Friday, May 13, 2011

CHI 2011, the field, development, grand challenge, and the need for more books

Back from this years CHI conference. This time in Vancouver. Bigger than ever before. Amazingly well organized for a conference of this size.

CHI is changing. It is not easy to really understand what the changes are when you are at the conference, but compared with just a few years ago it is easier to see that there is a difference.  The conference is broader, more diverse. I had the chance to go to several sessions and it is exciting to see that not only is the diversity growing but I also found the quality in general to be better than usual.

One clear change to me is a new interest in theory. I was very pleased to see a design theory session filling two large rooms, and so did the more theoretical design methods session. I hope that this is a sign that the field is getting more eager  to find ways to synthesize findings and results from all the studies, experiments, and designs projects.

A field of this size need people who can bring things together, who can conceptualize, theorize on a level of abstractness that covers the whole field or at least larger parts of the field. To me this also means a strong need for more books. The field produces a lot of books already, but they are mostly textbooks or focused on a particular issue, method, or technology. This is of course fine an also needed, but we do need more general books that in more philosophical terms can help us all to find ways to think about the field, what we are really doing, what we should do, and what we should strive for. For this to happen, we need many more theoretical investigations into the core and foundation of the field. This is of course not done by one person in one book. This can only be achieved if many thinkers in the field in their own way contribute their view of the field. A field can only develop when there are a certain amount of friction between different and diverse sets of theoretical views.

At the moment it seems as one way of coming up with conceptual maps of the field is by looking at the sessions at CHI. I met people at CHI who count sessions in different areas and compare to earlier years as a way to determine if and how the field has changed, even though the session design is not a result of any deeper reflection of the field or the content of the papers. However, counting of sessions is one way of developing an understanding of a changing field. It would though be more valuable to have a spectrum of different interpretations of the field by people who take on the task to create  overall theoretical understandings of what is going on.

So, to repeat what I always argue for, we need more books. We need books that allow for broad philosophical and theoretical descriptions and interpretations of what HCI and interaction design is all about. Books that deal with the major issues of how a field like this can stay current, make a contribution to society and be relevant. I don't only see this as something needed from within the field, it is also something that I truly believe is lacking in the society at large. Since  interactions between humans and digital technology will continue to grow and will without a doubt influence every corner of our society and peoples everyday lives, our field should be able to contribute some grand ideas and grand theories based on the perspective and the knowledge that we have developed over the last thirty years. The interactive society at large would welcome theories about what is going on, where it is going, if we as a field took that larger challenge in a serious way. I do not see any other field taking on this challenge....

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