CHI 2016: Key takeaways from a practitioner’s perspective

My colleagues (Marju, Toni, Mikko and Tuomas) and I participated in the CHI 2016 Conference in San Jose in the beginning of May. We gave a course on the role of UI design in agile projects, based on our 10 years of experience on the subject.

CHI is the biggest academic conference in the UI/UX field, with hundreds of interesting topics and thousands of participants. Here are my main personal takeaways from the conference.

The introduction of teleprecense robots

The conference utilized telepresence robots as part its infrastructure, which I found greatly inspiring. They looked pretty much like a regular display stuck on top of a Roomba, and they were controlled by people attending the conference remotely, from wherever they were. This was a fantastic idea and great experiment that surfaced interesting problems in the telepresence domain:

  • The robots were actually quite rude, because the remote participant’s voice was often too loud – it’s difficult to adjust the volume correctly.
  • The robots had to be positioned in places where the remote person could see and hear the presentation, and therefore required too much attention. Yielding and helping the robots into place had to be done by other conference participants.
  • The displays showing the remote participants’ faces blocked the view of physically present participants and also of other robots. The displays were too big, about 3-4 times the size of a human head.

However, despite the robots actually making at least my conference experience somewhat worse, I definitely would want to see an improved version of them in the next conference. It’s a great idea that simply needs more polishing and testing.

Inspirational case studies

There were some great surprises to be found in the midst of academic paper titles, like the PaperID project for RFID-based paper UIs. Still, the best sessions for me, by far, were the case studies. A typical case study was a design experiment that had been conducted in the real world with real users, like how to design factory monitoring and controlling equipment for industrial workers with dirty hands. Or, how to organize the design people in a company to offer as much help to teams as possible, without sacrificing interaction with designer peers to maintain learning.

The case study sessions were well attended, and some of them even completely full, literally meaning that every chair was taken and there was no more room to stand in the aisles. It felt a bit like the organizers hadn’t quite realized the value of case studies in the conference and assigned them into a room that was too small. One of the case study presenters did a quick poll of the audience’s backgrounds: there were only a handful of academics present and more than a hundred practitioners. Ouch! Talk about silos…

Break down the silos

If I could change things, I would try to make CHI serve the practitioners better. The academic side is very well emphasized and the current situation maintains academic and practitioner silos.

From a practitioner’s point of view, the focus of the research papers was too often a razor-blade thin cut into a very specific topic, and it was hard or sometimes even impossible to see the practical value of the research. Building better UX in the future needs foundational blocks that are clearly outside the academic scope.

Design methods, evaluation methods, organizational practices, and real world cases are hard to fit in with scientific work because of their size, contextuality and vagueness, but they will have a greater impact in the future than the well-defined but narrow questions that are the easiest choices for making sound academic studies.

If the value of practical work would be better acknowledged in big conferences like CHI, I’m sure it would help in finding fruitful academic angles for practical design questions.

And that would benefit everyone.

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