CHI Considered Useful

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The CHI 2009 conference was April 4-9 in Boston. I’m not here to give a trip report, not going to do it. I just want to mention one highlight.

I saw the most entertaining CHI event ever (and this was my 16th CHI conference: yikes!). It was a paper + panel session titled “Ethnography Considered Harmful”. The featured paper was written by a quartet of British ethnomethodologists: Andrew Crabtree, Tom Rodden, Peter Tolmie, and Graham Button. The presentation of their paper was followed by remarks from Bill Gaver, Wendy Kellogg, Mark Rouncefield, and Tracey Lovejoy.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking “yes, that sounds just fascinating!” But just in case you’re not, here’s why you should. Crabtree et al. criticized the use of certain methods in HCI and systems design that they chracterized as “newer” or “cultural” approaches, claiming that they simply did not provide useful guidance for design. Now, I haven’t read their paper, nor am I very familiar with the approaches they critique. However, as someone who teaches user interface design, including discussing the use of observational methods like ethnography, I think this is a crucial topic. Most of the students I teach are going to go into industry (and, in my program, most will not take another HCI course). Therefore, I want to outfit them with the most useful tools and knowledge of when and how to use these tools.

So, after the four authors had their say, it was the panelists turn. And here’s where things took a turn I’ve never seen before.  Three of the four panelists attacked Crabtree et al.’s arguments in a way I’ve never seen before at CHI… or any other scientific conference I’ve attended. The attacks were witty, knowledgeable, sarcastic, scathing, and well-performed. The audience responded with a mix of laughter and stunned silence. It was great theater.

OK, great theater, but was it a positive thing? Or was it sound and fury? And hey, you might wonder: do I think the authors or the panelists are right? Let me me tackle all these questions.

Yes, it was sound and fury. Am I shallow for enjoying it? I don’t think so, provided that all the participants meant it. As long as they were sincere and not just posturing, I welcome a heated argument. It has made me — and I’m sure many others — pay much more attention to this set of issues than we otherwise would have.

Was it positive? Yes, as I already said, I think so. But others certainly disagree. The first speaker from the audience scolded everyone on the stage, said they should be ashamed of themselves, and expressed embarassment that any students and newcomers to CHI should have seen the event. Well…. like I said, as long as the participants were sincere, I don’t feel that way. This event certainly was not representative of the CHI ethos (which is friendly and positive to a fault). But I just don’t think a heated argument now and then hurts anything. Of course, I admit that I would never have acted the way the panelists did… too polite, I guess. And I’m sure glad I wasn’t in the authors’ shoes!

Finally, who do I think is right? Well, I don’t know yet. I haven’t read the “Ethnography Considered Harmful” paper nor the works it critiques. For what it’s worth, I thought the panelists made the best showing on stage (they certainly were the superior performers), but my inclination is with the authors. (In any case, I will evalute the merit of these (and other) approaches in terms of their ability to inform design.) Again, what makes me think this was a valuable event is that I will read these papers. And if everyone on the stage that day in Boston had been polite, I probably would not have.

So bravo (and brava) to all of you for sticking your necks out.

Social networking and charity

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Some of us are looking into literature that studies volunteers, in particular, what types of factors motivate people to join and to continue participating in volunteer activities. From this perspective, the following NY Times article was quite interesting: "My Network, My Cause". It reports on how some students have used Facebook to organize "traditional" volunteering activities – here, getting donations for the people of Darfur – using a new technology. Personally, I’m more interested in how what’s known about "offline" volunteering can inform the design of online volounteer-based communities, but this still is quite intriguing.

So should I buy a Mac?

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I’ve been thinking about buying a new computer, and after some Mac-koolaid-dispensation from Barry Smyth, I started to consider getting a Mac. Here’s an article that claims Macs aren’t just better but cheaper than PCs, too. So, should I buy a Mac?

Microtrends and collaborative filtering?

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I’ve recently been hearing a bit about Mark Penn’s book "Microtrends: The Small Froces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes". As this review says, Penn analyzes poll and survey data to identify 75 important microtrends (which appear to correspond to ‘small’ segments of the US population, say at least 3 million) that, he believes, are interesting and important.

How, since Mark Penn is the guy who identified the ‘soccer mom’ demographic for Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election and is now the chief political advisor to Hillary Clinton, when he talks, people listen.

And when I listend, I’ve found what he has to say interesting. However, since I haven’t read the book, I don’t know exactly how he comes up with his microtrends. It seems like the scientific approach would be to apply clustering algorithms or factor analysis or some such technique, which, as far as I can tell from browsing reviews.

I wonder what such an approach would reveal: if you ran a clustering algorithm, say, on a large survey dataset, would the clusters include Penn’s microtrends? Would one even be able to make sense of the clusters?

Is your mind open?

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A recent article in the NY Times "Revisiting the Canon Wars" ( took a 20 year retrospective look at the controversy over Alan Bloom’s book "The Closing of the American Mind". Bloom argued that American universities had been "dumbed down" by abandoning the classical Western canon.

Lots to argue about here, and the article gives a taste of the argument. However, I was most struck by the way the article ended:

Bloom believed education should be transformative… that it should provide a student with “four years of freedom”
— “a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and
the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the
baccalaureate.” Whether students today see college as a time of freedom
or a compulsory phase of credentialing is an open question. From
Bloom’s perspective, “the importance of these years for an American
cannot be overestimated. They are civilization’s only chance to get to

Wow, that was bracing and brutal! I’m curious what others think about it.