the lack of feedback was a huge disincentive to blog. When people did get feedback, it was from side channels, via email or in person. This seems to me an indication that something might be fundamentally broken with blog commenting and I’m going to have to do some more pondering on this.
The second talk was on how photo sharing is used on the IBM internal social network and I felt that the relentlessly cheery tone detracted from the insight in this presentation. The talk focused so much on how photo sharing had all these positive effects that it seemed like more of a sales pitch and I found myself wondering how valid the observations actually were. Sure, you can claim through interviews that viewing collegue’s photos increased connectedness but maybe it’s just a more socially acceptable way of wasting time now.
Next was a note on location and privacy by Microsoft Research. It happened to be scheduled at the same time as another location and privacy talk in another track and I was torn between which one I wanted to go to. In the end, I wish I had gone to the other one. The results of the study were basically that location information was not a factor in privacy. Was this because people genuinely don’t care about location or because the study design just didn’t elicit the right information?
The next talk was a great one on how different university groups maintain shared document repository spaces. The speaker made the analogy between shared document spaces and communal fridges where people are unwilling to throw out other people’s food. Unlike fridges though, documents don’t eventually rot and so any document space ends up overwhelmed with crud. It’s an interesting problem space to explore. I tried thinking about it for a while and it has me stumped. I wouldn’t have much of a clue as to how to fix such a problem.
Reflecting on Design, Textual Displays & CoCollage
I told a collegue last night “This may be ironic but I only recently realised I’m a very reflective person”. What I meant was that I didn’t realise how the level of reflection I found natural was so rare in other people. This session on reflective design was very interesting to me. The first talk I attended was on meta-principles of interaction design and I think the general feeling in the room was that there was something significant to unpack there but it was something that would take a much more careful reading of the paper and critical thought. Thus, I don’t think there’s much I can comment on about this talk.
The next talk was on using texture as an input modality for devices and I thought it was an interesting exploration. The authors showed why texture was an interesting input mechanism for different devices: It’s unobtrusive, static, easy to access and you can use it on the go. Examples of texture displays might be using the back of the phone to display whether there was a missed call/text message, augmenting doorknobs with weather information or keyboard rests which change texture 10 minutes before an appointment. While the technology is not there yet, the speaker went through a survey of several promising materials and, overall, I think he made a compelling case. It’ll be interesting to see how real designers end up using it.
Finally, I went to a talk by a local Seattle startup, Strands Inc on using public displays to enhance the community feeling of a coffeeshop in Seattle. They talked about how you could use technology as a tool to enhance connection and community feeling. I thought the tool and the talk were great but one persistant frustration I’ve had with academia is the hesitancy to talk frankly about sex. I asked a question about it and the presenter claimed that they didn’t see that as the primary motivation and I was welcome to look at their data but I have a hard time believing you could build a tool like this and not have it be used primarily for helping people get laid. Still, we’ll see…
Computer Mediated Communication, Industrial HCI & Aesthetics
In the final session of the conference, I jumped between a bunch of sessions.
By far my favourite talk of the day was on using computer mediated communication to enhance the “empty moments” between long distance intimate couples. The presenters did a lot of smart insight on just what is it drives the connection between long distance couples and how to design a tool to support rather than hurt that process. This talk was interesting to me because I had previously done some thinking on how intimate friends share vs ordinary friends and what we want to share only with our inner circle of 5 – 6 people. While we wanted to share excitement with our friends, with people we are intimate with, what adds to that emotional depth is the sharing of “empty moments” or moments in which nothing really exciting is going on. I would highly reccomend going back to the original paper for this one as it conveys the full context and nuance of what they found.
The next talk I went to was on making the analogy between our understanding of fire, temperature and heat and how it relates to our evolution now in HCI. Having embedded my HCI thinking in a historic context, I didn’t find anything too profound from this but I thought it was a valuable paper.
The final talk was on aesthetics vs usability and the results were so obvious I would have rather preferred he handed them out on 3×5 cards and let us get to something else.
It felt profound in a generic way. I was too tired to remember most of it.
The day after CHI, the three local labs, Google, IBM & Microsoft had an open house. I missed the Google one and I want to devote a full blog post to IBM and it’s social software research. The Microsoft tour was interesting because the Cambridge, Massachusetts office is still relatively new (there is also a Cambridge, England office which complicates things significantly). Probably the most interesting thing I got from the MS tour was their new Startup Labs. I think it’s a bold move by Microsoft and it’s an open question whether it’s even possible to bottle the “special sauce” that drives great startups but I’m going to be watching this project with great interest.
I’m still trying to decompress and unpack all the information I’ve absorbed from CHI and I hope I’ll have the chance to write a summary post some time in the next few days. We’ll see how that goes.