Earlier this month, I had the chance to go to Florence to attend the 2008 CHI conference. I had been looking forward to CHI for several reasons: After being disappointed by HCII last year, I was hoping for a more practitioner-oriented conference; I knew that a lot of people I knew would be going; I had been involved in the review process; and I wanted to (finally) go to Italy. Speaking of Italy: I've still got that "Florence, Idddallly" sound in my ears, and it'll take a while to wear off.
Saturday, April 5
My colleague Jonah and I chose to take the night train from Zürich to Florence instead of flying – a 9 hours journey on an Italian train that felt like the 70s on rails Definitely an interesting experience, setting the scene for the conference. Think I had expected something more like the German railway sleeper trains. D'oh.
Sunday, April 6
Attended the full-day workshop #17: "Now let's do it in practice: User experience evaluation methods in product development". It had not been easy to get into this workshop, even though I had acted as a reviewer for four of its papers. The workshop turned out to be good and valuable, but I was amazed (again) at the disconnect between what academia did and what "the industry" needed. This surfaced most obviously in the breakout sessions in the afternoon, when mixed groups discussed their approaches and assumptions. Defining even what "user experience" means turned out to be a major challenge. Sneaked into course 1: "Mobile interaction design patterns" (which was good), but had to leave early b/c of hunger. I was starving by then. Speaking of which: food was extremely hard to come by, and most food I had in Florence was a total disappointment (with one notable exception). I have been told that the food quality increased dramatically once the conference was over. Met with the Hamburg UPA chapter for dinner.
Monday, April 7
Attended the opening plenary but was severely unimpressed by the speaker, Irene McAra-McWilliam. Took course 4: "Mobile interaction design practice", which was delightful. Great instructors, great real-life insights, very nicely done. Hung around the Google booth during the late afternoon / evening.
Tuesday, April 8
Attended the panel "Media spaces: Past visions, current realities, future promise", which was good (panelists: Ron Baecker, Steve Harrison, Bill Buxton, Steven Poltrock, Elizabeth Churchill). A nice introduction into the history of CSCW and video conferencing. I also attended the panel "What would you do with a 1 million dollar UX marketing budget", even though the title was slightly misleading (panelists: Luke Kowalski, Carola Thompson, Tom Chi, Darren McCormick, Omar Vasnaik, Peter Heller). Got so angry at Ms Thompson saying that UX was a relatively new field within SAP that I had to leave. She said that UX had only been around for three years – remember: I left SAP three years ago after four years of UX work, and there were UX colleagues who had spent 10 and 15 years there. What a disservice. Spent the afternoon and the evening calming down at the booth, helping during the job fair etc.
Wednesday, April 9
Attended the hospitality events (Google's and Microsoft's) in the evening. Guess which one was better!
Thursday, April 10
Took course 20: "Key issues in planning and making sense of international field research" by Susan Dray. This was the second course I attended with Mrs Dray (first one was at HCII 2007), but I was rather unimpressed this time. She didn't manage to create a rapport with the audience, and her having an somewhat unpleasant and embarrassing fight with her husband in front of the class didn't help. Also attended course 24: "Designing location-based experiences", which was interesting – the instructors had set up some information points on the conference grounds, and participants could explore those with a GPS-enabled iPaq PDA. Unfortunately it felt as if it was a scripted audio guide rather than an interactive experience. In the late afternoon, I attended the closing plenary "From the materialistic to the experiential – A changing perspective on design", delivered by Bill Buxton, which for me certainly was the highlight of the conference. In a delighting and inspiring talk, Mr Buxton reflected on the design profession and where it was headed. Later took the night train back to Zürich (10 hours ).
This was my third CHI (after 2002 in Minneapolis and 2004 in Vienna). I think CHI has been moving in the right direction, taking practitioners' needs more into consideration. Still, I found the disconnect between academia and practice a bit disconcerting. It was an interesting but somewhat time-consuming additional honor to act as a reviewer for CHI papers (for the #17 workshop and one or two additional papers). I was glad to see that my critique of most of the papers was reflected by the other reviewers' impressions.
I chose to mainly attend the panels because papers can always be re-read in a different setting, while panels tend to create dynamics of their own. Most courses I took were well worthwhile, too. In addition, CHI is always a great opportunity to create and refresh professional relationships (citing Jonah: "Stop knowing everyone!" ).
Of course I made some pictures of Florence during my stay there.