Interactions vs CHI, Oh My!

I’m in the process of absorbing everything I learned at Interactions 11 this past week, but the topic of this post is to address the surprising backlash against ACM’s SigCHI. I’m writing this post because I attended both conferences in the last year,ย  and feel like chatting about them.

For full disclaimer, I have a masters degree in human computer interaction design from a program that emphasizes the philosophical discourse of experience design, churning out graduates who choose to be user researchers, user experience designers, interaction designers, information architects, the list goes on. I submitted to CHI 2010 and was accepted as a work-in-progress for my masters thesis, an honor for me because I was a master’s candidate only. So I have ties with the CHI community both because of recent achievements and my background in computer engineering.

The first keynote speaker was Bill Verplank at Interactions 11, the man who caused the hoopla that set the tone for the remainder of the conference until Bruce Sterling gave his closing remarks. Verplank’s keynote was a rehash of what he usually talks about…he sketches his understanding of the system that we as designers need to understand: the relationships between people and what they think, feel, and do in the world. Search Verplank and you’ll see a youtube video that is basically the keynote he gave, but with one small difference.

In his keynote, Verplank said that he hadn’t been to CHI in years and wouldn’t recommend anyone go there anymore because the conference was rigid and outdated. Caught up in the moment, I’ll admit I laughed and maybe even cheered a little with the crowd. It wasn’t until later, where I was joking with someone, did his words sink in. He was saying CHI was the hairy old uncle that no one wanted to listen to anymore, because it had history and rules and the like.

Seems to me that an organization who has Genevieve Bell as its opening plenary, one that accepts a paper about empowering personal identity which discusses Steampunk, isn’t quite so old or hairy. I want to be Bell when I grow up. My sketchnotes on her plenary are filled with Bell-loving because she is pushing the CHI community to think about more than just computers. Cue fangirling now.

What is the point of this post? I’m trying to understand why Interactions has such a backlash against CHI. At its heart, I suspect it’s because Interactions is trying very hard not to be CHI. The whole “we’re better because we aren’t you” type thing that defined the relationship between America and the UK, historically-speaking. Interactions needs to assert its place in the conference world and unfortunately, Verplank took it in a negative direction that fed into latent culture clashes.

Here’s the thing: CHI probably isn’t a good venue for most of the people who attend Interactions, but not because CHI sucks, but because most IxDA practitioners don’t have a formal education in interaction design. It all depends on your intent.

For most IxDA practitioners, CHI isn’t going to work. Not because it sucks, but because most IxDA practitioners don’t have a formal, academic education in interaction design. They are primarily DIY and learn-as-you-go.

This is why I feel Interactions attendees won’t enjoy CHI. They aren’t used to academic presentations, which are, admittedly, often very dry. CHI presentations are content heavy; focused on methodologies, rigor, grounding their claims in user research. I think more than a couple of lightning talks at Interactions would have benefited from an academic asking the simple question of, “And why do you say that?” There were a number of claims made that had little support, except that the speaker had been chosen by the Interactions committee to speak.

The great thing about the closing remarks from Bruce Sterling was that he attended the entire conference, and had comments about all the major points made, giving tough love to everyone. He reminded everyone in the room that whether they liked it or not, they came from CHI. They would never escape CHI. Heck, in less than 20 years, they were going to be CHI. No one likes to be reminded that someday, they are going to be that hairy old uncle no one wants to listen to. People went nuts over his statements like interaction design was suffering from “user-Stockholm syndrome.” What does that mean? What can he mean?

I’m not sure either. The fact is, CHI and Interactions both bring beneficial thoughts to the world. It just depends whether you prefer a more academic- or industry-minded approach.

/end Reflection

  • Anonymous

    Funny how after going to IxDA, I think I actually feel lest negative about CHI. I’m not sure I can commit to a whole weekend of CHI paper discussions but I’m a lot more open to attending some bayCHI talks once and a while. I realized I’ll probably miss the high level stuff when I’m working full time.

    • Well, like Interactions, CHI has a wide range of presentation styles. Some (many) can be dry, but I thoroughly enjoyed CHI 2010 because it really felt as though the CHI community had turned the page and was accepting experience design into the fold. Having gone to CHI 2009 where there was still a large constituency that felt usability was the only way to go, I felt encouraged.

      And yes. You will miss the high level discourse when you’re working full time. I know I do.

  • Chad

    Thanks for writing this. I didn’t attend either conference this year, mostly because I get tired of listening to everyone attack everything that isn’t their point of view, then valiantly defend whatever design process they happen to be obsessed with this year.

    Since design can’t be objective, one of the designer’s tools is their ego. They will always indulge in the “we are better because we aren’t you” kind of conversations. So when you get a bunch of them together that is what you always get.

    We need to beware of non-academic conversation becoming reduced to biased name-calling, and too academic conversation becoming so rigorously self-indulgent that its message is lost on its audience.
    Ultimately we need both types of discourse – non-academic to keep things grounded and academic to provide some rigor to the conversation.

    • ๐Ÿ™‚

      Oh, Chad! Your comment put a big grin on my face. It showed up after I posted my comment. We were both writing at the exact same moment, apparently. Our brains must have melded together during that road trip to Boston. Next time go to the conference so we can do fun stuff.

    • Since design can’t be objective, one of the designer’s tools is their ego.

      Ultimately we need both types of discourse – non-academic to keep things grounded and academic to provide some rigor to the conversation.

      Yes. This. All of this.

      I’m sure you’re saying that ego isn’t always a negative thing, oftentimes it can be positive from a heuristic standpoint. It’s when egos get in the way of the design and moving it forward that we have an issue, like you say.

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  • Well done, Binaebi!

    I, too, look at CHI differently now. Before going to interaction11, I basically thought “CHI is for academia, interaction is for practitioners.” However, after hearing about all of the shortcomings of interaction designers in the area of theory, aesthetics, mise en scรจne, having an experience, and more, I developed a much greater appreciation for the rigor that the academic mind brings to the table. I can’t tell you how many times I offered up a silent “thank you” for the things that Erik, Marty, Eli, Jeff, and Shaowen taught us – even when we thought we knew better!

    Overall, I felt as if the venn diagram intersection of CHI and interaction just grew substantially. It is in that intersected space that I hope to keep growing – as a practitioner who knows how to apply academic rigor to my work. I thank Bruce Sterling for using his tongue-in-cheek approach to remind us of our shortcomings. I am far more thankful for Jon Kolko, MJ Broadbent, the IU HCI/d faculty, and others who are willing to take on the challenge of overcoming them.

    Looking forward to attending CHInteration some day. Maybe the logo could be a hairy, old uncle – with a purple mohawk, body piercings, and a few choice tattoos… or a platypus!

    • Thanks Jay!

      I agree that there are shortcomings to interaction designers not having any feel for previous theory, aesthetics, having an experience, etc. I hope more IxDA practitioners visit CHI, and vice versa. CHInteraction for the win!

      You have my vote for the platypus. Obviously.

      • Fun times! That guy/girl is so cute. If I ever start a design firm, it is going to be called Platypus and I am going to buy the rights to that sketch so I can use it as my logo.

        • If that happens I guarantee that I’ll draw a nicer version, in vector format for you. ๐Ÿ˜›

  • Great perspective. I haven’t been able to weight in on the argument as I haven’t been to CHI (it was a stretch enough to attend Interaction10 last year!) but do agree that academic conferences give rigour and an emphasis on finding prior research that can be absent at more industry-based ones. And CHI had Sterling as a keynote well over a decade ago!

    • Thanks! I’m glad you found it useful. I hope you’re able to read some of the other comments to this blog post because my peers from my program are making additional, very important points about CHI, rigor, etc.

  • I remember feeling like the only one of our cohort at CHI ’09 who actually liked it. I mean, sure, I didn’t like every talk I went to, and there were certainly problems, but it’s a ridiculously massive conference, drawing on people in fairly diverse disciplines and roles. Of course not everything is going to be interesting or relevant to me. Interactions is a much smaller conference with a narrower scope and a different focus. I’d love to attend, but part of my heart will always belong to academia.

    I totally agree with your post (well, I didn’t attend Interactions, but based on everything I’ve seen and read coming out of the conference), but I think part of the problem is not just not having academic education in interaction design, but not really being familiar with how academic sciences work in general. In the world of computer science, conferences tend to fulfill the publication functions that written journals fill in other disciplines. People aren’t just submitting to CHI because they have a great insight to share and get conversations going, they are submitting because that’s how you get your academic research published in this field. And a lot of that is going to be really incremental knowledge contributions that only make sense in the context of ongoing research practices and to other people who are involved in the same work. And the incremental pile-up of evidence until you get a breakthrough is basically how experimental science works. The psych journals I follow are full of work that looks ridiculous and inconsequential if taken in isolation, but like, half the point of science as an institutional activity is that individual results are never meaningful in isolation. I think there’s an argument to be had about whether or not a yearly conference is really a good venue for that kind of work (I think one of the reasons academic computer science hasn’t moved to journals is that it’s *not* an experimental science, but more like a relative of math, and the work done tends to look different) but it’s the tradition that CHI followed, and I think it’s important to understand why that aspect of CHI looks the way it does.

    There’s a whole different set of arguments to be had about whether all the things being studied in the CHI community through the lens of academic science are really best studied that way, but that’s part of the push for change that I do see happening. And as long as there are psychologists involved in the field, that’s going to be a part of the conference’s character.

    • Academia will always have my affection too, Lorelei.

      I love your point about how academic sciences work in general, and how that can be a barrier to comprehension, etc. I adore you for writing out how academic knowledge contribution works: incrementally. This is the point to academics.

      The psych journals I follow are full of work that looks ridiculous and inconsequential if taken in isolation, but like, half the point of science as an institutional activity is that individual results are never meaningful in isolation.

      Right. On.

  • Sumier

    I like your post, but I disagree with your comment about people who go to Interactions don’t have a formal education in Interaction Design. I come from a masters program that focused on Information Design, however I find that it is possible in our field to become so wrapped up in the theoretical papers, and user research and the academic one-upmanship that one loses track of the fact that reading a bunch of books does not make you a successful practitioner. Similarly, with interactions, conference goers seem to think of themselves as the cool kids, the rebels who aren’t part of CHI’s stuffy structure, but really end up in a seemingly hipper, less rigid version of the same thing.
    In the end we need both kinds of discourse, a little less ego/self importance and the ability to acknowledge that is no one right approach to anything design related because each and every situation is different and can be approached from a multitude of equally valid angles.

    • Sumier, please realize I in no way meant that everyone who attends Interactions lacks a formal education in Interaction Design. I only guessed that most of the IxD practitioners have learned their skills on the job. I have no numbers to back this, nothing other than what I observed and heard from various conversations. This is changing, of course, as graduate programs push the field forward with the people they churn out.

      That said, yes. I agree with you. We need both kinds of discourse, less ego, more acknowledging that every angle is valued. That was the point of my post. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Naitsirk

    You make a great point. They are apples and oranges, as it were. CHI has rigor’d itself out of relevance, for the most part, with its high reliance on usability, testing, evidence, etc. Interactions was fraught with a lack of rigor around just the issues some other commenters brought up, aesthetics (oh my that talk was bad), ethics (why did that guy beat everyone up?), gender (pink, really?), material (do we really not understand that time is a fundamental material of interaction). CHI moves to slow to catch up to what is happening in industry, and is heavily burdened by its own form of rigor.

    Personally I would love to see the IxD conferences grow into a more transparent and rigorous venue, with peer review, perhaps some publications, and deeper foray into basic Ix questions. The IxDa has not quite realized that it has outgrown its own homebrew roots. Perhaps it will adjust, or another venue will spring up, which is fine as well. Whatever happened to DIS? That was a fine conference that felt like it could easily accept some industry/professional content.

    • Thanks!

      I don’t agree that CHI has “rigor’d itself out of relevance,” because as I mentioned in my post, there is a group of researchers in the community that is pushing the boundaries. Sure, over the last couple of decades usability has been king. But there was recognition of HCI being more than that at CHI 2010, as evidenced by Genevieve Bell being the keynote, one of the top papers about feminism in HCI, another paper about WOW as a means for self-expression…

      What I hear in your dream of IxD being more transparent and rigorous, yet with peer review, publications, deeper foray into basic interaction design questions… this is what CHI is about. Well, a portion of the community, anyway.

      I wouldn’t fault CHI too much; they get a ridiculous amount of submissions because they are so well known, and they have a system in place to attempt to find the best, most controversial, etc.

      It seems DIS still exists. There has been a call for proposals to host DIS 2012, which is exciting. Unlike CHI and Interactions, it’s every other year. I like the idea of jumping these different conferences and comparing/contrasting the sort of information and groups of people you interact with.

      Fun stuff! Thanks for commenting.