DIS 2004 and the universe of HCI conferences

Last week I was in Boston for the DIS 2004 . Apart from bouts of East Coast nostalgia (I went to grad school on the East Coast), I had a great time. DIS is a small conference with some interesting sessions. ONe thing I noticed immediately was the number of people sporting the nerdy artisty chic look. Another was that one could not walk a few steps without bumping into a CMU (Carneige Mellon University) student/alumni/faculty. Another trend was the proliferation of Mac’s. The few PC’s I saw apart from mine, were the IBM’s owned by IBM employees.

DIS stands for Designing Interactive Systems and has been around since 1995 (held alternate years). This was my first visit to the conference. Although the focus was interactive systems, there was very little about web-based interactions.

From the beginning of the conference, I had a feeling of deja-vu at every paper session. Finally I realized that I recognized many of the research projects – the same groups also present their work at CHI. It all made sense when at the end of DIS, Terry Swack explained that the purpose of DIS was for researchers to disseminate their findings to designers (as compared to the goal of DUX – let designers present their work to researchers/designers).

While I enjoyed DIS, there is a fair degree of overlap between DIS and CHI (I am mostly referrig to the papers here). The papers presented at DIS are a subset of those presented at CHI. So technically, one could go to CHI, focus on the subset of DIS-type papers and get exposure to similar content. (On a cursory examination, I was able to find many of the DIS paper authors in the CHI proceedings). Of course, a small conference like DIS offers value in other ways – meeting people with similar interests, networking etc. Also, the panels, design contest etc. are unique to DIS.

On thinking along these lines, I realize that the Information Architecture Summit has been very successful in carving out a niche for itself that is truly different from other conferences. Additionally, the conference mostly has practitioners presenting to practitioner audiences. Another great thing about the IA Summit, is the increasingly higher quality of submissions. Academicians are used to the whole model of writing papers for conferences, and volunteering for reviews. For a practitioner community, these practices have to be encouraged and inculcated. The IA Summit gets around these issues by asking for abstracts, rather than full papers. And the papers are not blind peer reviewed (which is a pity). But overall it does work rather well, though it could do with some focused research sessions.

From some comments by the DIS organizers at the end of the conference, it became clear that one of the problems for DIS was few practitioner submissions (only six case study submissions), and mostly academic reviewers. The best intentions of the organizers cannot succeed if practitioners are not doing the reviewing.

Here is one way (my way) of thinking about the universe of HCI conferences. The below diagram is a generalization (of course), but I think it captures the dominant trends. Interestingly, I was not able to think of conferences that occupy the top-right quadrant (practitioners present to researchers).

Personally, I would like the IA Summit to introduce a few researchy sessions. And it would be great if both CHI and DIS had more contributions from practitioners.

As co-Chairs of the CHI 2005 Late Breaking Results, Simone and I have been thinking of the best ways to increase participation from practitioners. We have a few ideas. Lets see if we are able to attract more practitioners to both submit and to review.