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My favorite presentations at CHI this year were in the alt.chi track. While I've always liked alt.chi (or "CHI Fringe" as it used to be called), my particular fondness for the more critical papers this year probably suggests some larger shifts in my theoretical outlook -- a change that I welcome, certainly, though I don't know exactly where I'll end up with it yet. Anyway, behind the cut are a few of the papers I found most provocative. )

My own talk (on "why we tag" -- paper here) went very well, though it felt prosaic in comparison with some of the alt.chi talks I mentioned above. The rather large room I presented in was full (!), and though there were lots of questions, they seemed to be of the interested and respectful "I'd like more information" variety, rather than of the "this work is crap and here's why" variety. There was the inevitable question about "why was your N so small?," but other than that, it seemed to be very well-received. And not many people left during the talk or even during the questions, which I take to be a good sign. I must say it was all a bit of a blur to me.

I should work on figuring out how to be more funny in my talks, though. It seems like I can be engaging enough and have a good sense of general audience mood, and feel much more excited than nervous about speaking generally, which is likely due to those years presenting planetarium shows and teaching dance classes. However, I am painfully aware of how bad my sense of how to be funny to large(r) crowds is. Maybe I should take some acting classes or something.

Next year, I may not be able to attend for the first time in five years. It's in Italy and right at the beginning of spring quarter (meaning it'd be a bad time to be away, and the trip couldn't be a quick one), I'll probably have used up all of my conference money for the year already and don't relish paying out-of-pocket, and it overlaps with USA Dance Nationals. (Well, the last point probably wouldn't prevent me from going, especially since I could attend the relevant parts of the first and most of the second without a problem. But all of these points combined make me think that I probably won't be going next year, for the first time since I started going in 2003.) I guess if Nokia Research wanted to partially fund me or something, I'd reconsider, though I also wouldn't mind joining my dozens of colleagues protesting the exorbitant student fees ($400 student registration, where most other conferences I attend charge $60-$80!). The only reason I went this year was because I was student volunteering and it was right here, so it was practically free for me. And I had the added incentive of presenting encouraging me to go.

One last note: while having the conference so close (just down in San Jose) was nice in that I didn't have to pay travel fees and could stay at home, it was actually frustrating to not be able to put my "normal" life on hold during the conference like one usually has to when it's farther away. I found myself running back to campus for my favorite seminar and other events. Living two lives like this is hard, and I don't want to even think about the work I have to do to catch up. I guess I'll have to do it again in a few weeks for ICA, which is in San Francisco this year (though it's over a weekend -- Memorial Day weekend -- instead of in the middle of the week like ACM conferences always seem to be. ACM is weird that way).
chimerically: (dolls)
I went to a great talk this morning, and then this and this show up in my RSS feed. It's going to be one of those high-energy research-ideas days, I can tell already. (And I remind those of you who think the day's half-over already that I'm not a morning person. :~))

It does make me wonder what all these folks really mean when they talk about "ethnography," though. I'm still learning what it means myself, and I probably won't start to have a good answer until I spend a few years in the field doing it (and of course, my definition would surely continue to shift and evolve past that, too). The inimitable Jean Lave, while liberal and accepting in so many ways, holds a very strict definition of ethnography (as do many ethnographers). Among other things, she says that one must have a long-term immersion in the culture under study (where long-term is on the order of years, not days). None of this "rapid ethnography" that seems to be popular in HCI, and none of this substituting the term "ethnographic" for "qualitative" willy-nilly. Long amounts of time are necessary for many reasons: it takes time to really understand all of the intricacies and different points of view within a community (and such an understanding both pays respect to the lives of one's subjects and to the research process), it takes time to realize and challenge the assumptions the researcher brings to the table, and it takes time to collect enough data to start building hypotheses from the ground-up, based on observations rather than preconceived notions of what might be interesting. And there are many more reasons, too.

There's another factor Jean Lave talks about in realizing and challenging our implicit assumptions, the second point above. Ethnographers seem to traditionally require that the culture under study is sufficiently different from the anthropologist's because otherwise, important cultural influences are as invisible as water is to a fish (or as the air we breathe is to us, I suppose). While having this as a hard-and-fast rule has been questioned and stretched to an extent, most still recognize that cultural familiarity does breed many assumptions and unspoken understandings.

Speaking of which, this is one thing that makes me most uncomfortable about quantitative studies. They can be immensely powerful, summarizing more data and investigating more users than a qualitative study ever could, but naturally there's still a degree of interpretation that is often not discussed: what is interesting to focus on, what kinds of data is collected, what kinds of hypotheses are made and what assumptions are built into them. There aren't as many opportunities to "test" assumptions "in the field" when one is doing quantitative research, and it's so easy to miss what's really important or find oneself at a loss when challenged with questions of why or how a community does what it does. Here it's unclear whether having familiarity with a culture is more of an asset or liability: it can lead to the same kinds of assumptions but it can also give you insights that you couldn't get from the data alone. It's a drawback on quantitative research generally, I guess. Just one of the many reasons I'm trying to figure out how to walk the line between the two ...

Another thing that intrigues me about the talk this morning is how the speaker integrates design into the research process. It seems that many social scientists, even those doing research on technological artifacts in various ways, don't think directly about design ... even though some fora where they present their work expect it, as Paul Dourish said so well at the recent CHI conference. Others are more adept at design and system-building, and their social analyses seem to, at the very least, be lacking from the point of view of social science communities. But here's someone who seems very adept in both spaces, and that's impressive to me. I'd love to get the chance to work with this person (and also folks like Genevieve Bell and Ken Anderson at Intel ... just while I'm naming names :~)) and find out how to do the blending effectively.
chimerically: (Default)
Paul Dourish gave a fabulous talk about the real roles ethnography should play in human-computer interaction, and the problems that currently exist with the assumptions of ethnography. I highly encourage anyone in human-computer interaction to read the paper - it's very well-written. Here's a summary of the talk, as much as I could get down.
Ethnography is a long-term, immersive, participant observation; it is a text; and it is inherently interpretive and analytic. There are a lot of misunderstandings of ethnography in HCI, though. Ethnographers have received many negative reviews for the lack of a (strong) "implications for design" section - these are a few Dourish collected from others:
  • "If you were to write a proposal of new technologies and use your data to support the design, the result would likely be a quite strong paper."
  • "How does this inform design in new ways?"
  • "The more technically inclined audience could be forgiven to think that CHI research on the topic is all talk."
  • "Does not provide an actionable framework ..."
  • ... and more (including one from a paper I helped write ... *cough cough*)
In particular, these four issues exist between ethnography and HCI/design:
  • Marginalization of theory: ethnography was seen as a "toolbox" of field techniques, the ethnographer as a "tape recorder." (Diana Forsythe famously said that "an ethnographer is not a tape recorder" -- an ethnographer must take an analytic stance, choose an interpretive practice.) Objectivity and subjectivity: Paul notices that many scientific/engineering students are uncomfortable with ethnography because they see interpretation as subjective, but ethnographic data isn't just "collected," it's generated from the encounter of the ethnographer and the field settings, and proceeds from a consciousness of what is or may be subjective. Interpretation and analysis are central. Doesn't mean that everything is "hopelessly" and "problematically" subjective, though.
  • Disciplinary power relations: what is implied by the insistence for implications for design? Instead, perhaps we should be asking what are the implications for theory. Why is design a natural end-point? Why does theory/analysis seem like an unreasonable end-point? Design is a privileged activity in HCI -- this shows the asymmetry between the disciplines and how much they're valued.
  • Relationship between technology and practice: the common view is that ethnography will uncover problems that design can fix. This assumes that the world is problematic and can be fixed by (technological) design. A better approach would to have a broader view of practice, including how technology is put to use (and adopted, adapted, repurposed, and appropriated), how people create new circumstances and consequences of technology use, and how technologies take on social meaning. To formulate practice as "deficient" or "needing to be fixed" presupposes a lot, and also puts design outside of the domain of the ethnographer.
  • Representation: over the last two centuries, anthropological ethnography has grown from "objective, instrumental, actionable" accounts to situated encounters. The former is now what is requested in technology and product design, though.
Finally, it's not that implications for design are bad -- they can be productive, and part of conversations between ethnographers and others. Ethnography also isn't just abstract and academic. It's just that the absence of implications for design shouldn't disqualify an ethnography -- they're a poor metric for evaluating ethnographic work. The narrow focus on design can underplay ethnography's contribution. Interdisciplinary engagement (ethnographers, designers, etc.) is also important, but we have to be conscious of the power relations that are going on between disciplines. (For example, CHI has out-priced a lot of non-technical disciplines!)
... Speaking of fees, Paul isn't the first to grumble about the fee hike this year. Jofish blogged it a while ago, and a group of students held a "CHI Student Fee Bake Sale" in protest. Hopefully ACM gets the message.
chimerically: (Default)
Today I'm a student volunteer in another great workshop on sex and HCI. What a way to get my student volunteer hours in! I'll write more later, but for now, I'll post an image from a sex and technology website that makes me snort and giggle every time I look at it. Maybe other female (and male) geeks out there will be amused, too.

Update: here's the conference poster. Click the link for a bigger version.

chimerically: (dolls)
Wow. Incredible workshop on "reflective human-computer interaction" today, with Phoebe Sengers and others. Hopefully I'll find time to write it up when I'm less jet-lagged. For now, I'll just link to the workshop site for those who are interested.

What a way to get in my student volunteer hours! :~)

Update: here's the conference poster. Click the link for a bigger version.

("Lift here for naughty words.")


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