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



  • 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


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


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




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


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


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.
  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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