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You are here: Home 1997 Vol. 29 No. 4, October 1997 Columns Visual Interaction Design: CHI 97 - A Visual Interaction Design Perspective
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Visual Interaction Design: CHI 97 - A Visual Interaction Design Perspective

Shannon Ford

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If you didn't go to CHI 97, here's what you missed: an opportunity to meet interesting people, eat good food, relax, do a little badge-scanning, and, most importantly, recharge yourself with new ideas and enthusiasm. Of course, if you are already charged up, it's a chance to spread good cheer among your peers.

Everyone says that meeting people is the main purpose of a conference, but this is the first CHI that this has actually worked for me. After three previous CHIs, in which I religiously attended every session, but searched vainly for lunch partners (Philips, where were your hot badges then?), I finally reached conference nirvana. This could have had something to do with being, for the first time, with close colleagues on the trip, or because for the first time I actually participated in a few sessions, or because I was sniffing around for job opportunities. The downside of this, though, is that I was somewhat preoccupied, and so will make a poor tour guide of the sessions. To make matters worse, the few notes I did take are hopelessly lost in the confusion that is my imminent move from Pittsburgh to Chicago.

A more difficult problem is knowing what to report. The VID community itself is quite diverse; some of us are interested in practical results to guide detailed visual design of HCI systems; some of us are interested in design process; some in interaction paradigms and user experience, and some in the `fuzzy front end' of user needs and invention. People have different strategies at conferences, too. Some might stick to sessions that closely match their interests or current projects; some colleagues of mine make a point to see only new technologies, some like to go to the more ephemeral sessions such as demos and panels because they are experiences which cannot be captured in a paper. With this difficulty in mind, I will make brief mention of a few general sessions, and finish up with some thoughts about the place of VID in future CHI conferences. I hope that in next year's CHI column we can get more voices helping us report on the conference; there is simply too much of value to be captured by one person.

The conference began rather engagingly with the opening plenary by Rick Prelinger, who was also at the Doors of Perception conference last year. Rick's presentation, Utopia Appropriated: The Future as it Was, looked at how corporations presented their visions of a utopian future filled with useful technology. Rick told his story mainly through the use of industrial and advertising film clips created between 1936 and 1965 by corporations such as GM, Chevrolet, and Whirlpool. The films told marvelous tales of speedy and efficient intelligent highways, and could be rather amusing because of their stereotypes and because we know now how things really turned out (such is the pleasure of reviewing former future predictions). It was more remarkable, however, for putting into historical perspective our long-running idea that technology and product design are a means to improving life, still very much with us today, and because it allows us to step back from our current work and try to imagine what we will sound like to conference goers in the year 2040 looking back on today. How will audiences react to our proclamations of the global information society or Sun's Starfire concept film? Rick's presentation made an interesting backdrop to view Philips' presentation on Wednesday of their Vision of the Future project, whose output, like those before it, were high concept films. Much has already been written about the Philips project, so I won't go into it here.

This year, three special interest group sessions were devoted to visual interaction design. On Wednesday morning, there was `Designing the Quality Experience,' which featured presentations by Jim Faris of Alben + Faris, Jodi Forlizzi of Carnegie Mellon University (now of Digital Inks), Gitta Salomon of Swim Studio, and Dan Boyarski of Carnegie Mellon University. The presenters and audience explored the question of how we can design systems that afford satisfying and rich user experiences. A more detailed account will hopefully appear in the next issue of the Bulletin. On Wednesday afternoon, Loretta Staples hosted a VID session comprised of number of presentations ranging from web design and the use of grids, to metaphors and affordances and understanding how to talk about the role of movement in interaction design. Finally, on Thursday, graduate students from the Royal College of Art's Computer-Related Design program and Carnegie Mellon University's Interaction Design program demonstrated course work and thesis projects. The room was packed, and attended by some notable `celebs' of the HCI world, which was very satisfying to see.

There were a number of interesting late-breaking demos, as well; for example, Steve Mann, of the Media Lab, gave a controversial presentation on the evolution of his wearable computer/personal imaging system, which he uses, at least as one application, to create `personal documentaries'. In one documentary, he approaches workers in various businesses to ask them about the surveillance cameras in the store, and how they feel about being filmed without their permission, all the while filming the worker with a hidden camera built into his eyeglasses. He then pulls out a hand-held camera and begins filming the worker, capturing their reactions in both cameras. Ethical considerations aside (it strikes me as a crueler Candid Camera), his work points out how little we think about technology in our environment and the privacy and security issues that face us. Another paper, by Anthony Dunne and William Gaver from RCA, had a similar theme of using design and technology as a means for creating `cultural thought experiments' or `value fictions' in which a product concept prompts reflections about what values in the culture would make the concept acceptable or not.

The most frustrating session that I saw at CHI was a panel called Design vs. Computing. I expected, or at least hoped for, a stimulating discussion about design as a unifying activity in HCI, or at least a stimulating discussion about the role of design in HCI. What happened was a formal debate about whether CHI should disassociate from the professional computing community and realign itself more closely with professional design associations. The Computing side gave a reasonable rebuttal of the formal position in the abstract that the problem is not the professional society in question but in determining how the field transcends disciplinary skirmishes; however, their conduct in the debate was narrowly focused and bordering on the schizophrenic. They both embraced design and scoffed at it, changing its definition to suit their purpose in the moment, all the while feeling superior because they were the ones on the panel wearing art on their t-shirts. It may have all been in fun; I don't know the panelists well enough to judge, or perhaps I just take the topic too seriously to find it amusing, but I found their attitude counter-productive. What could have been an interesting discussion turned into a bit of blood sport aimed at getting a cynical laugh or two from the audience, though the Design side did a fine job of refusing to play the game.

Finally, I enjoyed the four-floor visual feast that is the Coca Cola museum. The museum documents the soft drink's rise to fame, including the evolution and revolution of the product, and its brand identity, packaging and advertising. The museum included some of its major television ad campaigns, a little trip back into nostalgia (remember, `I like to teach the world to sing?'), as well as some of its newer Olympics advertising. There was even a lesson about internationalization and localization: the final tasting room included Coca Cola's products from around the world, such as a bitter aperitif-like drink marketed solely in Italy, and a grapefruit concoction marketed in Japan. One flavor does not fit all, even for Coca Cola.

Designing a Quality Experience of CHI

Is CHI a fruitful place for visual interaction designers? I'm almost certain that design was better represented this year than at any previous CHI conference. A number of improvements have been made, including the addition of design briefings and invited speakers, and many people in the community are supportive. There were more than enough interesting topics to choose from, at least for my interests. However, visual interaction design is still marginalized to some extent; the representation is largely felt through SIGs, demos, and late-breaking presentations, all of which are quite explicitly distinguished from the `archival quality' papers published in the proceedings volume. SIGs are given meeting space, but no computer or audio/visual support, a bit of an absurd situation given the subject matter and the high level of quality usually found in visual interaction design presentations.

Calling visual interaction design a special interest group is itself problematic. More and more HCI researchers, practitioners, and educators are singing the praises of multidisciplinary teams in which each discipline, design included, brings an important set of skills and perspectives to the table, each equally valuable. VID is not, then, a special interest group in the same way that users of the `Amulet User Interface Development Environment' are, or even those interested in the domain of telemedicine. It is a core discipline in the HCI mix, and deserves better representation at CHI.

Of course, many will point to the design briefings as the legitimized design presence at CHI, and indeed, the preponderance of reviewers that I can immediately identify as being from more traditional design organizations are almost exclusively reviewers for the design briefings. With the diversity that is the VID community, though, I wonder if this meets everyone's needs. I would be interested in hearing from people about their thoughts on this matter.

It has been suggested that DIS will become the design offshoot to CHI, just as UIST focuses on development tools. This raises the question, though: what is the role of CHI, and how do we read the relationships among the conferences? At some point, the disciplines need to be in the mix together, so that we have no excuse not to bump into each other. A specialized conference is great for getting more deeply into issues particular to a discipline, but they don't buy us integration.

My suspicion, and, as a caveat I must say that I am an outsider to the reviewing process and to the internal workings of CHI in general, is that the old structure for reviewing may need some updating to reflect both the present realities of HCI and our desires for how we would like to promote the field in the future. Previous conference themes have hinted at the need for better understanding and integration `common ground, bridges between worlds, celebrating interdependence' but I feel we are a long way from achieving this (and the design vs. computing panel only confirms my fears).

Like cultures, each of the disciplines that have been key to HCI have their own traditions, conceptual frameworks, bodies of knowledge, and ideas about what constitutes valid and useful work. Submissions should continue to be accepted based on the highest of standards, but not necessarily by the standards of another discipline. Many papers by visual interaction designers are rejected when judged by the standards of cognitive or computing sciences; and I dare say many of the technical papers would be rejected by design standards, too, and not because the figures are less than lovely. Design-oriented papers, and not just design briefings, might be submitted in such a way as to ensure that they are evaluated by appropriate standards.

Submissions to CHI conferences are currently organized by forms rather than content. For example, the categories for submission are papers, panels, demos, design briefings, special interest groups, etc. Other professional conferences, such as that of the Society of Technical Communication, organize submissions based on broad content areas of interest to their community, such as education and training, management, visual communication, tools and technology, writing and editing, and so on. These are all areas which are important to the overall practice of technical communication. Likewise, CHI might organize submissions based on broad categories of interest to the community, allowing different forms (papers, demos, etc.) within those categories as appropriate. This might give design equal footing in the program, as well as address the diverse interests within the design community. It should be noted that CHI 98 is introducing content-specific submission categories with its education, entertainment, and health care application domains.

I do not wish to oversimplify, or pretend I have the solution here in suggesting tracks or submissions based on broad content areas like Design. While focusing on forms of presentation instead of content seems wrong to me, it also may be a way to address or avoid the problems of categorization. If design is one track, what then are the others? What happens to submissions which cross boundaries? I would expect that it will get more and more difficult to make distinctions based on current disciplinary lines. This is the hint of the real debate in the design vs. computing panel. It is a challenging question, but an interesting one: how to design a conference for a changing field with competing values and visions in its very diverse audience. Sounds like a wicked problem. Perhaps we should begin with some contextual user research.

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Vol.29 No.4, October 1997
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