One of the great things CHI offers to both practitioners and academics is an opportunity to reconnect with people from their respective communities. Though the intermingling between these two separate communities is not what it might be. Over the many years since this conference began in 1982, conference attendees have forged and annually—or at least from time to time—renewed friendships with their peers from around the world. Unlike conferences focusing on a particular UX specialty, attendees represented the diversity among practitioners—including designers, usability specialists, user researchers, and UX managers.
Pre-Conference: Sunday Night, April 23rd
Immediately upon arriving in Montréal in the evening on April 23rd, I enjoyed a fabulous dinner that Jonathan Arnowitz, Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson, Judy Grover, and Ken Korman organized for Interactions editors and contributors at Newtown—an excellent restaurant with great Mediterranean cuisine, fine wine, a beautiful modern decor, and an ambience of casual elegance. During the dinner, shown in Figure 1, we discussed how we might improve communication among editors and contributors, setting standards for guest editors and authors, and providing information about Interactions on the Web.
Attending the Interactions dinner prevented my attending both the Networking Gathering at the Palais des Congrès and the CHI Conference Chairs Reception at the Hyatt Regency Montréal. This choice was easy enough.
An Overwhelming Number of Choices
Tough choices regarding which of many concurrent sessions to attend lay before me. During most time slots, there were between 12 and 14 sessions happening at once. There were also many different types of sessions: courses, panels, experience reports, alt.chi discussions of controversial issues, interactivity sessions, SIGs (Special Interest Groups), HCI (Human/Computer Interaction) and research overviews, papers, and notes. Which of these many types of sessions would be most edifying to a practitioner?
The Program and Proceedings
To mitigate the difficulty of choosing what sessions to attend, CHI provided both an excellent printed Conference Program and Conference Proceedings and Extended Abstracts on a DVD. Since I wasn’t lugging my computer around with me and was never in my hotel room long enough to use the DVD, I relied on the CHI 2006 Conference Program. It provided ample detail on every session and event and was very well designed from both aesthetic and usability standpoints. The program was made to stand up to heavy use, with thick, coated covers and a Wire-O® binding that let users fold the program over and leave it open on any page. Tabbed sections made it easy to find information about a particular day of the conference. The Conference Program also included such useful features as
- “Conference at a Glance,” which provided an overview of the entire conference
- both a table of contents and an author index
- descriptions of the different types of sessions
- overviews of each day of the conference
- a section on posters and exhibits that included a floor map
- pages for notes
- maps of the Palais des Congrès, registration area and commons, session and meeting rooms, and downtown Montréal
I’ve never received a better program for a conference. The CHI 2006 Conference Program was a model of excellence in information design.
My only quibble is that I wished the Conference Program had identified which members of the audience particular sessions would most likely appeal to—for example, practitioners of design, user research, or usability; people working within specific product domains; UX managers; UX strategists; researchers; students or academics.
In advance of the conference, the CHI 2006 Conference Chair, Gary Olson, spoke and wrote an article in the SIGCHI Bulletin about the organizers “new focus on HCI Communities. We have identified six communities to focus on for CHI 2006:
- HCI Education
“Each community has been represented in the conference planning and has helped to recruit content for the conference.” Since the organizers evaluated the conference’s content in relation to these HCI Communities, one has to wonder why this information didn’t find its way into the Conference Program. In fact, organizing the conference by tracks based on such communities would have made peoples’ decisions about what sessions to attend much easier.
An innovation that was very helpful to people who were deciding what sessions to attend and lent much amusement to the proceedings was the CHI Madness that took place at the beginning of each day. It provided a quick-paced preview of the day’s papers packed into half an hour. Presenters gave what resembled elevator pitches, summarizing their research findings in less than a minute, and vied for the audience’s attention with escalating creativity. Since I wasn’t particularly interested in papers, I couldn’t help wishing that CHI Madness would cover all of each day’s sessions.
Courses, Instead of Tutorials
The organizers expanded the conference program for CHI 2006 from three to four days and replaced tutorials—for which attendees of previous conferences had paid separately—with courses that were included in the basic conference registration fee. Though there was a $25 charge for the printed course notes. According to the Conference Program, “The goal of these courses is to provide professional development opportunities for people in the HCI community….” There were courses on diverse topics and of various lengths: 1.5 hours; 3 hours; 4.5 hours; and all-day, or 6 hours, excluding breaks. Unfortunately, these courses were available to only a limited number of people who had registered for them in advance. Since the inclusion of courses in the conference program required the organizers to raise the registration fee, did those people who were not able to attend any courses receive value for their money?
Just ten days before the conference began, Robin Jeffries, the Technical Chair, announced that they had
- persuaded some course instructors to open their courses to additional attendees
- dropped the five-unit restriction that they had originally imposed on courses, allowing people to take as many courses as they wanted
Unfortunately, this probably occurred too late to make a difference for most people.
Because courses were new to CHI and many seemed likely to appeal to practitioners, I spent a large part of each day in course sessions. I can report that those who did partake of one or more courses likely did receive something of value. So, it’s too bad more people couldn’t avail themselves of the course offerings. I observed the following:
- Some courses were not fully attended. This may have been because:
- Some people who had not registered for courses in advance assumed it was too late to register.
- Some people were not willing to commit to taking a course they were uncertain would be worthwhile to them and, thus, deprive someone else of the opportunity to attend.
- Some people left courses early—perhaps because a course did not meet their expectations—so it’s unfortunate that additional people could not join half-day or all-day courses that were already in progress.
- Scheduling conflicts during part of a day may have prevented people from taking long courses.
- On Tuesday and Wednesday, courses were scheduled against plenary sessions. This engendered some confusion about the times at which courses began and made choices between sessions tougher.
- Of the six courses I attended, none involved attendee participation that necessitated limiting the size of the audience—though I know of a few that did. Therefore, I take exception with the need for most courses to be “strictly limited” in their number of attendees.
When planning future conferences, I hope the organizers will consider carefully whether content should be presented as a course or a workshop. While workshops usually do require limits on their number of attendees, most courses do not. I also hope that there will be open enrollment for courses and that the size of each course’s audience will determine the room in which it will occur. Taking this approach would allow much more flexibility in people’s schedules and make it possible for many more people to take classes.
While the organizers didn’t get all of the logistics for courses right on the first try, the addition of courses to the conference program was still a resounding success. What mattered most was the relevance and high quality of the course content and the skillfulness of the instructors. Both the course content and the instructors were generally top notch.