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CHI 2003 – New Horizons, But What Are They?

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – May 20, 2003

This article continues my series of personal CHI conference reports. The CHI 2003 conference was held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and had the slogan "New Horizons." A slogan like this automatically prompts the question: "And what were the new horizons?" In this article, I will try to find answers and report new HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) trends – and non-trends – that I picked up.

Note: The annual CHI conference (Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems) is "the leading international forum for the exchange of ideas and information about computer-human interaction." It is held by the SIGCHI division of the ACM (Association of Computing Machinery).

Links are given at the end of this article.

CHI 2003 logo
         Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention Center
April 5-10, 2003 Fort Lauderdale, Florida    

Figure 1: The CHI 2003 logo and the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention Center, where the CHI 2003 conference was held


Trend I: Design & Emotion

One of the recent HCI trends is a newly-awakened interest in design. Proponents of this direction, such as Terry Winograd, regard HCI as a design rather than an engineering or scientific discipline. Winograd, for example, proposed on the CHI '97 panel "Design vs. Computing" that the HCI community should distance itself from computing science and its societies and seek contact with the design community.

Of course, such a move has implications for a profession and how its members see their role within a company. That's not to say that there would be less focus on users through this move. From the "design" viewpoint, however, the user interface designer is no longer the classical "advocate" who fights for the rights of poor users – against wicked software developers. From the developers' point of view, this champion of the user also has a second, negative image: He or she incorporates the "design police" who claim the right to criticize the user interface aspect of the developers' work. Thankfully, with the new orientation towards design, these days will soon be over. The mere words "design" and "designer" have positive associations. Joyful images of desirable and cute looking products come to our minds: cars, dishes, furniture, household appliances, cameras, even computers – regrettably not software. (Ah yes, I find Apple's MacOS X attractive...) Moreover, designers feel and behave like artists, not like engineers or scientists. The only problem is that these days everybody claims to be a designer: there are software designers, graphic designers, Web designers, user interface designers, information architecture designers, instructional designers, and many more. Even managers like to be designers, as we all know... This comes as no surprise, given the fact that according to some experts design has become more important than technology and engineering.

Slide with title of Don Norman's new book Emotional Design

Figure 2: The title of Don Norman's forthcoming book and his closing plenary talk is the rallying cry for the new UI trend

This CHI, design teamed up with emotion. The topic of emotion is not new to the CHI conferences. In the past, however, the focus was on the scientific side, and research centered around analyzing, detecting, and synthesizing emotions (see, for example, the work of Rosalind Picard and Cynthia Breazeal). Now the focus is on the commercial side, on creating "pleasurable" rather than usable or efficient products, and on the impact of emotions on design. Emotions determine whether people like, buy, and use products. Designers want to take advantage of this and are asking for guidance – and such help is on the way: Don Norman's new book "Emotional Design" will be published in January 2004. For now we have to content ourselves with his interviews and talks, for example, at the closing plenary talk of CHI 2003. During the past year, Norman has developed a new theory about the impact of emotion or affect on design. Put simply, its essence is: Attractive things work better. According to Norman there are three levels of processes that have an impact on design:

Level     Description    Impact
Visceral (Reflexive)   Biological, constrained; the same for all cultures (= common to all humans)   Attractiveness, immediate reaction
Behavioral   Actions (learned and automatic), language   Most HCI design is on this level (actions, interactions)
Reflective (Cognitive)   Conscious, conscious image of self   Message, self-image; what other people think, what on thinks oneself, ...

On the visceral or biological level, we find immediate reactions triggered by factors, such as attractiveness. This level is basic to humans and acts independently of cultural influences (but see "Trend II" below). This is the level that leads some experts to claim that buying decisions are made in less than a minute. The behavioral level deals with actions; this is what most UI design deals with these days. The cognitive level is important as well. Here we find our self-image, what other people think of us or of a product, or what message we want to transmit. On this level, the rationales that we need as justification for our immediate buying decisions are created.


Trend II: Cross-Cultural Issues, Ethnography

Probably as a consequence of the evolving global market and globalization, ethnography and cross-cultural issues have become HCI's "latest paradigm" – a new trend is born. At this CHI, however, there was a lot of general or anecdotal talk and only a few concrete suggestions. As Pia Honold from Siemens put it: "There is still too little knowledge about the issues." However, I did learn that, according to the experts, the "classical" internationalization approach (localization/globalization) is no longer sufficient.

Slide showing test for emotional responses to products

Figure 3: A new test for emotional responses to products (designed by Pieter Desmet)

The implications and consequences of this trend for software companies are unclear, especially for companies that develop business software for use in many countries, such as SAP. There is a huge difference between products for fun or everyday use and business software. Consumer products, such as mobile phones, are subject to fast changing fashions and cultural differences. Business software, on the other hand, although it has to obey local legislation, looks and behaves pretty much the same all over the world. Nevertheless, SAP modifies screens in certain countries to adapt forms to local preferences.


Trend III: New Media, e-Learning

The media discussion has been technology-driven in the recent past (citation). Currently, the focus is shifting from technology towards a better understanding of old and new media. Publishers are evaluating their respective strengths, weaknesses, and relationships, or how they can complement each other. Speakers expressed a need for new business models for advertising and journalism in general. Some even see journalism as a profession endangered by the advent and spread of the Weblogging phenomenon and other influences. The relationship between business models and HCI concerns also needs to be investigated, as there are serious inherent conflicts between user interests and the commercial interests of advertisers, Website owners, and dealers.

Example of bad Web advertising

Figure 4: Example of how advertisers can driver users crazy – highlighting the initials (ING) of a company all over a Web page (from Neil Budde's opening plenary talk)

Again, I found a lot of general talk and a shift to more commercial issues at this CHI. The e-learning panel was largely a disappointment to me. Two important buzz words that I caught were "on-demand" learning and "metadata." Both fit together well: Carefully maintained metadata are the key to tailor-made learning snippets that can be used on demand.


Trend IV: Methodology, Including Killing "Sacred Cows"

There were several methodologically-oriented events at CHI 2003; this could be seen as an attempt to strengthen this aspect of the conference. In his CHI Fringe session, "The Tyranny of Evaluation," however, Henry Lieberman of the MIT Media Lab challenged the methodological and evaluative orientation of the conference. He criticized it for discouraging the presentation of radical new interface ideas.

Such topics may be good for panels – especially, if there are controversies. But the question of whether these discussions are relevant for software companies remains. At least I found two panels that had connections to practical work in a software company.

In 1993, Jakob Nielsen and Thomas Landauer published a "law" stating that five people are enough for usability tests because the number of errors detected approaches an asymptote at about this number. Following its publication this "law" became one of the few dogmas in the usability field. Recently, however, researchers such as Rolf Molich and Jared Spool have found it to be invalid. In their studies, more errors were found as more people were tested. There was also little overlap between the results of different testers. This discrepancy was to be resolved on a CHI 2003 panel – regrettably without Jakob Nielsen, who could not attend the conference. Microsoft's Dennis Wixon discredited scientific approaches to determining the number of test persons and the "scientific" fraction. He eloquently promoted rapid iterative tests. But in the end the panel agreed that the number of test persons required depends on what you intend to test. A very useful result for the practitioner...

CHI Fringe session

Figure 5: The CHI Fringe session was one of the best visited sessions

In another panel, Web guidelines, which are "grounded in scientific research" were presented. According to the authors, it was not easy to find scientific justifications for much designer wisdom. These guidelines (at least the few rules presented, such as "make your homepage interesting") are, however, irrelevant in the context of SAP Web applications, which are based on a predefined set of controls. Here, rules for consistent and the proper use of controls are needed, and little "freedom of design" is desired.

Finally, in a panel on global evaluation of software (which can also be attributed to "Trend II: Ethnography"), I learnt about the technique of remote evaluation via the Web, either moderated or unmoderated. Both versions of this technique have drawbacks but offer an interesting option for getting worldwide responses to certain design questions.


Non-Trend: Leading Edge Technology & the Web

When I first heard the slogan "New Horizons," I expected CHI 2003 to become a "technology-know how" conference. Much to my surprise, this was not the case – or I missed all the techno stuff. There were, of course, all those new things in some places but I did not feel that they dominated the conference. I would agree with one of the CHIKid interviewees quoted in the conferences news. When asked, "What did you learn about the future of technology at CHI 2003?" he answered: "Not too much, so far." Another interviewee replied, "I learned how business models impact on the future of technology." Agreed again. Yes, this was a "business CHI" – despite, or perhaps because, of all the cross-cultural and emotional ballyhoo. The scientists were not at the front desk, but the designers – designers of enjoyable products, ranging from funny mobile phones and Alessi lemon squeezers to smart and "intelligent" cars. Did they talk about computer programs? I can't remember...


Final Word

One of the new things at CHI 2003 was that SAP was a Contributing Sponsor. I sincerely hope that this trend will continue. Next year's CHI will be held in Vienna, Austria – just a stone's throw from SAP's German headquarters in Walldorf. In my opinion, it is imperative that SAP is a sponsor there again.

Poster inviting to CHI 2004 in Vienna

Figure 6: CHI 2004 will take place in Vienna, Austria - just "connect"...



CHI 2003, SIGCHI, ACM, and Fort Lauderdale Links


Please note that I cannot give any assurance on the future functionality of the links below.


  • Nielsen, Jakob, and Landauer, Thomas K.: "A mathematical model of the finding of usability problems," Proceedings of ACM INTERCHI'93 Conference (Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 24-29 April 1993), pp. 206-213.


  • Terry Winograd, with John Bennett, Laura De Young, and Bradley Hartfield (eds.), Bringing Design to Software, Addison Wesley, 1996. (See review)
  • Rosalind Picard, Affective Computing, MIT Press, 2000 (original version 1997).
  • Don Norman, Emotional Design, January 2004.
  • Ben Shneiderman, Leonardo's Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technology, The MIT Press, 2002. (See review)


All photos, unless otherwise noted, by Gerd Waloszek (taken with Minolta Dimage 7i).

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