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CHI 2008 Report – Not Only a Rant...

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – Updated: July 30, 2008

CHI 2008 logoCHI 2008 is over – once again, time to look back and write a report for the SAP Design Guild. First, I would like to warn you: This collection of CHI 2008 snippets is neither balanced, nor fair. You may even find that this report turns into a rant, but there are also a number of positive observations. Large conferences are always like a shopping bag – you have to pick what suits you best.

This year, my CHI strategy was no different from previous years. In general, I attended panels to feel the "pulse" of the conference. Unlike my colleague Janaki Kumar, who also attended the conference (see her report), I felt that the CHI's motto "Art. Science. Balance" – although well suited to the city of Florence – had been somewhat artificially imposed on the conference. All in all, I did not find that this motto reflected the central theme of the conference. The "Renaissance panel" (see below) appeared to be a somewhat weak justification for the motto, even though it was very interesting and deserved much more attention. Despite the fact that the CHI conference had such a universal motto and was held in Europe, I had the impression that it was more a U.S.-centric than ever, even though some well-known faces, such as Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman, and Ben Shneiderman, were missing from the conference.



I would like to start my CHI 2008 report at the very beginning of the conference, namely with the opening plenary presentation held by Irene McAra-McWilliam. Her presentation was full of insights and, among others, covered the current topics of "mass creativity" and "mass innovation," of which I am slightly skeptical. I agree with my colleague Peer Hilgers that her notion of "designing for transformation" is an interesting idea and provides a lot of food for thought. Other design-oriented people have come to similar conclusions: Bruce Sterling's ideas immediately come to my mind, for example (see my review of his book Shaping Things). However, designing artifacts that can be modified by their users is not only a challenging task for designers: I also doubt that the majority of the consumers really want malleable tools instead of ready-to-use solutions.

Opening Plenary      Irene McAra-McWilliam

Figure 1: Opening plenary


Figure 2: Irene McAra-McWilliam

To skip to the end of the conference, the closing plenary presentation was held by Bill Buxton, who has worked for Microsoft Research since 2005. He probably deserves a prize for walking the furthest during a talk. I found it difficult to grasp the central message of his presentation, because, like many other presenters, he was difficult to understand for a non-native speaker like me (this U.S.-centricity pops up again). One of his main points was Kransberg's first law: Technology is not good, technology is not bad, but nor is it neutral. Translated into my understanding, I would reformulate this as (Waloszek's first law): Some technology can be used, some technology cannot be used (that's why our profession exists), and most technology can be abused (that's why we have wars, climate changes, and many more bad things in our world).

Closing Plenary      Bill Buxton was hard to understand because of the speed at which he spoke

Figure 3: Closing plenary


Figure 4: Bill Buxton was hard to understand because of the speed at which he spoke

Bill Buxton was also one of the most visible characters at the conference as he took part in several other events. In the discussion following his plenary presentation, he was asked how he explained his presence at CHI 2008. At CHI 1997 (my first CHI) he had participated in a panel over the phone from Japan and had declared that he would never attend another CHI conference again – I still remember that statement well. Bill took that question with humor. In 2005, he had attended the INTERACT conference in Rome (he seems to have a preference for Italy), where he had also held the closing plenary presentation. During the lunch break on the final conference day and before the closing plenary, I saw people with Buxton's latest book Sketching User Experiences. It seemed to have appeared at the Morgan Kaufmann booth just that day. I bought the book later when I came home, and what is the book about? You guessed it – his INTERACT 2005 plenary presentation. So much for the speed of books! By the way, while Buxton works for Microsoft now, the book discusses a number of Apple products.


SAP at CHI 2008

Continuing in the tradition of the last few years, SAP once again sponsored the conference and had a recruiting booth. This year, however, was slightly different: SAP UX used a new portable booth. It had been purchased this spring and will be used at future European events.

Building the SAP booth      SAP booth ready for the public

Figure 5: Building the SAP booth


Figure 6: SAP booth ready for the public

There was also another remarkable change: SAP UX colleagues were far more visible, mostly in the panels, than in previous years. Members of the SAP UX team were involved in three panels and an invited session:

  • What Would You Do With a One Million Dollar user Experience Marketing Budget? Internal vs. External User Experience Evangelism Panel
    Participants: Luke Kowalski (organizer), Peter Heller, Oracle Corporation; Carola Thompson, SAP Labs; Tom Chi, Yahoo!, Inc.; Darren Mc Cormick, Omar Vasnaik, Microsoft Corporation
  • Agile or Awkward: Surviving and Flourishing in an Agile/Scrum Project
    Participants: Mary Lukanuski (organizer), SAP Labs; Michel Milano, PayPal; Jeroen de Bruin, TietoEnator; Miles Rochford, Nokia Design; Reinoud Bosman, MediaCatalyst
  • Branding the Feel: Applying Standards to Enable a Uniform User Experience
    Participants: Mohini Wettasinghe (organizer), Michael Arent, SAP Labs; Jonathan Arnowitz, Google; Ty Lettau, Adobe; Everett McKay, Microsoft Corporation
  • The Next Challenge: From Easy-to-Use to Easy-to-Develop. Are You Ready? (Invited Session)
    Jörg Beringer (organizer), SAP Labs; Gerhard Fischer, University of Colorado; Piero Mussio, Università degli Studi di Milano; Brad Myers, Carnegie Mellon University; Fabio Paternò, ISTI-CNR; Boris de Ruyter, Philips Research Europe

In my CHI 2008 editorial, I remarked that it would be interesting for the SAP Design Guild team to hear how Carola Thompson would spend her "virtual" million dollars. Her answer was simple: She would spend the entire budget on SAP-internal UX marketing. The two Microsoft panelists, on the other hand, would give everyone a slice of the pie and would spend a little here and a little there. I had the impression that everyone gave away far more than one million dollars.

Carola Thompson      Mary Lukanuski

Figure 7: Carola Thompson


Figure 8: Mary Lukanuski and other panelists

Mohini Wettasinghe   Michael Arent

Figure 9: Mohini Wettasinghe


Figure 10: Michael Arent

Note: More photos of the SAP booth and the panels with members of the SAP UX team can be found at SAP's Presence at CHI 2008 in Florence, Italy – A Photo Story.


Selected Panels and Sessions

Renaissance Panel: The Roles of Creative Synthesis in Innovation

The Renaissance panel kicked-off the panel sessions at CHI 2008 and explored connections between art, science, HCI, and history – of course, not all of them at once in the respective talks. The panel comprised a broad and interesting mixture of speakers, ranging from, among others, an Italian shoe designer to "tangible media" expert Hiroshi Ishii from MIT, and further to two Italian directors of museums, one from Florence and another one from San Diego. It was refreshing to leave the UI domain to a certain extent and discover that there is a lot of creativity and innovation in other areas as well.

Once again, Hiroshi Ishii stood out from – at least for me – the crowd with his music bottles, illuminating clay, sand scape, and wonderful I/O brush. Fernanda B. Viégas, from IBM Visual Communication Lab, took us on a tour of information visualization and presented the many-eyes Website, where people can visualize their own data using the tools provided by the site. Dulio Sergio, whose background is in history and arts, became a shoe designer who uses modern computer technology (CAD). Originally developed for the aircraft industry CAD has enabled mass customization of footwear. Maurizio Seracini (University of California, San Diego) demonstrated how modern computer-supported technology can help analyze works of art and find the "invisible." In particular, he uses radiation of different wavelengths, such as multi-spectral diagnostics imaging, thermo imaging, and radar scanning, as well as techniques adopted from medicine. Seracini used Leonardo da Vinci's painting Adoration of the Magi as an example as well as other paintings and even historical buildings.

Hiroshi Ishii and the wondeful I/O brush...      Dulio Sergio

Figure 11: Hiroshi Ishii and the wonderful I/O brush


Figure 12: Dulio Sergio talked about computerized shoe design and manufacturing

Adoration of the Magi      Dulio Sergio

Figure 13: Maurizio Seracini and Leonardo's Adoration of the Magi


Figure 14: Radar scan of the Hall of the 500 in Florence

Special Session in Honor of Randy Pausch

The special session in honor of Randy Pausch (47), a former professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), was both a moving and also a somewhat ambivalent event for me. Pausch is fighting pancreas cancer following his diagnosis in 2006. It is one of the most aggressive forms of cancer that exist. Pausch decided to make his fight public and recently, his fate has attracted a lot of attention from the media in the USA. Pausch is probably best known as the mastermind behind the Alice programming environment, an "educational software that teaches students programming in a 3D environment." Most of the special session was devoted to Pausch's scientific and educational merits and his work for the Alice project. Several of Pausch's coworkers gave some insights into this project, its evolution, and, of course, into Pausch's personality. I had the pleasure to watch Randy Pausch's presentation at the opening plenary at CHI 2005 in Portland, Oregon.

In 2007, Pausch retired to spend more time with his wife and young children. His last lecture at CMU is available as a video (for example on YouTube) and has also been published as a book (The Last Lecture; published in April 2008). The "last lecture" – Pausch regards it as a manifesto for his children – deals with the question: "How can you achieve your childhood dreams and enable the dreams of others?" You can see how Pausch's health is fairing on his "update" Web page.

Update: Much to my deep regret, I received the news that Randy Pausch has died on the 25th of July, 2008, at the age of 47 (see the CMU news).

Bray Myers introducing the special session in honor of Randy Pausch      Alice splash screen

Figure 15: Brad Myers introducing the special session in honor of Randy Pausch

  Figure 16: Splash screen of the Alice programming environment

Beyond the Hype: Sustainability & HCI

The topic of sustainability has finally made it into the HCI community thanks to the issue of climate change: A Sustainable CHI group has been formed, and one of its very practical objectives was to achieve carbon neutrality for the 2008 CHI conference. The ongoing objectives are "to educate members of the CHI community about sustainability" and to "inspire a creative discussion amongst the CHI community" about sustainable work practices and contributions to global sustainability issues. This panel, moderated by Lisa Nathan, University of Washington, and consisting of Eli Blevis, Indiana University, Bataya Friedman, University of Washington, Jay Hasbrook, Intel, and Phoebe Sengers, Cornell University, was a step in the direction of education and discussion direction. Regrettably, it did not arouse much attention among the CHI attendants. The contributions were diverse, which comes at no surprise for a new direction, and included both provocations and presentations. As usual, this was followed by a discussion with the audience followed. I would agree with Phoebe Sengers' somewhat pessimistic statements, particularly that the issues are systemic, with deep cultural and historical roots, and that science alone is not the answer. These are social and political issues, and HCI can offer only a small piece of the puzzle.

Bataya Friedman compares Western medicine to that of primitive cultures      Phoebe Sengers answering a question

Figure 17: Bataya Friedman compared Western medicine to that of primitive cultures.

  Figure 18: Phoebe Sengers answering a question

Social Impact Award Session: The Once and Future State of Accessible Computing

Vicky Hanson from IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center had won this year's social impact award. In this session, she presented her work, which initially focused on deafness and sign language, as well as the main issues from the field of accessible computing, thereby providing an interesting overview of the different aspects of accessibility. As she discussed hearing, motor, and visual disabilities, she also covered assistive technologies, research questions, and the historical development of how the respective communities have evolved and gained public as well as legal recognition. Hanson devoted a large section of her talk to the issue of changing demographics and aging societies. Finally, she discussed what progress has been made in accessibility and what further progress can be expected. Although Hanson's presentation focused mainly on the United States, it was also applicable to a broader audience, as most industrial nations face similar problems.

Sociial impact award session      A slide about Web access for older adults

Figure 19: Vicky Hanson, IBM T. J. Watson Research Center, during her talk

  Figure 20: A slide about Web access for older adults from Vicky Hanson's talk


Digging into HCI History...

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I am approaching 60 this year that I found myself in a number of sessions that were more or less devoted to the history of HCI, even though this was not always reflected in the titles of the events.

Invited Session: 25th Anniversary Celebration of HCI

When I entered the conference room for this panel, I thought I had arrived at a carnival by mistake: Tom Moran and Stuart Card were wearing party hats, and Bonnie John and others had party blowers. This panel was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the groundbreaking book The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction by Stuart Card, Tom Moran, and Allen Newell – the latter regrettably only present "virtually" in a video and a photo because he died in 1992. Stuart Card and Tom Moran were Newell's students at CMU, and together they wrote a book that provided our field with its name: human-computer interaction, or HCI in short. The book features the human model processor, an "engineering model" of human performance (with its variants "slowman" and "fastman") and the GOMS model (GOMS = goals, operators, methods, and selection rules) for modeling human behavior at the computer. David Kieras from the University of Michigan, who had programmed production systems inspired by GOMS, was one of the panelists. By the way, Stuart Card chose to take his hat off for his talk.

Peter Pirolli introduced the panel and Tom Moran and Stu Card wore party hats, while the others had fun with party blowers.      Allan Newell

Figure 21: Peter Pirolli introduced the panel and Tom Moran and Stu Card wore party hats, while the others had fun with party blowers.

  Figure 22: Allen Newell was also present in spirit

From HCI to User Experience

This panel, led by John Karat from IBM and Manfred Tschegeli from the University of Salzburg, Austria, retraced the journey over the past 25 years from HCI to the world of user experience, the buzzword that dominates our profession today. All in all, the panelists agreed that certain things have changed, while others, such as topics, methods, and tools, have not. User experience has become more institutionalized and visible over the years, and more emphasis has been placed on user research in context. I agree – and would like to add that the labels we use to categorize our work change from time to time as well.

Manfred Tschegeli introducing the panel      Ian McClelland from Phillips

Figure 23: Manfred Tschegeli introducing the panel (at the front: presumed to be John Karat's grandson)

  Figure 24: Ian McClelland from Phillips (Stephanie Rosenbaum, Manfred Tschegeli)

Media Spaces

At first glance, this panel did not appear to me to be focused on history. Next time, I'll look more closely at the list of participants and read the abstract first. Of course, the participation of Ron Baecker, Steven Poltrock, and Bill Buxton was almost a guarantee that this session would concentrate on the past. For example, Bill Buxton showed photos of the media spaces that they had installed at XEROX Parc in the 1970s or 1980s, crammed with awkward analog technology. I must admit that I had expected the panel to offer something along the lines of Flavia Sparacinos presentation at INTERACT 2005 where she had presented a "new architecture for the information age," or something similar to Tim Edler at the Innovationsforum Interaktionsdesign in Potsdam, Germany. Instead, David Poltrock told us that video conferencing had not caught up in the private domain and explained why this was.

Media spaces today      Media spaces panelists

Figure 25: Media spaces today

  Figure 26: The media spaces panelists

SIG User Interface History

Brad Myers from CMU and Anker Helms Jørgenson from the IT University of Copenhagen led a Special Interest Group (SIG) on user interface history. There I spotted, among others, Ron Baecker from the University of Toronto, who has published books about HCI history, Gillian Crampton Smith, formerly from Ivrea and now at Convivio, and Jonathan Grudin from Microsoft, who later held a course on HCI trends (which I also attended). After the topic was introduced by Anker Helms Jørgenson, we split into two groups to introduce ourselves and discuss action items. Our group was led by Brad Myers and, regrettably, mostly hijacked by a woman from UIST who wanted support for her own HCI history Web site. Consequently, I decided not to leave my e-mail address for further contributions to this SIG.

Final group discission in the UI history SIG

Figure 27: Final group discussion in the UI history SIG

HCI Trajectories

The final event I attended before the closing panel was Jonathan Grudin's (Microsoft) course on HCI trends, in which he tried to draw "trajectories into the future." His basic message was that "visualizing and thinking about exponential growth" is hard for people and thus prevents them from making good predictions about the future, particularly with respect to technological developments. He demonstrated his point using, for example, hardware development and the impact of hardware changes. The course was interesting, but nonetheless Grudin went too fast for me to really understand and evaluate the impacts of his arguments. Grudin closed his course by demonstrating his point, exponential growth, with a video in which a giant wave caught a surfer. In truth, sitting in Grudin's course, I knew exactly how the surfer felt!

The irresistible force of exponential growth      The gigantic wave...
Figure 28: Jonathan Grudin demonstrating the irresistible force of exponential growth   Figure 29: The gigantic wave first threatened a surfer, then Jonathan Grudin, and finally us all.


Conference Reception

As in the previous two years, the conference reception was held in the commons area, where all the booths and book stands were located, and doubled as an opening event for the commons. The reception was accompanied by classical music performed by a group of Italian musicians. There were definitely plenty of opportunities to meet and talk to colleagues from all over the world, particularly when you had to wait in long queues for something to eat or drink (separate queues, of course).

However, personally, I prefer the old style of reception. They used to be held in much nicer settings, such as interesting museums, beaches, or ballrooms. Hopefully, the organizers will return to this old style one day.

Four classical musicians provided the musical background to the conference reception

Figure 30: Four classical musicians provided the musical background to the conference reception.



In retrospect, the CHI 2008 conference was more focused on the past than the future. This impression is, of course, based on the events I chose to attend. Nevertheless, I do not think I missed any new exciting trends or simply overlooked them. There were some discussions on agile projects – I even attended two panels on this topic – but that's not really brand new. No Web 3.0 or 4.0 hype, no implanted computers, not even computers in clothing – are we running out of exciting topics?



CHI 2008

Irene McAra-McWilliam

Bill Buxton

Randy Pausch

Renaissance Panel

Vicky Hanson

Sustainable HCI

SAP Design Guild


Photos by Gerd Waloszek, Sony Alpha 700


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