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CHI 2008 – Trip Report

By Janaki Kumar, SAP User Experience, SAP Labs, Palo Alto – May 6, 2008

I had the pleasure of attending the CHI conference in Florence this year, and here is my trip report based on attending three courses and several papers and panels.



The theme of this year's CHI was "Art, Science, Balance," and what better location than Florence, Italy, the city of great artists and scientists, to contemplate this concept? The venue for CHI 2008 was the historic Fortezza da Basso, a medieval outpost in the heart of Florence. For the one week that CHI was in town, the halls of the old fort echoed with terms such as "Web 2.0," "Research methodologies" …a mere blink of an eye in it's 500 year existence. Puts things in perspective, doesn't it? :)

CHI 2008 welcome signage

Figure 1: CHI 2008 welcome signage

Fortezza da Basso

Figure 2: Fortezza da Basso


Opening Plenary

Irene McAra-McWilliam from The Glasgow School of Art made several references to the theme of the conferences during the opening plenary. She proposes that there is "an evolution of design that can be described historically, envisaging its future as a relational and transformational discipline."

Opening plenary by Irene McAra-McWilliam

Figure 3: Opening plenary by Irene McAra-McWilliam

She drew inspiration from the rose art windows that abound in Italy, to put forth a framework for thinking about the facets of the creative imagination:

  • Ways of being (understanding the self)
  • Ways of seeing (seeing the world)
  • Ways of thinking (imagining the possibilities)
  • Ways of making (articulating solutions)

This is similar to our design process, where we understand the user and develop empathy for their situation, imagine various design solutions, create physical manifestations of the solutions via prototypes to get feedback, putting forth a solution into the world, and starting the process all over again.

Rose art window

Figure 4: Rose art window

Facets of the creative mind

Figure 5: Facets of the creative mind

She observed a trend from "smooth automation to dynamic improvisation," where the truly successful products provide tools that allow end users to contribute, create and transform. Products such as Facebook and Flicker come to mind as excellent examples of such products. The design process to achieve dynamic improvisation differs from that to achieve smooth automation. They are:

  • Understand people
  • See their potential
  • Imagine their possibility to create
  • Articulate enabling tools
  • Create transformations

This is relevant to our world of business software design as much as consumer products. Truly powerful business software provides not only an outstanding out-of-the-box experience, but enables the business user to customize and personalize their experience to further meet their needs.


Don’t Interrupt Me

There were two noteworthy papers on interruption that I attended. One was on communication chains and multi-tasking by University of California Irvine, USA.

Communication chaiCommunication chains and multi-tasking

Figure 6: Communication chains and multi-tasking

And the other was on notifications by Shamsi T. Iqbal and Brian P. Bailey, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign USA.

Notifications interrupt users frequently

Figure 7: Notifications interrupt users frequently

Both papers provided evidence that interruptions cause stress and can sometimes be unproductive. (Sometimes, they can be productive – appropriate notifications.) The researchers had simulated a work environment in a lab setting and had interrupted the participants periodically. It would be interesting to see the results of a study that combines the two papers by looking at intelligent notification mechanisms within the context of communication chains and multi tasking. Next CHI, perhaps?


Usability Evaluation Considered Harmful? (Some of the Time!)

These set of papers were less controversial that the title suggests. A paper by Saul Greenberg University of Calgary and Bill Buxton, Microsoft, stressed the importance of choosing the right research techniques in a design process. Doing usability testing too early may in fact contribute to a poor design than to a better one. The authors talked about the difference between "getting the right design versus getting the design right." They also made the case that truly innovative products can never really be successfully tested using traditional usability evaluations techniques. The more accurately we try to measure a phenomenon, the more narrow the scope of the problem, so much so, that what is measured loses its ability to be representative of the complex whole. This is all too familiar to those of us trying to evaluate software supporting complex business scenarios.

Bill Buxton and Saul Greenberg making the case that User Evaluations can be harmful (some of the time)!

Figure 8: Bill Buxton and Saul Greenberg making the case that user evaluations can be harmful (some of the time!)


Design Theatre

These are new category of CHI presentations where the author acts out the problem and the solution. The sessions made an attempt to engage the audience and made it as participatory as possible. It was an interesting approach that allows the audience to develop an empathy with the problem at hand rather quickly. It was also fun to watch!

Presenter acting out a design for a digital camera interface

Figure 9: Presenter acting out a design for a digital camera interface



SAP presented three panels this year:

  • What would you do with a 1 million dollar user experience budget – Carola Thompson
  • Agile or Awkward: Surviving and flourishing in an Agile/Scrum project – Mary Lukanuski (contributor: Janaki Kumar)
  • Branding the feel: Applying standards to enable a uniform user experience – Mohini Wettasinghe, Michael Arent

In addition to these panels, I also attended the following panel:

  • Extreme Usability: Adapting research approaches for agile development.
    The organizers of the panel were Melissa Federoff from, Craig Villamor from, Lynn Miller from Autodesk, Jeff Patton from ThoughtWorks, Aviva Rosenstein from Yahoo, Kathy Baxter from Google and Kuldeep Kelkar from PayPal.

It was really interesting to see how these companies have adapted their research methodologies to be relevant in an Agile world. Google, for example, set up tables outside their café and recruited passers by for 10 minutes for 10 bucks.

Extreme Usability panel

Figure 10: Extreme Usability panel, sets up testing days every Monday and Thursday every week and does a compressed version of the test preparation, design iteration, and findings documentation.'s strategy for Agile research

Figure 11:'s strategy for Agile research



I attended three courses this year:

  • The psychological basis of UI design rules – Jeff Johnson compressed several textbooks worth of material into this course. It was fast paced and information packed.
  • Keeping the Wed in Web 2.0: Design user interactions for Web applications – Steffen Mesckat from Google Maps explained the interaction details that designers have to specify while working with a Web 2.0 environment.
  • Designing location based experiences: This was a fun course that explored a purely audio based UI in a geographical context


Closing Plenary

In the closing plenary, Bill Buxton urged us all to consider the social implications of the products we design. He reminded us of Kranzberg's law: Technology is not good, technology is not bad, nor is it neutral. Sometimes, invention is the mother of necessity. He recommended the book Let my people go surfing: The education of the reluctant businessman by Yvon Chouinard, the owner of Patagonia, who considers the social and environmental implications of everything his company does.



I truly enjoyed CHI this year. There were a variety of interesting topics this year and several of them were design practitioner oriented, as opposed to purely academic. And, it was also fun to catch up with friends and colleagues from around the world. Ciao!


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