HCII 2007 – July 22-27, Beijing, China

I've just returned from my trip to the HCII 2007 conference in Beijing, China – a huge event with some 2,300 participants, ten sub-conferences ranging from ergonomics in the workplace to augmented cognition, and literally a hundred paper sessions. Three days of tutorials preceded the actual conference and offered beginners and participants with intermediate knowledge lots of first-hand insights into topics such as Social Network Analysis, Fieldwork for Designers, and Task Analysis, all of which I attended (unfortunately, some tutorials, I heard, have been quite disappointing though – which is tough considering the cost and that you cannot switch tutorials if you find it not to meet your expectations).

Paper Session

The paper sessions were … well, some were really good (e.g., User Experience Modeling on Wed, 4 to 6pm), while many more were not quite as good as I had expected (e.g., Meta-Design, Wed, 10:30-12:30am, which was rather disappointing, or Developing On-Line Communities, Fri, 10:30-12:30am). I kept wondering whether the review process had just been too soft or whether I was expecting too much … anyway, I met a number of interesting people and learned about some fascinating research that's going on. Plus, the keynote by Prof. Takeo Kanade was inspiring if a bit convoluted :-)

In addition, we quite enjoyed syncing up with our colleagues in the Beijing and, later, the Shanghai offices. As people in Asia use products differently, new (different) approaches to product design have to be found. It was good to get a feel for some of these issues.

 HCII 2007

Interaktivni festival IF 2006 ? October 26, Ljubljana, Slovenia

logo_if.gifYesterday I paid my first visit to Slovenia's capital Ljubljana[GP:Ljubljana] to attend the "Interaktivni festival IF 2006" and to give a talk on the AOL Phone Box. Vuk ?osi?, whom I had met at the euroGel 2006, had asked me whether I wanted to deliver the talk and share some insights and information on a successful interaction design project, and I had decided to use the AOL Phone Box as an example. The AOL Phone Box is an ADSL 2+ modem with built-in Voice-over-IP (VoIP) functionality. It's based on a hardware platform from our hardware partner Sphairon; we have done the interaction design for the configuration Web Interface, the CD-based connection assistant and the built-in setup assistant. I'll go into more detail on this nice project in a later post. Vuk had asked me to prepare a 30-minute talk and be open to q&a for another fifteen minutes. I happily obliged, and we had a great session with lots of questions from the audience as to the design methodology, our usability evaluation methods, and metrics we would be using to determine the (economic) success level of the product. I feel grateful and deeply honored to have been invited to give this lecture, and I enjoyed my stay in beautiful Ljubljana with lots of highly motivated Internet professionals.

Mensch und Computer 2006 ? September 3?6, Gelsenkirchen, Germany

Gelsenkirchen[GP:Gelsenkirchen], in Germany's far West, hosted this year's "Mensch und Computer" ("Man and Computer") conference, the most important conference for the German-speaking usability community. As usual, A UPA track accompanied the research and science paper sessions. Again (like in 2004 and 2005), the UPA track featured the sessions I found most interesting – there were a presentation of a non-intrusive remote usability method, some important discussion on whether or not usability professionals had to get a certificate, and the founding session of a new workgroup for in-house usability consultants.

Discussing the Certification issue

Of the invited talks, I much preferred the one by Prof. Dr. Matthias Rauterberg, TU Eindhoven. Back in 2000, I interviewed Mr Rauterberg for my thesis on Joy of Use. I must confess it was quite difficult to stick to my prepared set of interview questions – actually, I didn't manage and got a long, very interesting and though-provoking, but not too focused interview out of it. Now, Mr Rauterberg's speach on "Usability in the Future – Explicit and Implicit Effects in Cultural Computing" tackled Eastern and Western design philosophies, C.G. Jung's archetypes, who we thought the 21st century Copernicus could be, and Alice in Wonderland. I guess he left most of the listeners puzzled, but some found harsher words. I myself must say I quite enjoyed it. Overall, the conference didn't present any surprises. The talks, papers, and posters were ok, but not as inspirational or innovative as I had hoped. It might be a good idea to switch from an annual schedule to every second year to give researchers and practitioners more time to prepare better material. But maybe I've just been spoiled by the euroGel conference experience just two days before.

The Fachhochschule Gelsenkirchen (University for Applied Science)

Mark Hurst on euroGel: (quasi-)live in Hamburg

This Monday's Hamburg User Experience Roundtable featured a special guest: Mark Hurst, founder of Creative Good (NYC-based[GP:CreativeGood]) and initiator of the Good Experience train of thought, visited us through iChat AV and gave a great and inspiring talk on good experiences, the focus of usability work, and the upcoming euroGel 06 conference (Copenhagen, Denmark[GP:Copenhagen], 1 Sept 06). It was great to finally meet him (if virtually) and to hear his enthusiasm and conviction resounding through the conversation. Even if the group here in Hamburg[GP:Tribal] seemed a bit reluctant to show a great amount of ardor (which might have to do with the North-Germany mentality :-)), he really got people hooked on the Good Experience thing. We went for a beer afterwards and people were really excited and started thinking how to make it possible to attend euroGel. I guess out of the group some three or four participants will come to Copenhagen (me, for example – I just bought a ticket ;-)).

Hamburg User Experience Roundtable â?? at least part of the group
Part of the Hamburg User Experience Roundtable

GEL (Good Experience Live) is a conference that's a bit different from other usability conferences. It's not about teaching people usability methods or exchanging the latest research results. Its approach is: make people have a good, rich, inspiring experience, make them enjoy themselves and get them thinking about what it is that is different from other, less inspiring situation, and let them carry over this feeling of richness, of enjoyment, of the good experience into their daily work. GEL has taken place annually in New York since 2003, and euroGel is the first of its kind on European soil. Mark talked a bit about why he didn't have the same "gurus" on the speaker list who appear at about every conference (Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman, Jared Spool): He said he felt it's disrespectful to bring a group of Americans to Europe to have them show the Europeans how to do good design. Furthermore, he went on saying that usability isn't an end in itself – usability is about creating a good experience which means good business. Funny how much in parallel this is to an impression some of us younger usability professionals here in Germany seem to share – that there is one group of die-hard usability people who don't design stuff but only evaluate it, and there is a second group of UX-inspired ones who see usability is just a factor facilitating a and contributing to a plesurable user experience. Personally, I guess (and hope) that in a couple of years time, the profession of "usabilty engineer" will be extinct and be replaced by a "customer experience" pro with a holistic point of view and powerful standing within the companies. But maybe that's just wishful thinking …

Mark Hurst on the video screen - bigger than live. Doesn't that look oddly familiar?
Mark on the big video screen – doesn't this look oddly familiar? :-)

Mark's closing appeal to all of us was: collect good experiences, let them enthuse and inspire ourselves, spread the word … and make sure our usability work isn't too narrowed down to optimizing task performance :-)

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)