Fresh: rant

XII.4 July + August 2005
Page: 5
Digital Citation

CHI and the practitioner dilemma

Jonathan Arnowitz, Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson

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This year's CHI conference was much like any other: the parade of papers, panels, exhibits; entertaining plenary speakers; an overcrowded invigorating reception; and a micro-Design Expo. There were a few new things (like the march to get to the reception) and many of the same traditional things (a second student design competition, a solid program with traction). But there was something else that most of you probably weren't aware of: an outright blow-up between practitioners and academics at no less a venue than the usually staid SIGCHI Membership Meeting.

The meeting started in its traditional stolid and understated manner. Having recited overall accomplishments for the last year at a gallant clip, vice president for membership Julie Jacko and president Joe Konstan arrived at the discussion of CHI 2006. Gary Olson, CHI 2006 chair, was given the floor to discuss a new organization of the conference for next year's event in Montreal. His remarks were met at first with what one might describe as brooding silence. However, a spark was ignited when a couple of CHI big spenders—those that spend tens of thousands of U.S. dollars sponsoring, exhibiting, and sending scores of attendees—stood up and challenged the SIGCHI executive committee and the conference management committee with the following: "Either you make more practitioner-relevant materials available at CHI next year or we will not be coming back."

The well-intentioned challenge became almost surreal when some tenured academics reacted furiously charging that these practitioners were trying to ruin the papers track and destroy the academics' ability to get tenure. It took all of Joe Konstan and Julie Jacko's diplomatic skills to settle things down.

It turns out the academics were truly upset at a proposal by CHI 2006 to radically alter the papers program. Then along came the practitioner's challenge and it was like lighting a match in a dusty coal mine.

Both groups have a serious and legitimate complaint: CHI is not meeting our needs. This is nothing new. But when action suggests that community voices are ignored, those voices grow louder. It's been a long time since we've seen an actual shouting match at CHI. Unfortunately each side of the discussion slightly misunderstood the other's arguments and the context for their frustrations.

The CHI conference needs to address the concerns of these communities. It can't go into black-box mode for solutions. And black box doesn't just mean everything's secret; it also means that news, policies, and the politics of volunteer organizations simply don't reach you unless it is pushed at you. There is the matter of communicating, and the manner. It's our fault for not getting involved if we don't ask questions and follow through the implications of their answers. We want a process and ultimate content that are both more strategic and inclusive. The CHI conference committee(s), the CMC, the publications board, and the executive committee are all well intentioned, but the process by which they work is broken.

Raise your voice, provide feedback, submit, review, volunteer—for CHI and elsewhere. You have to create the mandate for change.

Yes, changes need to be made to the CHI conference. By the last week of April, two weeks after CHI 2005 ended, two more championship sponsors added their voices to the earlier mentioned ultimatum.

Here's what we see being done about it: appointing practitioners to the CHI 2006 committee and giving them a sandbox for new submissions. This is a good thing. First year "experiments" often are. But don't count on it developing a "following"—our experience has taught us something about the CHI conference: If you liked what they did in `07, too bad, because in `08 it will disappear. So how do you institute a new thing with any security that it will reappear? Well, one way is to have that new thing keep popping up here and there to build some brand recognition: Enter the case study.

We worked five years on trying to get design case studies canonized into the CHI conference. People like Austin Henderson, Hugh Dubberly, Terry Swack, Ian McClelland, and others from SIGCHI, SIGGRAPH, AIGA, and the Stanford Business School have worked on this case study submission format. Here's its track record to date:

  • CHI 2001—one Design Expo session, nine presentations, attended by 1300 people in a standing-room-only hall
  • CHI 2002—Design Expo dropped from the conference program; instead created the CHI2002|AIGA Experience Design FORUM, a two-day co-hosted pre-conference satellite, well-received and financially successful
  • CHI 2003—Design Expo dropped again; offered one panel session for four case studies
  • CHI 2004—three Design Expo sessions; very successful with practitioner-directed marketing and outreach
  • CHI 2005—two Design Expo sessions, no marketing budget and no outreach; many practitioners did not even realize it was there
  • CHI 2006—Design Expo dropped from the conference as of press time, but there will be three new submission formats

This lack of continuity and consistency isn't the volunteers' fault. (Indeed former CMC member Scooter Morris writes a very provocative and encouraging article below.) The real problem, as we see it, is the way these organizations all work together. Or, clearly, don't.

You can guess our solution to the problem—we think all the above-named organizations would even agree. Many on the EC and CMC have articulated this already. Practitioners aren't second-class citizens at CHI, they're just a different kind of first-class citizen with a literature and a voice to develop:

  • Canonize the case-study format and practitioner forums into the core conference.
  • Ensure the continuation and consistent naming of CHI conference venues of primary interest to practitioners.
  • Give conferences like CHI 2006 the chance to experiment with new ideas, like Experience Reports, CHI Notes, etc., then have a way to review and either iterate at the next conference or drop it and document the reason why with the rationale, to avoid reinventing the square wheel; and please, make a point of communicating the results.
  • Assure any proposed change to the community-specific tracks (papers, case studies, student competition, etc.) are done with care and by consulting openly with these communities; then it's their fault if they neglect to speak up.
  • Consult with academics and practitioners to make it easier for some research papers to be more practitioner-focused or at least practitioner-friendly; we would greatly appreciate any such effort. (Whatever happened to applied research?)
  • Redesign the SIGCHI Web sites to appeal to practitioners. (Well, OK, we just threw that one in but really, don't you think it's about time?)

It has been five CHI conferences since the challenge to attract practitioners was first posed by frustrated designers at CHI 1999. They told us to do something about it. In the resulting everlasting flow of tweaks and changes, the CHI conference at the end of the day looks roughly the same, to the attendee, from year to year.

So we wheel our scope around and aim it at you, dear reader: You have to create the mandate for change. Raise your voice, demand to review formats, provide feedback, submit, review, volunteer—for CHI and elsewhere. We're expecting the solution to come from you. Consider this our call to action: Write to us! Tell us what YOU want! We promise we'll use this magazine to make all opinions count. Write a letter to the editor, write a short article, step forward and volunteer to be a special section editor and collect thoughts from all sides of this debate.

After all, form follows meaning—a perfectly appropriate guiding epithet for CHI 2006 and beyond.—<eic>

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