"Art.science.balance" was the theme for the CHI ’08 conference in Leonardo da Vinci’s home city of Florence in April. It expresses the unifying philosophy, in so many words, of a Renaissance master who crossed the boundaries between disciplines at will. The annual CHI conferences profile the rapidly growing human-computer interaction (HCI) field and its many border-crossing specialists. The 2008 conference program is a signpost to those specialties. The theme, meanwhile, speaks for itself.
Arnold Lund, Ph.D., CHFP, director of User Experience in Microsoft IT, described the conference to The Ergonomics Report™ as a great success. Dr. Lund was co-chair of CHI ’08 with Mary Czerwinski, Ph.D. Dr. Czerwinski is research area manager of the human-centered computing groups at Microsoft IT and manager of its Visualization and Interaction group.
Dr. Lund saw "lots of energy from getting so many people from around the world to talk about human-computer interaction." He observed that the theme of "art.science.balance" worked perfectly for the setting in Florence, and shaped much of the discussion through the week. "Our sense was that there was a great balance between input from researchers and from practitioners, and an exciting interaction between the two."
Microsoft, Inc., takes a leading role in organizing CHI conferences, and the presence each year of the big guns – Motorola, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia, IBM, Oracle, Philips, eBay, Google and Yahoo! – underlines the importance of HCI research to business success across the industry.
Leonardo da Vinci: art.science.balance personified
A recent exhibition of sketches of Leonardo’s inventions at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum attributed his "position of pre-eminence in the history of Western art" to his "prodigious and unparalleled output as a thinker, scientist, inventor and designer."
The countless drawings of the man who painted the "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper" and other iconic works of the Renaissance amounted to efforts to define the elements of the physical world – mankind, animals and even amorphous phenomena such as water and air. The knowledge allowed him to invent, on paper, machines that were still centuries away from realization.
The museum description goes on to say the Leonardo exhibits display "an almost frightening and inexhaustible curiosity, and a mental energy that ranged over every phenomenon capable of scientific empirical inquiry." It is only slightly hyperbolic to say that, collectively, the output of the thinkers, scientists, inventors and designers in the HCI realm exhibit the same characteristics. As a body of work, the studies at CHI ’08 add up to "Renaissance thinking" – a term for Leonardo’s apparent at-will journeys between art, science, engineering and other disciplines.
The studies presented at CHI ’08 by researchers from dozens of the world’s top universities and industry research departments run the gamut of traditional disciplines, such as psychology and engineering, and of new fields and occupations shaped by the computer age.
One occupation that stands out is "persona practitioner." These specialists deal with the employment, development, life cycle and even retirement of personas – fictitious characters created to represent the different user types within a targeted demographic that might use a site or product. They are stars of user-centered design. Course CN06 at CHI ’08 offered instruction on using personas to good purpose.
CHI ’08 Keynote speakers Irene McAra-McWilliam, a pioneer in interaction design, crosses borders at will. The professor is head of the School of Design at the Glasgow School of Art. She has an MA in Psychology and her background includes the psychology of technology and cultural change, the relationship between design, cultural research and science, and the inclusion of indigenous and cultural knowledge in the design of technologies.
The professor proposed that there is an evolution of design that can be described historically, envisaging its future as a relational and transformational discipline. "With the design of networked products such as iPods and mobile telephones it has become crucially important for designers to consider the dynamic of the relational sensibility as well as the aesthetics of three dimensional form," she noted in the synopsis of her presentation. "The product is not merely a useful object but, rather, a mediator of relationships and particular cultural codes." Her presentation examined changing design sensibilities, proposing that as design develops to include, for example, the relational sensibility used in interaction design, so it reinterprets and refreshes existing practice.
CHI ’08 keynote speaker Bill Buxton, a principal researcher at Microsoft Corp., sounded a similar cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary note. "Ultimately, we are deluding ourselves if we think that the products that we design are the "things" that we sell, rather than the individual, social and cultural experience that they engender, and the value and impact that they have," he says, describing the observation as his personal mantra. "Design that ignores this is not worthy of the name."
He talked about HCI "being in the midst of a transition from where we view design as primarily concerned with the material object – the device, dress, home, service, etc. – to a new state where our focus is on the experience that result from those same objects and services."
Breadth of Investigation
The scores of papers presented at CHI ’08 show the breadth of investigation routinely tackled in the HCI field.
"Mischief: Supporting Remote Teaching in Developing Regions" outlines a joint project of Microsoft researchers and academic partners from China, India and the United States to create an application for remote classroom learning.
"BlindSight: Eyes-Free Access to Mobile Phones" describes a Microsoft-University of California, San Diego study of audible ways of accessing information stored on mobile devices during a conversation.
"MySong: Automatic Accompaniment Generation for Vocal Melodies" describes technology, a joint project of Microsoft and the University of Washington, to gives "the songwriting experience to people who might not otherwise ever try to create their own music."
Viewed more generally, the papers presented in the many panels at CHI ’08 cover topics that could be expected in HCI and some that might be surprising to anyone new to the field. Some examples: "Re-Placing Faith: Reconsidering the Secular-Religious Use Divide in the United States and Kenya;" "Human-Currency Interaction: Learning from Virtual Currency Use in China;" "Knowledge in the Head and on the Web: Using Topic Expertise to Aid Search;" "AutoTopography: What Can Physical Mementos Tell us about Digital Memories;" "Temporal Trajectories in Shared Interactive Narratives;" "Communication Chains and Multitasking;" "Attention By Proxy? Issues in Audience Awareness for Webcasts to Distributed Groups;" "The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress;" "Gamelunch: Forging a Dining Experience through Sound;" "Remote Impact – Shadowboxing over a Distance;" "BlueReach: Harnessing Synchronous Chat to Support Expertise Sharing in a Large Organization;" "First steps in Role Playing; Usability Evaluation Considered Harmful (Some of the Time);" "The see-Puck: A Platform for Exploring Human-Robot Relationships;" and, "The Science of Fun: One-To-Many Moderated Game Research."
Asked in May about insights he has taken from CHI ’08, Dr. Lund told The Ergonomics Report™ that he was particularly interested in "the various people sharing experiences with incorporating user centered design into agile development processes." He said agile, a conceptual framework for software development that promotes development iterations throughout the life-cycle of the project, is being used increasingly in many companies, including his own. Many agile development methods minimize risk by developing software in short amounts of time. "And user centered design is typically a process that even with discount techniques takes a serious commitment of time. Bringing the two together is a challenge."
He said he found papers on group searching, social networking and leveraging empathy in design of particular interest.
The insights that he will take back to his work at Microsoft include "developing recommendations for our development teams on how we should support their teams." He explained that it will involve "building on the direction we have been providing around how to use scenarios to provide a framework that connects user needs with what is delivered, and defining different methods of support based on the level of engagement." The new work will use "some of the exploratory work as the basis of generative design prototyping and to inspire opportunity research," he added.
There wasn’t anything that exactly "knocked my socks off," he said, "but there were several areas of work that I found exciting and that I hope will yield new insights." He observed that the work going on around sustainable design is bringing novel perspectives to our field that should yield innovation. "I also continue to be interested in work that explores designing to shape emotions and higher level experiences – self-expression, empathy, spiritual growth, etc. And while it has been emerging for awhile, the continuing research in natural interaction, mobile experiences, and novel form factors will be the garden where the successor to the GUI [graphical user interface] is likely to arise."
If the present trend continues, the disciplines in the HCI field will become more diversified over time. The result could be ever-stronger conference themes that aim to promote balance across the HCI specialty and within its parts.
Sources: CHI ’08; Dr. Arnold Lund; Microsoft, Inc.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2008-05-14.