The Birth of MOCHI
Judy Olson talks about the birth of MOCHI, a local SIG serving Michigan and Northern Ohio, and the lessons learned
Eighteen months ago we began the process of forming a new local SIGCHI chapter for Michigan and Northern Ohio, called MOCHI. Today we are official. We have a simple program of monthly speakers with attendance ranging from 10 to 250. And, we have a mailing list of 178 people. On the simple measures we are a success. The “secret to success” we believe is that we kept it simple. We thought we’d share our experiences with two goals: we can help other geographies form local SIGCHI chapters, and others can help us with some of our outstanding issues.
In this report, we are following the excellent guide in the May, 1999, SIGCHI Bulletin called “Challenges Facing CHI Local SIGs.” I wish this had been written before we launched our effort. It would have been a useful map. Many of the challenges faced by others were presented to us; it would have been nice to know that we were not alone and that there was advice at hand!
The twinkle in the eye
The University of Michigan has a long history of having active researchers in HCI, contributors to the CHI community in both the conference and publications. But, until 1994, there was no formal HCI program. With the establishment of the School of Information (SI), suddenly there was a focus, a body of 40 Masters students, and a coalescing of faculty from disparate schools into one unit. Though not all HCI people are in SI (e.g., Paul Green in IOE and David Kieras in EECS), there are seven (Judy and Gary Olson, George Furnas, Nathaniel Borenstein, Paul Resnick, Elliot Soloway, and Suresh Bhavnani). We noted that although SI encourages professional participation of its students—there were student librarian and archives groups—at the time, there was no HCI group. This was the perfect opportunity to start a local SIGCHI.
When we called together a group of interested people at SI to discuss the possibility, we garnered an attendance of 45. Although we didn’t want the chapter to be exclusively SI or even the University of Michigan, we needed to poll the locals to see if there was enough interest to join and to lead such an effort. From this meeting we asked for volunteers who would be willing to lead the effort or nominate and convince others to lead. The group of 6 that formed met several times, uncomfortably, to come up with a slate of potential officers. Since there was no organization yet, it felt odd—the cart before the horse. Finally we just declared a set of officers and got on with it. We had a mix of people in this original group: two SI Ph.D. students in HCI, an alum of SI who was President of a local consulting organization, another alum who worked for a different local consulting company, and one SI faculty member. We designated the faculty member to be the program chair rather than president because she had many connections in the field, and could likely invite people to speak who would agree to come. Clout counts in the program chair.
We then brainstormed people to announce this to, making a mailing list of about 50 people. We asked them to both indicate their interest and suggest other names to put on the list. The list grew to about 80. We also brainstormed a list of people we wanted to invite to our program, deciding to have two highly visible national speakers a year, and the rest from the local crowd. We chose a “Bonzo” speaker to kick things off— Nathaniel Borenstein talking about Linux and Open Source. The topic was intentionally chosen to attract technical as well as behaviorally-oriented people.
At the first meeting of the organization, we were still nameless. Naming was a big issue with us. We wanted something catchy but also informational. We were attracted to the BuckCHI and CHI-Squared names in particular. We’re not sure we succeeded, but MOCHI grew from MICHI, with the intent to evoke that we covered the northern Ohio (Toledo area) as well as SE Michigan. Any name with MICH in the title unfortunately evokes the elitist image of the University of Michigan. Since our intent was to be inclusive to the Detroit, Lansing (Michigan State) and Toledo/Bowling Green areas, we settled on MOCHI.
Our first meeting was held November 11, 1998, with a business meeting to choose the name and officers, and then the program featuring Borenstein. We were happy when 50 people attended. We held this meeting in the School of Information formal colloquium room; we had an intention to move the meetings to other locations, but so far it hasn’t happened. The central location draws students and faculty who otherwise wouldn’t travel to other locations. We were successful in drawing about half of the attendees from the corporate and university sites within about a 80 mile radius (Bowling Green, Borders, EDS, UM-ITD, etc.); half were from SI.
Behind the scenes of this formal program activity, the officers were busily writing the bylaws. ACM SIGCHI sends out a template with some pieces required, some suggested. Many of the “rules” evoked deep discussion without a lot of knowledge about the rationale for each alternative. How do you determine who can vote in the election? What’s a quorum (not too high to prohibit things getting done, not too low to allow factions controlling things)? How much should dues be? We employed an exercise that examined each rule, discussing in what way it could be manipulated by an evil faction. More “lessons learned” about this aspect would have been appreciated. We kept wondering why we care, but then felt deep responsibility about forming a lasting organization. We felt earnestly amateurish, to say the least.
Once formulated and voted upon by the constituents, we submitted the bylaws to ACM SIGCHI. Our main goal was to be designated a real organization so we could get a checking account to manage our funds. This took a mysteriously long time. People were giving us money; we were handing out receipts. People were “members” long before we were official. Money was kept in an envelope!
In the background also, our publicity chair suggested that we have a website, something simple that allowed us to announce who we were, how to join, what the next program was and how to get to the location. One of the officers worked for a local web development organization and, after checking with management, volunteered to host the site. Their payback would be that the service they were most famous for would be in the MOCHI web address. We are hosted at usabilityfirst.com/MOCHI. The company volunteered a fixed number of design and development hours, most of which were spent in graphic design of our logo, and the content and architecture formation of the site.
Long about April, we were happy to announce that ACM had sanctioned MOCHI. We had a short celebration at a monthly meeting. It seemed a bit anticlimactic since we had been meeting for 8 months (hmmm) before we were born.
Nurturing and development.
Getting the program together was a major activity. We looked to our local luminaries and were richly rewarded. After Nathaniel Borenstein, we had Elliot Soloway (SI), George Furnas (SI), Lou Rosenfeld (Argus), Loretta Staples (School of Art and Design), Steve Markel (Diamond Bullet), Judy Dean and John Cady (UM Information Technology Division), Stephanie Rosenbaum (TechEd), Jeff Bates and Nathan Oostendorp (Slashdot), and Judy Olson (SI) from the local area. Then we took advantage of other HCI types coming in to SI for other reasons— Mary Czerwinski (Microsoft) was here on a recruiting trip, Gregory Abowd (Georgia Tech) visited SI and CREW, Wendy Kellogg (IBM) came early to a CREW Executive Forum, etc. One other targeted speaker, Don Norman (Unext), was a personal friend of the program chair and agreed to a “Bonzo” lecture slot. This event was hosted by SI as well as MOCHI, and was held in a large auditorium in the Business School. There was a large publicity campaign involving many more volunteers than normal, and we succeeded in filling the place, attracting about 250 people. The other most successful program was a Workshop led by Judy Olson on “Methods for Assessing Usability without Users.” Nearly 125 people attended that workshop.
Two things we tried didn’t work. Since students and faculty are busy at the ends of the semesters and we were doubtful of a sizable audience, we held a Book Garden--- twice. We asked people to share resources: they were to bring in books or URLs that they found useful. We would have a reception with lot of food (and wine) where people could browse the offerings---displayed on tables with little cards next to each book/ URL saying what it was and why someone liked it. Fifteen people showed up to the first one, 10 to the second. Not a winner.
The second event that was a bust was a review of CHI. Those who went to CHI were to bring in a short report of their personal highlights. We had the Proceedings available to browse, and a set of short reports that people volunteered about what they liked or disliked. Not many people showed up for this; many people had gone (since it was relatively close by) and didn’t find the “rehash” a real draw.
The terrible twos and adoption.
Late in our second year, we were inching up to the handoff to the next set of officers. The original set had served for 18 months and were weary. The worry was whether we could attract the next set of volunteers who would give MOCHI the care and feeding we had begun. We had brainstormed tons of ideas about what MOCHI could become, but had run out of steam. None of our constituents seemed unhappy with the simple service we provided—fellowship (we had simple food at 7 pm, with the program starting at 7:15, and the speaker ending about 8:30 with fellowship afterwards until 9) and an interesting speaker. We did not have a job board (though inquiries were beginning to develop); we had no library (no one asked for it); and the officers had an early supper with the out of town speaker, no one else (a perk that other local SIGCHIs offer). February of the second year was a good time to pass these jobs over to the next officers.
Happily, for 5 jobs there were 7 candidates running in the election. Bios and statements were posted on the web. Voting was held both in-person at the meeting and via email. Only paid members were allowed to vote, which raised the membership rate significantly.
Funding from dues alone was not going to make this program work. We had about $40 of food provided each meeting and travel expenses of some academic non-UM visitors. All corporate visitors paid their own ways, for which we were grateful. Dinners for outside guests (“supper” not a formal dinner, given the early hour) ran about $200 a visitor. Late in the first year we had serious discussions about how to get corporate sponsorship. We talked about having various local organizations (Diamond Bullet, Argus, Borders, Ford, EDS, SI, etc.) contribute $5,000 each to support the bringing in of “Bonzo” speakers. In the end, SI contributed about $500/year to the effort, and Diamond Bullet design (a gift in kind). But we didn’t try very hard, leaving this set of ideas to the next officer set.
I’m not sure our challenges could have been avoided. Many times in the launch we felt that we didn’t know the order in which things should happen. For example, how can we have a voting procedure of the bylaws if the bylaws don’t exist. Who votes when? What is the role of the first nominating committee…where do the first officers come from? We seem to have muddled through, however, and have a thriving organization. Of the initial set of officers, no one ran for re-election. The new officers include one SI Faculty (program chair), a PostDoctoral Fellow at SI-CREW, an SI Masters student, the CEO of a local consulting firm, and a consultant in a local firm.
What’s fun is that they are energized to take MOCHI to the next step. They are eager to add more services to the web site. More people coming through UM would like to talk at MOCHI. People come to MOCHI to interact with other members. The fellowship is working and the word is out that the speakers are interesting. We still wrestle with the rationale for someone to become a member. Members can vote and feel part of the community. Free riders can come for the program without cost. We try to instill a moral obligation to join, and our low membership fees make it easy for people to join. Money will continue to be an issue.
The real lesson learned, however, is to keep it simple (stupid?). We began with simple food, fellowship, and a program. To launch a program, people need to know that something interesting will be talked about (or a workshop will be relevant), and that other people will show up. Working on membership is important. Having a good story about why people should attend is important. The joy of it all is that if you create it (well), they will come.Judy Olson is a Professor of Information, of Computer Information Systems, and of Psychology at the University of Michigan. She talks about the birth of MOCHI, a local SIG serving Michigan and Northern Ohio, and the lessons learned.