HCI 2009: an on-the-train-home review

HCI 2009, the 23rd annual British Computer Society conference on Human Computer Interaction, took place this week at Cambridge University’s Churchill College . It started and finished with two provocative and inspiring keynote talks, and in between were some interesting presentations and discussions. I was there to give a paper on the user research work we’ve been doing as part of the Usable Image project, but I was also wearing my accessibility hat, and while there wasn’t a huge amount of coverage of accessibility or inclusive design there were plenty of other presentations that were definitely of relevance.

The opening keynote by Royal College of Art professor Anthony Dunne focused on the provocative ‘what if?’ design he and his RCA students have been producing. I’d seen some of this work (mouse-powered TVs, anyone?) in Graham Pullin’s Design Meets Disability book (a review of which you can expect here very soon), and this talk, like the book, made me wonder if we could do with some more critical design in web accessibility: let’s try some accessibility solutions that might on first thoughts seem ‘wrong’ but actually have a positive contribution to make.

I also enjoyed William Hudson revisiting his CHI 2009 paper on the ICT profession, user-centred design and the empathisers/systemisers theory of Simon Baren-Cohen and his work with people on the autistic spectrum. We’ll all be familiar with the natural attraction of programming to people with Asperger syndrome, but the results of William’s survey of ICT professionals, with interesting gender differences, remind us that there can be an issue surrounding lack of empathy amongst developers of their end users. So the question is, how far can/should we raise empathy, and what’s the best way of doing so? With data? With ‘eureka experiences’, the kind of which seem to be particularly successful from an accessibility perspective?

Throughout the conference I heard from and talked to people about work in diverse areas: from Pradipta Biswas‘ simulations for inclusive design to a study of anxiety and wiki contribution to an investigation of older people’s attitudes to social networking. My own paper presentation lasted all of 5 minutes, followed by a 30 minute discussion with Tom McEwan and several others on the challenges facing human-centred technology commercialisation (getting people to use/buy your innovation in a human-centred way). This was not the direction I’d anticipated the discussion heading, but actually it was extremely rewarding for me to be forced to consider our work in this way.

The closing keynote from Bill Buxton was extremely entertaining, but with some serious lessons for ICT designers – in particular to be context-aware (socially, culturally, politically) of what they are doing and what has gone before. He mused over the fact that not one of the reports he’s read on the iPhone’s innovative qualities mentions a 1993 mobile phone that used the same type of buttonless touch based interaction . This was an illustration of the long-nose effect of innovation (the opposite of the long tail in retail strategy) – the many years an innovation typically spends ‘under the radar’, being rethought, reworked and refined before suddenly bang! it becomes a commercial success. How can we shorten this lag – give innovation a nose-job(!)?

From an accessibility perspective, listening to the two keynotes made me realise how much more I need and want to know about innovations that may still be under the radar- and also how frustrated I get with accessibility research and design that is horribly context-unaware, that seems ignorant of the efforts that have gone before, and as a result solves the wrong problem, or is no solution at all. This is quite different to critical design for accessibility, where there is a genuine contribution to be made, even if it is to say “ah, no, that doesn’t work right now”.

So at the end of it all, I left Cambridge with a desire to learn more, to look in new places for information and inspiration, but also reassured that the way I think about accessibility and inclusion technology is, I reckon, headed in roughly the right direction!

Read more

HCI 2009 conference web site

BBC article on HCI 2009 – focusing on the Open House demonstration of innovative technology.


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