Fast forward

IX.4 July 2002
Page: 31
Digital Citation

CHI as a cross-tribal community


Fast Forward presents me with an opportunity to think about where user-interface design has been over the past four decades in which I have worked and about its future. I hope you will enjoy and benefit from joining me in this ongoing discussion. Your feedback is welcome.

I would like to continue considering cross-cultural communication, which I discussed in the previous issue, but now I turn inwards toward the SIGCHI community itself, which is a complex intersection of professions. SIGCHI celebrated its 20th anniversary at CHI 2002. The CHI conference featured exhibits and documents from SIGCHI's history. In this column I will comment on the organization's history, its current status, and its future.

During discussions of cross-cultural communication, I am struck by analogies to the CHI community itself. We at CHI are a gathering of many disciplines or "tribes," with different symbols, heroes, rituals, and values. In Flagstaff, Ariz., Native-American tribes used to gather from all over the United States each year (in what are called All-Indian Pow-Wows) to salute their cultures, display their skills, and exchange ideas. We do something similar at CHI conferences. The possibilities for exchange, learning, and stretching of assumptions and expectations are quite rich. CHI offers a community for multiple disciplines to meet and to learn how to work together for mutually successful projects featuring interdisciplinary communication and cooperation.

Tribal Origins of SIGCHI

SIGCHI started 20 years ago as a convening of psychologists, human factors specialists, social scientists, software developers, and some outliers, like myself, who joined from other disciplines. The focus of our attention was primarily research, on projects related to mainframe computer systems and client-server-network development of productivity tools on workstations, and on personal computers, which were then coming into use. Over the decades, the core user-interface research areas expanded to include, among others:

  • Cognitive science
  • Computer science
  • Graphic design
  • Hardware development
  • Human factors
  • Information architecture
  • Social science
  • Software psychology
  • Software development
  • Web development

Some differences of philosophy emerged. For example, the Usability Professionals Association broke away more than a decade ago to focus specifically on usability issues. Other groups have been added, like the visual designers who have sponsored special-interest groups and other events.

Cross-Tribal Talk Today

In the latest growth spurts, we have seen the addition of such disciplines or professions as these:

  • Anthropology
  • Branding
  • Culture models
  • Decision support
  • Experience design
  • Futurists (including science-fiction writers)
  • Game and entertainment design
  • Industrial design
  • Information design
  • Information visualization
  • Marketing
  • Mobile device and information appliance development
  • Semiotics
  • Sound design
  • Strategic planning
  • Systems science
  • Usability analysis and evaluation
  • Visual design

One of the key shifts has been to include many more media-design disciplines—that is, practitioners, not only researchers and analysts, or scientists and engineers. Visual designers of all kinds have enriched the organization, conference, and topics of debate. In earlier years, consultants, who marketed their services, were viewed as somewhat impolite, distasteful interlopers in a community of corporate-funded researchers. Now, visual designers, design consultants, and other designers discuss topics originally "off-limits," like branding, return-on-investment, architecture-inspired pattern languages, and user-experience design. The net result is that we have more to consider, more to say, and more to debate.

Perhaps I notice this kind of development more because, like many CHI folks, my own background is an amalgam of disciplines: an undergraduate education in physics, mathematics, and philosophy; graduate study in graphic design at a university art school; and a decade of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in a school of architecture and urban planning

One of the more exotic events at CHI, besides the advent of science-fiction writers, was a breakthrough in 2001, a first-ever panel that featured marketing professionals trying to explain their approach to understanding user-interface design processes. To many old-guard CHI attendees, having marketing people participate as presenters in the conference itself (as opposed to on the exhibit floor, where they are presumably expected and tolerated) would have seemed extreme heresy and folly. The anti-marketing opinions of some CHI folks are similar to the anti-designer opinions voiced by others. Much of this suspicion and, in some cases, even hostility, is rooted in ignorance of each group's humane, logical, ethical, passionate, and compassionate objectives. Some professionals are still worried about the new tribes moving into the familiar neighborhoods.

I took part in this marketing panel and expected fire-and-brimstone invectives, perhaps even fisticuffs. However, the specific subject areas of marketing were so narrow and the audience so polite that we didn't have to settle our debates with rolled-up sleeves out in the hallway. Nevertheless, the event marked a significant point in CHI's evolution.

These cross-over events do much to educate and sensitize CHI folks. Even today I hear comments that reveal disparagement or suspicion about all the designers (i.e., synthesizers) who float among the researchers and analysts. This dichotomy between the terminology, philosophy, techniques, objectives, and goals of research and those of design was even the subject of at least one panel discussion at the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Forum, a 2-day event held for the first time at CHI 2002.

Conducting the AIGA Forum, focusing on user-experience design, was another watershed moment for CHI. For the first time, another professional organization, historically and primarily oriented to graphic design, has found a temporary home within a CHI conference to offer opportunities for communicating across established tribal boundaries. This is an exciting organizational and intellectual development. We should be thinking about how to foster this kind of interaction.

One essential element of cross-cultural cooperation is mutual respect; another is mutual trust. Both of these attitudes must be predicated on a partial but shared, unambiguous, and consistent vocabulary, so that all may reliably communicate. Sharing of literature, of terminology, of concepts, brings surprising benefits. We have already seen these benefits in the absorption of psychological issues into CHI, into what was originally considered a mathematical and logical arena of investigation.

Absorbing Tribal Classics

Another interesting benefit of cross-tribal communication is how CHI seems eventually to discover the classic literature of other disciplines, some of it decades or more old, and gradually to absorb these essential documents into its own profession. I realize this goes against the grain of some professionals and, specifically, publication reviewers, who generally consider that only publications within the past few years merit attention.

The intersection of cultures will make the CHI community continually stimulating and challenging.

This transfer between disciplines has been part of my own technique of discovering new ideas of value to the CHI community for the past 30 years. Following are a few of the resources that I have found especially worthwhile. Some of them derive from my continuing study of visual communication; others I encountered in the 1960s and 1970s when I taught in architecture and urban planning. Some of them are now becoming well known within some CHI subgroups. I hope to give a few of these publications an additional boost of recommendation and urge interactions readers to consider them for study as a means to stimulate vital discussions.

Consider Christopher Alexander's [1] study of patterns of architectural form. Over many years at the University of California at Berkeley, Prof. Alexander and his colleagues compiled insights about essential structures (and implied processes) of architectural form, which he feels are universal, or at least broadly shared, human experiences. This approach to pattern catalogs was developed at other institutions also. I am aware of the work, for example, of Professors Bernard Spring, Lance Brown, and others, at Princeton University's Center for Urban Research in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The technique has been much discussed in the architectural community for 30 years and has at last, over the past few years, come to the general attention of the CHI community as researchers develop pattern collections of user-interface design modeled on the taxonomies of this earlier work. We shall see much more of these publications in the coming years as they consider all the components of user-interface design (metaphors, mental models, navigation, interaction, and appearance).

Ludwig Von Bertalanffy [2] (1901–1972), was an important theoretician of the 20th century. His research in physiology, psychology, the social sciences, and the philosophy of science led to his proposing a general systems theory, which influenced generations of system scientists and engineers of complex processes and products. His ideas published as early as the 1930s may bear fruit further in the CHI profession as today's developers come to understand the full dimensions of complexity across multiple platforms, modes of communication, and the social and psychological underpinnings of cooperative work and interactive communities.

Professor Umberto Eco [3] of the University of Bologna, Italy, first began promoting semiotics, the science of signs, and explaining his theory 25 to 30 years ago; semiotics theory (or its French variant emiologie) has taken hold in most of the disciplines of communication and design. The relevance of semiotics to the world of icons and symbols in user interfaces is immediately apparent. Deeper insights and new discoveries are likely as researchers and designer use semiotics and semiologie to comprehend user interfaces as cultural artifacts, especially in relation to branding and user experience modeling.

Howard Gardner [4] proposed almost 20 years ago that intelligence could be understood as 7±2 dimensions of human cognition and emotion, and he examined the implications for education. His theory raises issues of how computer-mediated communication might be biased toward specific modes. As the CHI community attempts to develop successful global devices and systems, these variations in methods of understanding and communicating will seem more and more relevant.

Geert Hofstede's classic work about culture dimensions in organizations [5] presents the results of his study of IBM employees in more than 50 countries during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He proposed five dimensions of all cultures, which affect work, education, and family life. His approach is being used by more and more user-interface analysts and designers to improve how user interfaces can be developed to meet the needs of specific target markets.

Linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson [6] examined in their classic work the way people use language, and they discovered, among other things, fundamental metaphors within most human communication. Just as one cannot not communicate, one cannot not use metaphors in communication. They theorize that most metaphors are spatial. Their book gives insight into one of our fundamental design challenges: how we help people to understand fundamental structures and processes that computer-based systems present to users.

For insight into how human beings understand complex information, consider the classic book by Kevin Lynch [7] that is now more than 40 years old. This insightful view of how the phenomena of the urban environment can be understood is basic to modern urban theory, which posits nodes, areas, edges, landmarks, and the like as classic elements of urban form. These same elements seem appropriate to consider for large collections of information, for example, in Web-based documents, applications, and databases. At issue is how ordinary human beings comprehend a large mass of content and how we user-interface developers might learn from our urban experience to provide better frameworks for our cyberspace constructs.

Decades ago James Miller [8] proposed that all living systems can be understood according to 18 fundamental functions modeled on those of biological organisms (such as ingestion and excretion). He proposed that all complex enterprises, from the scale of microbes to those of entire civilizations could be understood more fundamentally and powerfully through this perspective. His approach might be applicable to understanding communities of information processing.

Where Do We Go from Here?

These references, and the aforementioned activities, are just a start at thinking about the future of user-interface design by going back to some of the classics of other disciplines and thinking about how, together, we can accomplish much more than we can do alone. As the many tribes of CHI gather each year, cross-cultural communication and cooperation will grow. This intersection of cultures will make the CHI community continually stimulating and challenging.

Let us work toward the objective that CHI continues to be this unique place of intersection, where we can learn to communicate and relate well with each other. Through these interactions, we will learn to serve better our users, clients, employers, and profession.


1. Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M. Jacobson, M., Fiksdahl-King, I., and Angel, S. A Pattern Language. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977 (ISBN: 0195019199).

2. Bertalanffy, L. von. General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. George Braziller Publisher, 1962 (ISBN: 0807604534).

3. Eco, U. A Theory of Semiotics. Indiana University Press, 1979 (ISBN: 0253202175).

4. Gardner, H. Frames of Mind, The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Basic Books, 1993 (ISBN: 0465025102).

5. Hofstede, G. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. McGraw-Hill, New York, 1997 (ISBN: 0070293074).

6. Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983 (ISBN: 0226468011).

7. Lynch, K. Image of the City. MIT Press, Cambridge, 1960 (ISBN: 0262620014).

8. Miller, J. G. Living Systems. University Press of Colorado, Denver, (ISBN: 0870813633).


Aaron Marcus,
President Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc.

Aaron Marcus ( is president of Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc., Emeryville, CA, and New York, NY ( Mr.Marcus frequently lectures about user-interface design and has authored or co-authored four books in this area.

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