Experiencing CHI 2006: From a Practitioner’s Viewpoint: Part I

July 12, 2006

Prologue—CHI 2005, which took place in Portland, was the first CHI conference I had attended since CHI 1992, in Monterey. I spent most of my time at CHI 2005 in an exhibit booth, but attended the ACM SIGCHI Member Meeting, where there was much heated discussion about the need for CHI conferences to serve the needs of practitioners better. Some sponsors even threatened to withdraw their support from the conference unless this situation were remedied. I resolved to return to CHI in 2006 to assess the progress the organizers of CHI have made toward addressing this issue.

According to a SIGCHI Bulletin report about CHI conference fees by Dennis Wixon, it’s imperative that the organizers succeed in making changes that will make the conferences profitable. He said, “Diversity of participation was at risk with sponsors, practitioners, designers, and non-traditional researchers [such as] ethnographers leaving. … We increased our outreach to a range of communities including design, education, engineering, management, and research. … Broader participation in the conference benefits everyone.”

The twenty-fourth annual CHI conference—CHI 2006—was held at the Palais des Congrès in Montréal, Québec, Canada, from April 24th through 27th, 2006. In setting the theme Interact • Inform • Inspire, the organizers encouraged “researchers and practitioners from all segments of the CHI community—design, education, engineering, management, research, and usability—[to] interact, inform and inspire each other.” Two days of workshops preceded the conference on April 22nd and 23rd; however, I did not attend the pre-conference workshops.

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Renewing Interactions

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.

Figure 1Interactions dinner at Newtown
Interactions dinner at Newtown

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:

  • Research
  • HCI Education
  • Usability
  • Design
  • Engineering
  • Management

“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.

CHI Madness

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.

Conference: Day 1: Monday, April 24th

For me, the first day of the conference was the best day. It began with a great opening plenary session that was followed by some excellent videos previewing conference sessions and the first CHI Madness ever. The Media Computing Group at the RWTH Aachen University produced an engaging video that showcased the Interactivity Chamber.

Opening Plenary Session: Creating ‘Game Changing’ Innovation

Presenter: Scott Cook, Founder & Chairman of the Executive Committee, Intuit

I’ve always been a fan of Scott Cook, shown in Figures 2 and 3. Among corporate leaders, he sets a high standard. Plus, innovation is the hot topic among UX professionals today. So, I was really looking forward to Cook’s opening plenary address. I was not disappointed. Cook’s talk focused on “creating a culture of innovation” and was the highlight of the conference for me.

Figure 2—Scott Cook
Scott Cook

Throughout his talk, Cook cited examples of ‘game changing’ innovation—for example:

  • Cirque du Soleil, which redefined the circus game
  • Malcolm McLean’s invention of container shipping, which completely revolutionized the freight industry
  • Raid®, the slow-acting insecticide
  • Dick Drew’s invention of masking tape and cellophane tape at 3M, despite the company’s lack of support for his work

Drew identified and solved customer needs and was ultimately responsible for much of his company’s great success, despite his boss’s discouraging him from working on such innovations. Cook aptly quoted Drucker here:

“The bottleneck is always at the top of the bottle.”—Peter Drucker

Five Models of Innovation

Cook asked, “What kind of company are you building?” The answer depends on which of “five models of innovation” your company is following:

  1. “the lone genius
  2. the boss is the genius
  3. copy competitors’ inventions
  4. cloister the geniuses in a lab
  5. make your people the geniuses”

The first two models neither scale nor lead to much business success; the third is tantamount to no innovation at all. Under the fourth model, “Innovations never seem to get into the products.” According to Cook, when you make your people the geniuses, “innovation happens at the surface of the company, close to the customer.” The fifth model is scalable. Cook thinks companies should “create greenhouses that nurture the inventiveness of teams.”

Five Principles of Innovation

Cook stated these five “principles of innovation”:

  1. “Invention comes from mindset change.
  2. Mindset change comes from seeing differently.
  3. Savor surprises as learning.
  4. Focus managers on a customer metric—not financial metrics.
  5. Nurture and protect teams.”

Fostering Innovation

Cook believes that, if a company creates a great working environment for its employees, they’ll create innovative products that customers want and, thus, create value for shareholders.

When Intuit® brought QuickBooks® to market in 1992, it was initially a failure. It had a small feature set and serious bugs. “It’s amazing how huffy people can get when their data goes poof,” quipped Cook. Then, in one month, QuickBooks went from nothing to market leader. Why? Intuit has a long tradition of doing user research and focusing on customer needs, so asked its users and discovered that people were using what Intuit had thought was a consumer product in their businesses. However, Cook said, “Research has its problems. You don’t always believe it.” Their research showed that businesses were using QuickBooks, because most people don’t know accounting and hate double-entry bookkeeping. “They think General Ledger was a World War II hero,” joked Cook. “QuickBooks was the first accounting software without debits and credits.”

Cook offered this quotation—a favorite of mine that’s on my Spirit Softworks Web site—from Szent-Gyorgyi:

“Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.”—Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

“Success starts with humility,” said Cook. “Empathy is not just about walking in another’s shoes. First, you must remove your own shoes.” He also quoted Hock, the founder of Visa:

“The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out. Every mind is a room packed with archaic furniture.”—Dee Hock

“You must get the old thoughts out before you can get anything new in,” said Cook. To do that, “first get face to face with your customers in their offices or homes” and watch what they do.

Figure 3—Scott Cook giving his plenary address
Scott Cook giving his plenary address

A Typical Development Process

  1. Define requirements.
  2. Design a solution.
  3. Involve UX.
  4. Find customer problems.

The Development Process at Intuit

  1. Involve UX.
  2. Find customer problems.
  3. Define requirements.
  4. Design a solution.

Learning From Customers

Many Americans still prepare their taxes using IRS (Internal Revenue Service) forms rather than software. For example, some people want to prepare their own taxes, but also worry they might make mistakes, so want the advice of an expert. To reach such people with TurboTax Personal Pro, Intuit put an expert in the box. After exploring their design concept through comic-strip storyboards, they decided to “combine human experts with technology” and let users talk to real tax preparers via chat.

Through the unique Follow Me Home program at Intuit, employees have the opportunity to observe customers’ out-of-the-box experience with its products. Intuit employees literally follow customers home or to their workplaces, then watch them install and learn to use their products. “We all do these. Executives do these. We listen to customers. We do town-hall meetings,” said Cook. “We deck the halls with customer profiles.”

Drucker’s Seven Sources of Innovation

The following are Peter Drucker’s seven sources of all innovation, in rank order:

  1. the unexpected
  2. incongruities
  3. process need
  4. industry and market structures
  5. demographics
  6. changes in perception
  7. new knowledge

The number one source of innovation is the unexpected, or surprises. “Insight into real customer behavior” is a great source of innovation. It shows you the opportunity.

Celebrating Failures

“Failures happen—especially if you’re swinging for the fences with mindset-changing innovation,” said Cook. “Failure is going to be a real part of your business. Celebrate failure. Celebrate the learning from failure.” Intuit has a Greatest Failure Award that it gives to employees who fail spectacularly when trying to do great things.

Customer Metrics Versus Financial Metrics

“What happens when you have a battle between customer and financial metrics?” asked Cook. When financial metrics win, there’s a “screw the customer” mentality that leads to long-term failure. If you survey customers, asking them to rate the likelihood of their recommending a product to a friend on a Likert scale, with a range from one to ten, you can classify your customers as

  • promoters—who answered 9 or 10 on the Likert scale
  • passive—who answered 7 or 8
  • detractors—who answered 1 or 6

The percentage of promoters minus the percentage of detractors equals the net promoter score—or the net percentage of promoters, “which correlates directly to revenue growth,” according to Cook. “Intuit has a manic focus on the customer experience. Managers have a real reason to pay attention to customers first; to focus on the customers we weren’t satisfying.”

Optimizing Companies for Teams

“Great teams don’t have barriers between them. They contribute in many ways. The boundaries between disciplines blur, and that’s when you’re most likely to succeed. Teams without barriers can come up with ideas that are better than any one individual could come up with alone. But you do need barriers to keep managers from interfering with teams,” said Cook. “Questions can kill entrepreneurial teams.” It’s important to ask the right questions.

The Intuit Slogan

“Change lives so profoundly, people can’t imagine going back to the old way.”


Robin Jeffries conducted the Q&A session that followed Scott Cook’s talk, during which he made the following points:

  • Employees should “care about others. They’ve got to have curiosity.” Value “people who can stand up for their own point of view.”
  • “Software is just too hard to use. Simplicity sells.”
  • “Balance what customers tell you with what they actually do. Believe the behaviors. Customer interviews help you to understand behaviors.”
  • “Our eyes will be opened by research, but it’s up to companies to figure out how to apply research.”
  • “Having people study how people interact with government would be eye opening. We’d see a revolution.”
  • “Great things happen from guerilla efforts. You don’t have to get authorization in our company. You don’t need your boss’s approval to talk to customers. It takes energy. If there are non-believers, have them come with you.”
  • It’s possible to “take a customer focus in the wrong direction. Quantitative surveys typically are a barrier to invention. Analysis of numeric data validates existing beliefs. Really new ideas don’t come up. Surveys reflect the current mindset. … Don’t use consumers to design the solution, but to define the problem.” 

Photos by Pabini Gabriel-Petit, Aaron Marcus, and Intuit

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Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel, Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

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