Returning to CHI: Different Experience, Same Rush
Published: June 5, 2006
CHI 2006 took place on April 22–27, in Montréal, Québec, Canada, at the Palais des Congrès. Its theme: Interact. Inform. Inspire.
Looking Back to CHI 2001
In April of 2001, a small dotcom sent a young Webmaster to a conference called CHI in Seattle. That was my first CHI experience. I had been forced to read The Design of Everyday Things, the author of which was some guy the owner knew from when he was working on his PhD at the University of California, San Diego—that’d be Don Norman. I’d never been to Seattle, never been on a business trip before, knew hopelessly little about the concept of usability—except that I was grateful when somebody blamed her problems with doors on the designers of the doors and not her inability to intuit in which direction a door will open—and was chaperoned by most of the dotcom’s management team.
A whole new world opened up for me that week, and my career was born. When I returned to San Diego, my notebook was filled with ideas I was convinced would put that little dotcom at the center of its industry’s universe and inspired to focus my career on user-centered design, because really, what else was worth doing?
Fast Forward to CHI 2006
Now I ask you, how can a second visit to CHI compare with such a career-changing experience? Well, it did, but for a whole slew of new reasons. Instead of soaking up of information about usability and user-centered design like a sponge, since I now have a much broader and deeper understanding of both user-centered design and the market I work in, I found less to learn, but more that I could apply immediately to what I do every day. I wasn’t just learning abstract theories anymore—and again, I left with a notebook full of ideas, except these were viable, work-improving, impress-my-bosses kinds of insights.
I also networked till my feet hurt and my head swam—we can partly blame alcohol consumption at the hospitality parties for that. I met industry leaders and legends, publishers, incredibly smart designers and researchers from companies like Mozilla, Cooper, eBay, Cisco, and Yahoo!, and even someone I’d known online for years, but had never met in person.
There are a lot of reasons to attend a conference, but like school, you only get out of it what you put into it. You can go because it’s an opportunity to escape work for a week, or you can try to take advantage of the incredible opportunities that await you at any industry conference. Some reasons to go are to try new tools, find a new job—it’s a great place to start—recruit soon-to-graduate students for your team back at work, get excited about the bleeding edge of research in your area of expertise, hobnob with the semi-famous personalities who invariably present at industry conferences, or just get inspired.
Changing Your Mindset
In the opening plenary, Scott Cook, founder and Chairman of the Executive Committee at Intuit, spoke about a change of mindset being the spark for “game-changing innovation” when we returned to work, but for me that change started the minute the words came out of his mouth. I’ve been with Shopzilla for only eleven months, but already I’m thinking about our business the way they did before I arrived. I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid®, and now I’m stuck in the same box they were already in before I started. Cook’s reminder to stop thinking about doing things the way we’ve always done them and start looking for new angles was a great way to start this conference. It opened my mind to accepting the information I was about to receive and to trying to find ways to use this information rather than dismissing it immediately as not applicable to my industry or my work.
Working Versus Learning
It was clear to me that not everyone present was getting something out of being at CHI this year. I saw a lot of faces of people who were confused or stressed out. Too many people were chained to their companies and, as a result, weren’t able to fully experience all that there was to do.
When you go home at night after a long day’s work, if you don’t leave your work at the office, you’re depriving yourself of part of your personal life. The same applies to a conference. If you don’t leave your work at the office, your attention isn’t on what you’re supposed to be doing or learning at the conference. In 2001, there was no wireless Internet access, and the best people could do was check their email when they returned to their hotels at the end of the day. Don’t get me wrong, I made the mistake of promising to get some work done while I was away, but when I arrived at CHI, I realized there was far too much to do and see, and I’d come too far to leave my head back in Los Angeles. I checked my email at night and that was it. On the first night, I emailed our project managers and let them know that I wouldn’t be delivering any of the work I’d promised before I returned. Nobody missed it, and instead of worrying about finishing specs and proofing projects that are heading to QA, I was finding solutions to bigger problems and discovering new tools to make our team more efficient.
Academia Versus Industry
A lot of people complained that CHI is too academic and that CHI 2006 still didn’t have enough of a practitioner focus—heck, even I made that comment at some point while I was there. Looking back though, some of the most exciting ideas I brought back from the conference came to me during courses or papers originating in universities. While the topics the academic presenters covered were more abstract, research oriented, or even ahead of the times, with a little thought, most of their findings are still highly applicable to much of what we do on the industry side of things today.
What was even more interesting than figuring out what to do with the concepts and findings the academics introduced was realizing that there is a synergy between academics and practitioners. I encountered this synergy during a course entitled “Faceted Meta Data for Information Architecture and Search,” between Marti Hearst, a professor at Berkeley’s School of Information, and the eBay user experience team. These two organizations have figured out that, by teaming up, eBay has greater access to cutting-edge user interface concepts that have their basis in scientific research, and Berkeley’s School of Information gets excellent exposure in the commercial sector.
Walking the Floor, Attending Hospitality Events, and Other Ways to Expand Your Horizons
Networking and socializing make the real difference between an okay CHI experience and an incredible one. If you’ve always wanted to network, but you can’t stand small talk, you’ll love the opportunities to network at a conference—particularly CHI. When everyone in the room shares the same values—user-centered design and research—no talk is small talk. You can jump right into a conversation with anyone about something that matters to both of you.
You can talk about the neat new products you’ve seen while walking the floor of the exhibit hall and ask whether another person has ever tried them. You might find out that the new software you’re looking at will fall short of your needs or, better yet, that it will far exceed your expectations and give you extra benefits you didn’t even know about.
You can ask about the companies other people work for. What does their company do? How is it different from their competitors? What is the engineering process like? What kinds of research do they do? You’ll find your inner networking animal, and you’ll learn something new at the same time.
You can go to hospitality events, with drink tickets and trays of yummy appetizers, where others will approach you to tell you about themselves and their companies, and all you have to do is stand there and smile. If what people have to say is interesting to you, you can talk to them, get their business cards, and shake their hands; if not, you haven’t missed an opportunity—just walk away and find someone else to talk with.
And then there’s my favorite part of spending time at a conference—outside the conference! I had never been to Montréal before, and since I had traveled such a long way to get there, I built some free time into my schedule to check out the city. I learned how to take a subway—reading a subway map and signs in a language I don’t speak—visited two art museums and the botanical gardens, and did some shopping. Experiencing things outside a conference that are new to you is just as important as making connections and learning something new for your career, and traveling to CHI provided a great opportunity for doing that.