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CHI 2004 – A Personal Report

By Janaki Kumar, SAP User Experience, SAP Labs, Palo Alto – June 4, 2004

I had the pleasure of attending the CHI conference in Austria this year, and here is my trip report based on attending two tutorials and several sessions.



Design Patterns for Customer-Centered Web Design

This tutorial was presented by Landay & Van Duyne and is based on the book by the same authors, which in turn is based on the work by Christopher Alexander in the field of architecture. The goal of the tutorial was to learn from past designs, recognize patterns of use, and to build upon these patterns to contribute to user success. It was an interactive class with several hands-on exercises. The drawback from my viewpoint was the tutorial's narrow focus on e-commerce web sites. However, the lessons learnt may be easily transferred to transaction based applications. Also, the authors had not considered intellectual property rights, which may become increasingly of concern.

Mobile User-Interface Design: For Work, Home and on the Way

I took this class to see Aaron Marcus in action :) And I was not disappointed. He discussed key issues of designing for phones, PDAs and vehicles. He discussed how to do user task analysis, heuristic evaluation and screen layout (given the severe screen size constraint). He discussed the influence of culture and emotions. He shared pictures from his recent trip to India and China, which showed the prevalence of cell phone and such devices in every day life. He talked about the success or failure of products and service providers. He showed a design that his company had done. All in all, it was a good historical perspective on this nascent technology. The participants of the class were from phone companies, device manufactures, service providers as well as software designers, and they had very insightful comments and questions.



During the conference, here are some sessions that I found interesting:

Task Switching and Interruptions

The Diary Study of Task Switching and Interruptions by Mary Czerwinski from Microsoft was interesting. She asked her test participants to self-publish their information into Excel and send her periodic updates. Another researcher team, (Constant, Constant Muti-tasking Craziness: Managing Multiple Working Spheres) Victor Gonzalez and Gloria Mark from University of California studied the same topic, but used a slightly different method. They had a person with a stopwatch shadow their participants as they went about their daily work. There were some subtle differences attributable to the method, however, their findings were quite similar. A surprising conclusion was that the maximum length of time that people can work on a single task without interruption is 3 minutes! They will interrupt themselves if they don't get an external interruption!

It would be fascinating to take a look at application screens with this temporal constraint in mind. To use a tongue-in-cheek example does the application act as a good mannered person should:

  • wait to get the user's attention back
  • remind them gently about where they are and what they were doing prior to the interruption (provide context),
  • ensure that the information they entered earlier is safe (automatic save)
  • allow them to continue seamlessly?

Or does is behave like a spoilt child who has not been taught manners?

  • punish the user for not giving it undivided attention
  • slam the door and don't let the user enter until they have begged and pleaded (re-login and multiple pop-ups informing time outs)
  • throw all the user's data in the trash (you did not press the save button, did you?)
  • forget all about what the user was doing and let them figure it out for themselves (not preserve the context).

As I said, it will be fascinating :)

Online Communities

One excellent paper was work done by MIT Media Lab and IBM Research on studying Cooperation and Conflict between Authors with history flows visualizations. Using a simple technique called History Flows, shown below, the authors analyzed documents on a site called Wikipedia, where people contribute voluntarily, to show history flows over time.

Explanation of history flow's visualization mechanism

Figure 1: Explanation of history flow's visualization mechanism

This shows the changes made to a document called "History of Microsoft Windows", over a period of 2 years. Each author is assigned a color and it is easy to see visually how a document that starts off in one color ends up in a different one.


Figure 2: Wikipedia

It would be interesting to see software development teams analyze their code base using this visualization technique.

Think Different: Increasing Online Participation

This study by the University of Minnesota found that online communities with dissimilar members had higher participation than communities with similar participants. They studied a site called Movie Lens, formed subsets of communities within it's larger member population, and analyzed the participation rates. Participation was studied based on member identification, task attraction, group attraction, group size, and uniqueness of own contribution. This research is definitely a "must read" for anyone contemplating creating an online community.

Closing Plenary by Tim Brown from IDEO

Tim Brown has been in the news lately (Business Week, May 17th) and IDEO has received a lot of attention for it's innovative ideas in the service industry.

Tim Brown

Figure 3: Tim Brown

The closing plenary was a semi-commercial for IDEO – but not in a bad way :) Tim showed examples of IDEO's work in various industries. He talked about the IDEO Methodology. He reiterated the importance of prototyping, and using experience prototypes, live prototypes, and living prototypes. Primarily, he talked about designing a technology experience v. an experience enabled by technology.

What I found particularly interesting was a comment made by Tim Brown. An audience member asked him what qualities he would look for when hiring someone to join IDEO. Tim answered number 1 was talent and number 2 was empathy. He elaborated that to be a successful designer, one had to be able to recognize patterns, draw conversational narratives and tell stories. And in order to be really effective at that, one had to have empathy. People with empathy are more fun to work with than those without, from personal experience :) but I was pleasantly surprised to hear a CEO making a hiring decision based on that!


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