CHI 2017: Automation, Agency, and Learning

The DUB party at CHI 2017

The CHI conference (the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems) is a strange beast. From 1,000 feet, it’s an incredible gathering of thousands of researchers, teachers, practitioners interested broadly with how people and technology interact. From 10 feet, however, there’s massive diversity. Some people come to share new ways for people to interact with and through technology; others come to critique how technology is shaping and perhaps even eroding our humanity. Attendees somehow coexist and learn from each other despite our dramatic differences in interests.

Because of the scale of the conference, there’s no way to summarize what happened of it. At any given time, there are dozens of parallel sessions and hundreds of hallway conversations happening. Any trip report is therefore mostly a personal account of ideas that were salient, interesting, and impactful.

With my recent pivot to computing education research, learning and education was the focus of many of my conversations. Many of these were about the practice of being a teacher. For example, I had a great conversation with Scott Hudson (Carnegie Mellon) about their new undergraduate degree in HCI, and some of the challenges with trying to recruit students into a major from high school, where there’s barely any visibility of computing, let alone HCI. I also talked to Thomas Fritz (University of British Columbia) about the challenges of incorporating active learning into software engineering education at scale. Brian Dorn (University of Nebraska, Omaha) shared the many unique challenges of state and local level K-12 computing education policy development.

My other conversations about learning were grounded in research. David Karger (MIT) shared his views with me on programming language learning and programming problem solving. I had a great conversation with Nathalie Riche (Microsoft Research) about the role of learning in harnessing the power of interactive information visualizations. I also engaged in a riveting deconstruction with Jonathan Grudin (Microsoft Research) about the history of education policy in the U.S. and the implications of that history on present day flaws in high school and college.

Because many attendees knew of my foray into startups, I had many interesting conversations about technology transfer, the role of design in product management, and my own personal experiences with these things. Jason Hong (Carnegie Mellon) shared details about a new masters in product management, while Bonnie John (Bloomberg) shared her practical experiences with product managers and how they interact with designers. I talked to many of our MHCI+D students about startup life, mentoring them on both how to compare startup and non-startup jobs, but also how to negotiate offers. Danyel Fisher (Microsoft Research) described his new work with Andy Begel on understanding the vast diversity of barriers in technology transfer between Microsoft Research and Microsoft proper. Geraldine Fitzpatrick (TU Wien) also interviewed me for her podcast on changing academic life about my recent blog post on work life balance, where I discussed how the time stressors inherent to building a business motivated me to develop more rigorous time management skills.

Each year, we throw a DUB party in collaboration with Georgia Tech and Michigan, usually attracting hundreds of attendees who want to network, drink, and reconnect with friends. I had a great time learning about many of our former doctoral students’ experiences with faculty life.

I don’t usually go to talks at CHI, mostly because I find them to have too low an information density to be valuable. I did go to a few great ones, however, two of which concerned accessibility. One was my student Amanda’s talk on Genie, in which she described several clever techniques for automatically transforming interactive websites to support multiple forms of input. At the beginning of the conference, my colleague and friend Jake Wobbrock accepted his CHI Social Impact Award, discussing ability-based design, which is the idea that we should be designing for what people can do, not what they can’t do, adapting systems to individual abilities.

The other two notable talks I attended were the opening and closing plenary’s, both of which critiqued commercial software and it’s impact on society. Wael Ghonim (Quora) dissected social media, enumerating the numerous consequences of driving traffic through popularity metrics such as “likes” and ad impressions on our media diet. He argued that news feeds editorialize content via these metrics result in mob rule, where whoever is the loudest and controversial controls the conversation. Nicholas Carr in his closing plenary argued that automation actual disrupts our ability to learn, which creates dependency and ultimately a less capable humanity rather than a more capable one. He argued that commercial software enterprises, whether they realize it or not, must automate in order to create this dependency and make profit. Both of these talks aligned well with a birds of a feather session run by Jonathan Grudin (Microsoft Research) and Umer Farooq (Microsoft) on the topic of human-computer integration, or the idea that digital agents will become so autonomous that they will become to act as our assistants and friends. Unlike the two talks, this session was framed more optimistically, trying to uncover compelling examples of integration, but also open problems.

While some people might find the breadth and diversity of the topics above a bit overwhelming and potentially irrelevant to their work, I always find it energizing. It contextualizes my work and offers methods, techniques, and perspectives that help shape, motivate, and refine my work. I never leave CHI new knowledge about the questions I’m trying to answer in my research, but I always leave it with a new way of asking and answering the questions.

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