NordiCHI 2006, Oslo, Octobersomething new was in the air. Smiling, people remarked on it, not sure what it was. Not even the pleasantly surprised organizers could put their finger on it, but HCI research seemed to have changed in some subtle way.
Some background information: Most specialized HCI conferences focus on a particular topic, but several are regional. The individuality found in local SIGCHI chapters is also reflected in regional conferences. CHINZ is organized annually by the New Zealand SIGCHI chapter. The alternating IHC (Brazil) and CLIHC (Latin America) conferences have been organized by chapters in Brazil, Chile, and Mexico. OZCHI (Australia) and APCHI (Asia-Pacific) are not formally tied to SIGCHI. They have more of an ergonomic focus; OZCHI was inspired by the first CHI conference, which also had a greater ergonomic focus. NordiCHI has been organized since 2000 by four HCI groups of which three have ties to SIGCHI; one is the Finnish SIGCHI chapter, and two are prospective chapters.
Prior to NordiCHI 2006 I had attended two regional HCI conferences: the first Brazilian IHC in 1998 and the first NordiCHI in 2000. (I also attended the first local SIGCHI chapter meetings in Boston and Austin a decade earlier.) Regional conferences can serve strong community-building and member-support functions. They showcase more local work and of course reduce travel costs for local participants. Little work from any one region is present at CHI, where acceptance rates range from 15 percent to 25 percent. Higher acceptance rates in regional conferences enable researchers to get constructive feedback, some of which focuses on work in progress, from people who understand their context. Understanding that the goals differ, I attend a regional conference with lower expectations for polish and major advances and higher expectations for enthusiasm and interaction.
NordiCHI 2006 accepted 28 percent of papers, 27 percent across all submission venues. Although almost half of the 37 long and 28 short accepted papers were from outside Nordic countries, the conference had a strong Nordic flavor. But what does that mean? There was a greater emphasis on collaboration, but collaboration is prominent in North America now, too, so it was more than that.
The sessions were infused with a cheerful energy and the calm confidence that solid, important work was being presented and discussed. The research was firmly within the CHI scope of topics, methods, and evaluation criteria, yet it felt different. I watched the crowd of about 350 people and had some thoughts.
An Historical Analogy
In the 1980s, CHI matured in North America as participatory design (PD) matured in the Nordic countries. The two influenced each other, but CHI was oriented toward commercial mass-market software and PD toward in-house or consultant-based development. Participatory design was a farsighted critique of approaches in Management Information Systems. When I worked in Scandinavia from 1989 to 1991, my colleagues were impressed with CHI but couldn’t embrace the narrow focus on user interface and interaction issues: Getting the functionality right was always critical in their projects.
As computer use spread in the Nordic countries, many organizationstelecommunications companies, medical centers, government agencies, and so onneeded help with CHI-style interaction and interface issues. Talented young researchers and developers were hired who creatively adapted and applied CHI knowledge. Many of them were at NordiCHI; a few had been my students a decade ago in Norway.
NordiCHI intellectual and organizational leadership differs from that of CHI in two ways. First, it is younger. Early participatory design researchers did not fully embrace HCI and were not present at NordiCHI, whereas CHI founders of the same generation remain an active, graying presence at CHI.
Second, researchers and practitioners at NordiCHI are wrestling with HCI issues, but each is doing so within a specific domain: telecom, medical, government, financial, and so on. They aren’t striving for results or techniques that are universally or very broadly applicable to the same extent as CHI researchers. Universals are great when they apply, but they can’t address many problems. The quest for broad truths may have diminishing returns when the most useful have been found and more design is in support of fine-grained activity that is contextually constrained. The future may lie in domain-specific results, the pursuit of which does not mean abandoning science for application.
Many in CHI have argued for more domain-specific work. But often it is to search in a domain for results that might generalizea temporary sojourn in one or another domain by a researcher who retains a domain-independent core. I saw research that seemed stronger for not having such a core.
I haven’t described specific papers and work. Starting from 2002, NordiCHI proceedings are in the ACM Digital Library under the ACM International Conference series. As you look at them, consider that within a domain such as medical systems, there will be three components of the underlying interaction dynamics: behaviors found in all systems, behaviors found in medical systems, and behaviors specific to the system examined. HCI research could address any of the three; CHI tends to focus on the first. For CHI work within a specific domain, the goal is often results that can be generalized. NordiCHI research was focused on the second, conducted within the domains where the researchers work. Because it is less concerned with generalizing, the research can be more complete at that level. It felt solid and more useful than some findings that strive to be more general.
In conclusion, a greater emphasis on domain-centered work is plausibly the future of our science as well as our practice. NordiCHI may be an insightful critique of CHI today, just as Participatory Design critiqued MIS 20 years ago. As then, the critique is of an approach developed by the previous generation.
An American graduate student of the CHI persuasion who was in Europe dropped in on NordiCHI. He said, “This was a cool conference. I’ll come back.”
For more information on NordiCHI, see www.nordichi.org. Proceedings of NordiCHI 2006 are available at http://portal.acm.org/toc.cfm?id=1182475 (Proceedings of the 4th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction: Changing Roles 2006, Oslo, Norway, October 14 - 18, 2006.)
About the Author
Jonathan Grudin is a senior researcher in the Adaptive Systems and Interaction group at Microsoft Research. His Web page is http://research.microsoft.com/~jgrudin.
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