|SAP at CHI 2005 in Portland, Oregon|
|SAP is Waiting for You – at CHI 2004, Vienna|
|CHI 2006 Website|
|SAP Company Website|
|Montréal Website (French)|
By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – April 11, 2006
This year's CHI, the world's largest HCI conference, will take place in Montréal, Québec, Canada. As in previous years, SAP will be a Champion Sponsor to CHI and have a booth in the exhibit hall. There will be quite a few members of SAP's User Experience group at CHI. So stop by the booth if you want to talk with them about what is going on at SAP in the UI field or ask about job opportunities.
Compared to previous CHI conferences, CHI2006 will introduce a couple of changes. First and most notable, the duration of the technical program has been extended to four days. Second, the tutorials are included in the conference fee, and each participant can select five "units" of tutorials on a first come-first served basis1. Further changes can be found on the CHI2006 Website (www.chi2006.org). We shall see whether these changes are for the good or the bad. Four packed days of technical program may be too much for some people and may lead to exhaustion rather than inspiration. In addition, the technical program and the tutorials now compete with each other. With such a multi-facetted conference program, the new "freedom of choice" may cause people to perspire instead of to be inspired. I decided to opt for a "purely technical program," which itself already offers enough topics and options to choose from. This strategy usually helps me to gather the most information from the conference and hopefully will not result in information overload. The conference program also offers lots of interaction possibilities, be it with innovative software, with colleagues from other companies and continents, or just with the conference program on DVD – if you are willing to schlep your laptop with you and like this kind of fiddling... Admittedly, I usually take a fairly passive role at conferences: I prick up my ears, write down notes, and prepare conference reports and articles afterwards – you can find some of them on this Website in the "Stories" section.
Oh, it looks as if I inadvertently made a round trip through the conference theme, which this year is: Interact. Inform. Inspire. Actually, I wanted to take you on another tour through the theme – this time from the perspective of business software.
Interaction plays a prominent role in the professional life of user experience people – and it does so in many ways. Let us look at the product design process – at SAP called SAP User-Centered Design (UCD) – to understand what I mean: First, in the analysis phase there comes interaction with market forces, customers, and prospective users whose requirements are gathered. In the next phase, the users' interaction with the product has to be defined. This task not only deals with interaction but also involves considerable interaction with users and customers. Third, the interaction design of the product has to be established. This phase, again, on the one hand deals with interaction and on the other involves user interaction: Users test low and high fidelity prototypes and thus help to shape the design. The design process itself entails another form of interaction: It connects human and customer requirements to technical dimensions, such as the employed technology, the set of available controls, or the hardware on which the application will run. So, there is a lot of interaction with users along the development process of software products, all serving the ultimate goal of optimizing the interaction between users and the product.
Figure 2: Palais des Congrès de Montréal (Convention Center; photo by G. Waloszek)
Returning to CHI2006, the tutorials and technical program will cover all these aspects and help UI professionals to stay up-to-date.
Information is a costly good, not only for conference visitors but much more so in the business world. There are two important aspects to it: the pieces of information themselves, and their flow. Compare this to traffic: Cars represent the information pieces, their driving on roads results in a flow. The flow moves along certain channels – the roads in the traffic analogy. We all know that it is important to actually deliver information, but this aspect often seems to be neglected. It is one thing to make information available, for example, on a Website like this. It is another one to ensure that it reaches its addressees – in this example, the visitors to our Website. Often, information gets stuck or even lost – " disappearing into thin air," so to speak. In a business world, this boils down to losing competitive advantage.
Let me illustrate the "information jam" with a train example: In order to get from A-city to B-city, you first take a high-speed train from A-city to C-city. In C-city, however, you have to wait for some time and then take a local train from C-city to D-city, which again takes quite a while. In D-city, you board a high-speed train again that finally brings you to B-city. Compare this to usability professionals who conduct a customer site visit and observe a user in her typical work environment. First, she uses application A to find out some data that she needs for further processing. She writes the data on a Post-it® note and attaches the note to her monitor. To continue her work, she has to run application B. As it is not directly connected to application A, she has to enter the data from the Post-it® note into the computer. Thus, instead of being fluently passed from application A to B, the data gets stuck on a Post-it® note (where it can get easily lost). The flow of information is disrupted in this example. The task of user experience people is to make information flow – that is, to detect such bottlenecks and propose better solutions.
Returning to CHI2006, conferences are locations where information flows, at CHI among UI professionals.
Many people believe that there is no software less inspiring than business software. They may be right for most mainstream business software, featuring forms in abound. Even an online shop may not present the outmost in inspiration – for designers as well as for users. But wait – and see, for example, the prototype designs for a furniture online shop, which frogdesign created for SAP in 1999. These screens, even though created a number of years ago, still look refreshing and inspiring because they were designed by designers.
Figure 3: Prototype of an online store by frogdesign based on SAP's online store application
On the one hand, inspiration goes together with emotions. On the other, it goes together with innovation. My first example demonstrates how business software can elicit positive emotions. My second demonstrates where it inspired innovation: Do you remember Visicalc, the first spreadsheet, invented by two Harvard Business School students, Daniel Bricklin and Bob Frankston, in 1979? This innovative application can definitely be counted among business software applications, even though there are numerous scientific and home applications. Apple Computer owes its early growth, long before the Macintosh computer was invented, to this one piece of software (Visicalc ran on an Apple II computer with 32 kB of RAM – for some time, exclusively). Its late descendant Excel, while no longer deserving the label "innovative" still inspires new and innovative applications of the general "spreadsheet" idea, demonstrating its fruitfulness.
Figure 4: Visicalc screen and Apple II computer
Returning to CHI2006 for a third and final time: Demonstrations of new technology and interaction techniques, discussions of professional and societal topics, and brand new research results will hopefully offer the inspiration that we are often missing in our day-to-day routine work.
Of course, there is more to Montréal than the CHI2006 conference. It is a city that combines "old world charm, French joie de vivre, and a modern style all its own." As an example of the last, think of Underground City, the huge underground pedestrian shopping area. It is nearly 30 years ago that I last visited Montréal – it will have changed a lot. I must admit that my memories of the city are faint, but I still remember the driving style, which was quite different from elsewhere in Canada and in the United States.
People who have a few extra days to spare may like to explore the area around Montréal: To the west, Ottawa, Canada's capital, deserves a visit because of its Old English-style architecture and fine museums. A little bit farther away, there is Toronto, Canada's largest and probably busiest city. Located at about the same distance to the east and downstream St. Lawrence river, Québec City has become a cultural monument because of its outstanding architecture. It is the oldest city in the whole of North America, and was already founded in 1608 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain. If you have even more time on your hands, you might want to visit the magnificent Niagara Falls, or take a train, bus, or plane to Boston or even New York.
1) The five units limit has been removed shortly before the conference started.