Rethinking the SIGCHI conference landscape: Why some must evolve or perish

Authors: Johannes Schöning
Posted: Mon, May 08, 2023 - 10:04:00

It has been nearly four years since I last attended an in-person conference, and I must admit that I was excited about attending the recent ACM CHI conference in Hamburg

In-person conferences provide a unique opportunity for researchers to meet, chat, and catch up on the latest developments in the field, as well as absorb all the excellent talks and demos. It is also super important to build networks, especially for early career researchers. 

However, the Covid-19 pandemic put an end to all that, and we quickly transitioned to digital conferences. While digital conferences had their benefits, such as accessibility and convenience, I found myself missing the social aspect of in-person conferences, particularly the informal chit-chat during breaks. 

Additionally, I hardly remembered any paper presentations from the digital conferences I attended, in contrast to talks I attended back at CHI in San Jose in 2007, which I remembered vividly due to my physical surroundings and interactions with others in the room.

Now, hybrid conferences are becoming the new normal, offering both in-person and digital attendance options. While this innovation seems like a step forward, it raises important questions. Have we truly innovated the conference experience, or did we act too quickly in response to the pandemic? Have we considered all the potential side effects of going hybrid? And perhaps more importantly, do some conferences need to die or perish?

One argument for the death of some conferences is simply that there are too many of them. It can be challenging to recruit reviewers for all the different conferences, and the field may need help to sustain the number of conferences currently in existence. 

Additionally, some conferences simply do not get the attention they deserve anymore, and it can be challenging to maintain a core audience for them. For example, I love MobileHCI, and I was recently the program chair for it. However, the number of submissions has been decreasing in the last few years, and it seems like the conference is losing its core audience. MobileHCI has become the “mini CHI,” and it’s unclear where MHCI fits into the mix of SIGCHI conferences. This is not only true for MobileHCI, but also for a set of other conferences in my humble opinion. 

Another reason to consider the death of some conferences is sustainability. While hybrid conferences can reduce the environmental impact of conferences by reducing travel and energy consumption, they still require physical resources such as venue rental and equipment. Some conferences, such as IEEE VR, have started to charge authors for each item presented at the conference to offset these costs. However, it needs to be clarified whether this approach is sustainable in the long term and also what novel barriers hybrid conferences bring, for example, for early career researchers who are “forced” into the hybrid mode instead of going to physical conferences due to budget concerns. We need to talk about CHI in Hawaii at another time, in depth.

So, what do I propose? First and foremost, I suggest that we focus on having a strong flagship conference and just a few (local) satellite conferences that emphasize the networking and experience parts of the conference—trying out demos and talking to people instead of passively absorbing talks (one can watch the talks later anyway). This would allow us to put more love into the local SIGCHI chapters and encourage them to organize workshops, summer schools, and other events that can foster sustainable growth and strong networks within the field. In addition, it would be very much up for supporting the birth of new conferences that support the emergence of new areas of research that have a certain life span and will disappear after a few editions once the field is established.

Second, I suggest that we move away from the artificial acceptance rates that have become so common in conferences. Instead, we could implement a true revise and resubmit cycle and create different presentation/experience categories at CHI. I most enjoyed trying out the demos in Hamburg. Most talks I can rewatch later on the great ACM SIGCHI YouTube channel (if you have not subscribed, I would encourage you to do so). This would allow for more diverse and nuanced discussions and help us move away from the idea that conferences are just about talks, talks, talks. It is desirable to have conferences that prioritize opportunities for presenting and discussing intriguing content rather than being overly preoccupied with enforcing deadlines and procedural protocols. Conferences should have different aims, which also help conferences to differentiate themselves from each other (presenting inspiring content, receiving quality feedback on early-stage work, showcasing the latest research, or networking and experiencing demos). Such conferences should aim to broaden the scope of curated material, with committees working more closely together and avoiding exclusive reliance on traditional peer review processes. Promoting such new formats might also mean rethinking how universities fund conference attendance, especially for early-career researchers. 

Finally, I believe that conferences should be about the exchange of ideas and experiencing new technologies. In my experience, the rejection rate for demos at CHI 2023 was far too high, and the juried process needed to be more transparent. I very much enjoyed  the “hot desk areas” for demos at CHI, where people could try out new technologies and interact with the developers in a more informal setting. We should consider truly innovative conferences that promote exchanging ideas and networking. The primary objective should be to provide an exceptional conference experience and exceptional content, regardless of its source. Moreover, there should be a platform for showcasing previously published work at premier conferences, which would help sustain smaller conferences as platforms for innovative and speculative ideas in nascent fields.

Of course, these are just my personal opinions, and they may be a bit provocative. I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter, whether here on the Interactions blog, via email, Twitter, LinkedIn, or, best, during a coffee in person at a future SIGCHI conference. Let's continue to innovate and improve the conference experience for all researchers in the field.


Special thanks go to Christine Scheef (HSG), Yvonne Rogers (UCL) and Antonio Krüger (DFKI)  for their insightful feedback and constructive criticism on an earlier version of this post. Their expertise in the field greatly contributed to the final outcome. I am grateful for their time and effort in providing valuable input, which helped to shape my thoughts.

Posted in: on Mon, May 08, 2023 - 10:04:00

Johannes Schöning

Johannes Schöning is a professor of human-computer interaction (HCI) at the University of St. Gallen. With our research we want to empower individuals and communities with the information they need to make better data-driven decisions by developing novel user interfaces with them. [email protected]
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