CHI: A newcomer’s perspective

Last week I attended my very first CHI. CHI is the big ACM conference on human-computer interaction, and although my research is half in this area, I’d never attended, much less submitted a paper, before. But this year, our research progress aligned with the late-breaking work deadline, so we submitted it and it was accepted. So, off to “HCI Disneyland” it was for me!

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a new-to-me conference, as I alluded to in my previous post, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. In some ways, CHI was exactly what I expected, but in other ways, it was vastly different. So here are some of the highlights, lowlights, and lessons learned from my first CHI experience.

Cliques and shadow programs and lingo, oh my!

The biggest surprise? CHI is very, very cliquey. As someone new to CHI and who didn’t study HCI as part of my PhD, I felt very much like an outsider. I found it extremely difficult to strike up conversations with people I didn’t already know, unless I was introduced to them by someone I did know. CHI seemed very much to be about reuniting with who you know and reinforcing those ties, and less about forging new connections. Because of this, I am super grateful for the colleagues from other schools who saw me floundering and made sure to introduce me around and check in on me. If not for them, I might have been tempted to hide in my hotel room for more of the conference.

The second biggest surprise: the shadow program. I found it odd that there were so few things scheduled in the evenings…until someone clued me in to the concept of “CHI parties”. CHI has (early) receptions on two of the conference nights, but most of the post-session socializing exists in smaller parties sponsored by different organizations or collections of people. To be fair, CHI does now put these on their website, but I still found the idea odd. And again, I did not feel comfortable just showing up at a random place in the evening in an unfamiliar city, and then finding my way back to my hotel afterwards, so I skipped out on this aspect of the conference — and probably lost some valuable opportunities to make new connections.

Visuals are key

I guess it’s no surprise that at a conference concerned with designing tech for humans, the slides would be well-designed, too. (Interestingly, this did not always extend to the posters, which overall still seemed text-heavy, but perhaps not as much as at other CS conferences.) In the same vein, all of the talks I attended were interesting and clear. I’m not sure if I just got really lucky with my choices or if CHI talks are generally pretty solid, but it was a welcome change from talks at other conferences I’ve attended in the past.

I tried to be cognizant of the amount of text on my poster. Designing good posters is hard!

It’s also no surprise that a design-focused conference should be demo-heavy, and as a newbie this was the most fun and interesting part of the CHI experience. I didn’t try out as many things as I’d like due to the crowds, but it was fascinating walking around and seeing all the creative, tangible things other researchers were working on.

Things I did right

  • Attend an alt.chi session. The best way to describe alt.chi is that these are the papers that don’t neatly fit into the normal academic paper box. I saw 2 alt.chi presentations, one on deciding not to design, and one on lying to your devices, and both were fascinating. I wish I’d had room (or made room) in my schedule to see more.
  • Sign up for a lunch@CHI group. I signed up to eat lunch with several complete strangers on the first day of the conference. Finding people to eat lunch with at conferences is one of the most stressful parts of a conference for me, so I jumped at the chance to not have to think about this for one of the conference days. CHI matched people up and made reservations at nearby restaurants, so all I had to do was show up (and pay for my lunch). I wish more conferences I went to had this option!
  • Realize when I’d reached my limit. I presented my poster on Wednesday, during the 2 coffee breaks. After the first break, I realized that I needed to do some major recharging before the second break to engage with people on my research. So even though it was raining and even though there were a bunch of sessions/papers I wanted to see, I skipped out for a few hours to go mural hunting in City Centre. Bonus: I did a ton of walking and found a tiny vegan place for lunch…and returned to the conference refreshed and reinvigorated.

Newbie mistakes

  • Failure to pace myself. I failed to take any breaks on the first day, and did lunch@chi on top of that. There were just so many new things to see and do and learn! By halfway through the reception, I found myself wandering around like a zombie, looking for desserts to give my brain a quick sugar hit. I ended up leaving the reception early and crawling directly into bed as soon as I got back to my hotel room.
  • Not attending the Sunday night Newcomer’s Reception. In my defense, I’d spent the entire day wandering the city and was still somewhat jet lagged, so I skipped out on this. In retrospect, this probably would have been a gentler introduction to CHI.
  • Planning meetups in advance. I ended up running into people I knew serendipitously, but I also ran into people I did not expect to see. But if I’d sat down before the conference and sent out some targeted emails, I probably would have known that, say, one of our somewhat recent alums was there and schedule a coffee meet-up.
  • Plan out which posters to visit. The poster sessions were larger than I expected, and were crowded and noisy affairs. I’m sure I missed a lot of excellent posters as a result. In the future, I’ll be a bit more intentional about which posters to visit.
  • Not engaging with more demos. Really, this was just sheer laziness more than anything else, but I regret not trying out some things (like the VR swings, for instance).

Final thoughts

Despite some of the hiccups along the way, I am really glad I was able to attend CHI this year. Frankly, it’s been some time since I’ve attended a pure research conference (I’ve been on the GHC/Tapia/NCWIT/SIGCSE circuit primarily, lately), and it was fun to engage with ideas in this realm. I have several notebook pages filled with new ideas for projects, papers, and other fun things (and not enough time to pursue them all!), and several more pages filled with reflections on what I could be doing differently in my research and in my academic civic engagement work more generally. I did make a couple of connections that may very well bear fruit at some point. And, of course, it was nice to return to Glasgow and actually remember some of what I experienced this time.