Category Archives: Events & Conferences

Events and Conferences featuring UE-related topics

On German vs. US Adademic HCI: Differences, Similarities, and Ways Out

Last month I was at the Mensch & Computer 2004 conference in Paderborn[GP:Paderborn]. Fortunately the conference featured a so-called UPA track with lots of good sessions, just like the M&C03 ("UPA" stands for Usability Professionals Associtation; its German Chapter has been hosting the UPA tracks). UPA track sessions target the practitioners and are (normally) held by practitioners, too. Papers are chosen by practical relevance and not by statistical validity and cited literature 🙂 For me, it's the UPA track that makes the conference worth attending.

When I attended the "Software-Ergonomie 99" conference in Walldorf[GP:SAP] (I was still a student then), I got so frustrated after two days that I started pondering whether I'd chosen the right subject of studies (HCI as specialisation within Work and Organizational Psychology). Maybe I should have chosen Industrial Design instead! The conference seemed rather dull, inclined towards theory and not up to design to me. And this contrasted heavily with the practical HCI impressions I had gathered during my studies!

A similar feeling has gotten hold of me whenever I've joined "pure" academia settings ever since. There's not much to see of practical relevance there (with some very nice exceptions such as scientists giving talks on the UPA track ;-)). Nevertheless, I need to lend a bit of a hand to the German HCI academia – the really interesting US research results either don't come from within the universities (but, for example, from Xerox PARC, T.J. Watson Research Center and similar company-owned R&D departments) or they are heavily funded by industry and government / military (MIT and others – a political question coming to my mind is: do I want to work for the military?). Moreover we shouldn't forget the proportion of software that is and has been developed in the US as compared to software being developed in Germany. All the big software companies (SAP being a great and notable exception) have their headquarters and lots of their R&D in the US, so it's no big surprise to find most of the new findings originating in the US. Furthermore it seems to be easier (or at least not as frightening ;-)) for someone in academia to change into industry and get back into university later on (which, if found here at all, is a rare exception – e.g., Prof. Siegfried Greif, Universtity of Osnabrück, left university for two years and went to work for a company as a coach and doing training and consulting – and came back and told us enthusiastically about his experiences).

How could German HCI academia get more relevant for practitioners again? My feeling is that it's lost itself in evaluating and re-evaluating stuff (creating the n-th method for assessing some metric that doesn't really have an impact on any product aspect) and looking at HCI from a wealth of angles, but none of them is design (btw: by "design" I mean: to deliberately and consciously change something, most of the time to improve it, to make it better suit the requirements). Here are a couple of proposals:

  • Co-operate with local software companies. (Nearly) every software product happens to have a user interface, and every software's got a structure that can be fitted to structure of work in real world. Sign contracts of cooperation between the universities and the software companies, let students learn how to do usability engineering and experience the software development life-cycle, let people write their diploma and master's thesis on issues of practical relevance, and teach the findings. It'll spice up your lectures.
  • Get out of the ivory tower. GOMS et al. is important, but it's just one method amongst others. You need to get your hands dirty even in university. Assessment is only half the deal. Get into designing things, gather practical experience.
  • I once met a highly-appreciated colleague who was of the opinion that psychologists are not taught to create stuff – only to analyze it (if a psychologist starts designing, s/he leaves her/his professional ground). While this may be true (and, likewise, be applicable to HCI people with a computer science background), there is no need to live up to this expectation. Don't stick with analysis – later on, the students need to be able to provide designs, too. Designs lead to new ideas, new ideas might lead to great research topics. (Nearly) no-one cares about questionnaires in practical HCI work, but everyone expects an HCI practitioner to be able to come up with a great design. And while you're teaching it, why not change yourself? (CHI2002's motto comes to my mind: "Changing the world, changing ourselves.")

So, in a nutshell: to get more relevant for HCI work, I'd suggest the German academic HCI community to not lose contact with the subject at hand – and that's both designing and evaluating the human-computer interaction. Get involved, make a difference.

(adapted from: OpenBC's forum "Internet und Technologie > Forum 'User Experience' > board 'Discuss Board' > 'German HCI', Sept 13, 2004)

CHI 2004 – April 24-29, Vienna, Austria

This April I – again – attended the world's biggest HCI conference – the CHI 2004 "Connect" conference (Computer-Human Interaction), which took place in Vienna, Austria[GP:Wien]. Two years ago, I was so lucky as to attend my first CHI in Minneapoli, Minnesota in 2002. In 2002 I came back quite disappointed; although there were lots of high-quality contributions, I couldn't really follow the discussions (which were often very much focused on tiny details and did not really have to do with Interaction Design as a craft). Moreover, I found the way people treated each other not too nice, and to me it felt strange that everyone introduced themselves with "Name, Insitution". Back then I was also disappointed by my former personal guru Don Noman – on the panel I attended he did not feel as radiant and thought-provoking as in his books. My overall impression of this year's CHI (as compared to 2002's) was: less academic stuff, more real-life application of research results.

There were fascinating panels (e.g., "Video Visions of the Future: A Critical Review" with Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini and others – Bruce alone was worth attending the panel!), challenging SIGs (special interest groups) such as Karen Holtzblatt's "Techniques for Designing Mobile Applications with Customer Data" (i.e., how to modify traditional Contextual Design methods to be useful in mobile situations), and intriguing demo sessions (e.g., "Visualizing information"). Some of the things demoed at the conference are available for download as well, e.g. MIT's "Haystack" prototype for information (contact, document, e-mail) management. I attended some very intersting stuff on mobile technology, among this an interesting panel with mobile user experience leaders (from Vodafone, Nokia, Ericsson etc.).

CHI 2004 Logo

Of course, there were some weaker points, too – e.g. the SIG on "Evaluating Interactive Information Retrieval Systems" (which was really a SIG for Information Retrieval researchers). These things didn't add up to much disappointment, though – there was so much to see, and somehow it worked out for me to find something interesting and worthwhile in nearly every slot, with hardly any conflicts of schedule. Moreover, I enjoyed meeting old acquaintances and getting to know new experts. Organization was ok, too (although the convention center building did have some issues as far as signage is concerned – you could end up running in circles). The website and the conference proceedings book left something to be desired (e.g., there were no links between abstracts and sessions, so you had to flip through the book a lot), but … the CDs are great, offering all the papers as PDFs (and some of the videos are there, too!).

One personal cause of delight as a User Experience and "Joy of Use" aficionado was: if the number of Apple PowerBooks to be sighted there were in any way predictive of the overall number of Macs in the computing world, the Mac's market share would be somewhere around 30% 🙂