Special topicFeatures

XXII.1 January + February 2015
Page: 48
Digital Citation

HCI in Korea: Where imagination becomes reality

Kun-Pyo Lee, Tek-Jin Nam


“Please design the icons of our microwave.” This was the first HCI-related project brief that one of us (Lee) received from a company 20 years ago. Recently the brief has changed to “Please suggest new application scenarios for the new deformable transparent display technology to enhance user experience.” These changes in the research focus hint at how the state of HCI has developed in Korea over the past two decades.

During this time, the motivation of Korean HCI research has been driven by the rapid growth of Korea’s industries and its information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure. In 2013 the total sales figure of Samsung Electronics stood at $228 billion, with a $37 billion profit. LG, Naver, and Kakao have also grown as global leaders in the ICT industry, while the ICT infrastructure of Korea is considered to be the best in the world. The adoption rate of the Internet and smartphones has reached 82.7 percent and 78.5 percent, respectively (as of 2013).

The quantitative and qualitative growth of the ICT industry created a special interest in HCI issues among companies, research institutes, and universities. In his 1993 annual speech, Kun-Hee Lee, the president of Samsung, said, “I strongly believe that soft creativity such as design will be the most important asset of a corporation in the coming 21st century,” expressing the intention to invest in software- and user-experience-related areas such as HCI and design. This is essential for Samsung to renovate its hardware-centric device-manufacturing industry. Now there are about 750 UX designers and researchers in Samsung Electronics and about 500 in LG Electronics. Recently these companies opened UX research institutes outside Korea. Moreover, Korean automobile companies such as Hyundai and Kia are also actively investing in HCI and UX, as new cars aggressively accommodate advances in IT technologies to satisfy customers.

Interest in HCI has also grown within academia. In 1990, a special interest group on HCI was organized by the Korean Institute of Information Scientists and Engineers (KIISE). It later became an independent academic society called the HCI Society of Korea (HCIK). Annual conferences have been held since 1991; at the conference in February 2014, there were 2,020 participants and 287 paper presentations. In addition to the large number of presentations, the conference offered various programs including invited talks, tutorials, panel discussions, workshops, and exhibitions from companies, research institutes, and universities.

The HCIK conference is outstanding in several aspects. First of all, it is a truly huge interdisciplinary gathering in Korea. Industries and academia are well mixed. Experts from many disciplines, such as computer science, design, psychology, management, music, art, and literature harmoniously interact with one another. The participants’ feedback has always been very positive. They truly enjoy their experience at the conference—and the fact that it is held in a ski resort during the winter may not be the only reason. This conference fosters an atmosphere in which HCIK people may freely communicate with open minds.

Beyond the success of the HCIK conference, Korean HCI researchers have participated in international HCI conferences for decades. Korean participants and presentations are rapidly growing in representative international HCI conferences such as CHI, CSCW, UIST, Ubicomp, and DIS. At CHI 1999, where one of us (Nam) attended, there were only five Korean participants. In 2014, the number of Korean participants rose to 200, ranking fifth among 47 countries. Naver, a Korean Internet portal company, was a champion sponsor of CHI 2014. Many UX practitioners from Samsung and LG attend the conferences. This growing interest may be related to the transition of computing environments in Korea, from desktop to Web to mobile, and over to the Internet of Things (IoT) and ubiquitous computing. In the new environment, Korean IT companies and research groups are playing an important role. Korean researchers prioritize the role of “first creator” rather than “fast follower.”

Although the number of Korean participants in major international HCI conferences is dramatically growing, relatively few papers are presented in the technical programs. For example, at CHI 2013, 11 papers were presented by researchers affiliated with a Korean organization; seven papers were presented at CHI 2014. Papers by Korean researchers first appeared at CHI 2000, when the theme was Web usability. In the early 2000s, Samsung Electronics opened an exhibition booth at CHI. Korean researchers began to present more papers on the topics of design, interactive devices, and information visualization. Recently, the research themes have covered exergames, crowd computing, and social computing, and other popular topics of recent CHI papers by Korean researchers include design, social computing, new interactive technologies, and information visualization. Various academic disciplines, such as design, computer science, and multidisciplinary IT, actively contribute. Korean papers are now receiving paper awards at CHI. However, the affiliations of Korean authors are still concentrated among a few university research groups.

Korea has become a showroom to demonstrate how future technologies can be applied in people’s lives.

The quantitative difference between the papers at the HCIK conference and major international HCI conferences can be explained in several ways. First of all, researchers strongly prefer SCI-indexed journals over conference papers, as research-funding schemes or evaluation organizations in Korea still favor quantitative achievements. Efforts are being made to change this, especially in disciplines that are sensitive to the rapid change of technology; however, the change is happening slowly. Second, the fact that English is not Korean researchers’ first language is a significant barrier. Furthermore, experts at IT companies have difficulty in getting approval to publish sensitive research outcomes. Finally, Korean HCI research tends to set short-term, pragmatic goals to reflect the country’s dynamic IT industry. This presents academic challenges in carrying out fundamental, original HCI research with a long-term vision.

The HCI trends in Korea can also be identified by analyzing papers presented at the HCIK conference. One of the authors (Lee) analyzed the titles, keywords, and abstracts of 2,086 HCIK papers from 2001 to 2010 [1] and presented the results in the HCIK conference keynote speech in 2011. Two aspects, research theme and type, were considered in the analysis. The review of the 550 keywords showed the transition in research themes. Theoretical studies on usability, Web interfaces, and user cognition have declined, while works on mobile user experience and haptic interfaces have grown. HCI applications with interactive technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality have been popular throughout this period.

With respect to their types, papers were classified into basic, applied, and clinical research [2]. As shown in Figure 1, basic research was dominant in early 2000. Recently, applied and clinical research has increased and now occupies a large proportion of the total. This change indicates that Korean HCI was first led by theory-focused research, similar to the development of other academic disciplines. But as research activities by IT companies and HCI firms increased, the proportion of applied and clinical research grew. Research projects that offer practical implications for the industry have increased considerably.

Korean HCI has recently begun to face new challenges, as the scope of the field has radically expanded. The computing environments broadened from a single product or screen-based system to platforms, ecologies, and societal infrastructures. Beyond being passive customers, people are becoming active and collaborative makers who utilize open-source and collaborative software and hardware technology platforms. This change will be accelerated by emerging phenomena such as the maker movement, IoT, crowd computing, human computation, and so on. In the meantime, Korean HCI is characterized by a tight collaboration between practice and research, which is evident not only in academic research but also in the exchange of human resources. Lee worked as the head of LG Electronics’ corporate design center, holding the position of executive vice president after having served as the director of the Human Centered Interaction Design Lab at KAIST. Samsung Electronics also invited university professors with UX expertise to fill executive director positions.

New emerging contexts offer many challenges to the Korean HCI community, which, depending on the IT industry, mainly focuses on hardware manufacturing. The notion of the business type becomes blurred. Korean IT companies such as Samsung and LG compete with companies with dominant platforms, such as Google and Amazon. Korean companies may have to develop new products with higher entry barriers, or products or systems with lower dependency on the dominant existing platforms. In the short term, they cope with the changes with such strategies such as building an IoT ecology with their own products. In the long run, companies want to build their own platforms. To match the pace with new, changing paradigms in the industry, the Korean HCI research community is also preparing new research themes.

Korea has become a showroom to demonstrate how future technologies can be applied in people’s lives. Recently, a CNN piece highlighted 10 things that South Korea does better than anywhere else [3]. At the top of the list was “wired culture,” highlighting that Korea is full of new high-tech connected products that are actually used by everyday people. It is a driving force for HCI development that Korea has a large number of users who actively accept the changes brought about by high-tech products and the country’s excellent ICT support systems. That is why many unique IT applications and services, such as commercial screen-golf exergames (e.g., Golfzon), the professional gaming industry, and virtual stores in a subway ([4] and Figure 2), are successfully introduced in Korea. The close and active collaboration between international HCI communities and Korean researchers who have access to an excellent HCI infrastructure will excel in the creation of an ICT future that truly enhances people’s lives. In this respect, the fact that CHI 2015 being held in Seoul is meaningful, as Asian HCI professionals still have a low level of participation when compared with that of North American and European countries. We hope that CHI 2015 in Seoul will be a turning point for boosting Asian HCI.


1. Lee, K-P, and Lee, J-H. Usability in Korea—From GUI to user experience design. In Global Usability. I. Douglas and Z. Liu, eds. Springer, 2011.

2. Buchanan, R. Design research and the new learning. Design Issues 17, 4 (Autumn 2001), 3–23.

3. Cha, F. 10 things South Korea does better than anywhere else. CNN. Aug. 29, 2014; http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/27/travel/10-things-south-korea-does-best/

4. World’s first virtual store opens in Korea. Sept. 2, 2011; http://www.amusingplanet.com/2011/09/world-first-virtual-store-opens-in.html


Kun-Pyo Lee is head of the Department of Industrial Design at KAIST. He is also director of the Human Centered Interaction Design Lab and president of the International Association of Societies of Design Research. His research interests include user experience design, human centered design, design methodology, and open design with crowds. kplee@kaist.ac.kr

Tek-Jin Nam is a professor leading the Co.design:Inter.action Design Research Laboratory in the Department of Industrial Design at KAIST. His main research areas are augmented design, co-design, interaction design, and creative design methods and tools. tjnam@kaist.ac.kr


F1Figure 1. Changes in the research type of HCI Korea conference papers.

F2Figure 2. The world’s first virtual store in a Korean subway.

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