Grand Challenges in HCI

Last week I attended an amazing symposium organized by some of my colleagues at UCLIC around grand challenges in Human-Computer Interaction. It turned out to be a pretty big event with more than 120 people attending, and really interesting speakers, panel and coffee-break discussions around the grand challenges in HCI. As a relatively newcomer in HCI (I’ve only started publishing in 2012), this was a very interesting day. There are so many different angles, topics and approaches within one field that one often loses track of what is happening, but also how to best move forward in our own research. This symposium was organized to start a longer dialogue and discussion on how to move the field forward and address some of the big challenges within HCI but also society at large. The program started with an amazing lineup of speakers who all gave insightful and inspiring talks about their perspective on whatever ‘grand challenges’ in HCI means to them (program and slides). What was really interesting about these talks was the enormous diversity in what these speakers considered “grand challenges”.

Professor Vassilis Kostakos, who recently published the widely discussed article  “The big hole in HCI research” [1], in fact argued he could not think of any ‘grand challenge’ at all, but rather wanted to talk about challenges. His thought-provoking talk essentially kick-off the discussion, which he so eloquently summarized himself during the panel discussions, on “who are we (HCI) and what have we done?“, a quasi existential question launched into the audience as a way to start a process of self-reflection. Taking a step back, he compared HCI to other fields to demonstrate the lack of “motor themes” which could help develop HCI into a more structured field that builds knowledge around certain ‘core’ areas. His suggestions (or challenges if you will) to push HCI further took a two tier approach: a top-down approach in which he advocated motor themes, research consortia, and larger projects that impact society, and a bottom-up approach where we as individual HCI researcher start building tools and methods we can share. In line with this focus on tools, he proposed to shift the core of HCI from “study humans to improve technology” to “study technology to understand humans“.

In her talk, Professor Susanne Bødker, who at NordiCHI 2010 introduced the notion of “three waves within HCI” [23], proposed a striking similar perspective arguing that HCI should perhaps not only be about humans, but also about new perspective on interactive technologies? Looking back to the early days of the desktop metaphor, she reflected on some of the successes and failures from our field, questioning if we really have come much further in HCI since the early days of the STAR desktop interface? HCI seems to have an methodologically expanding scope, is exploding with new technologies, and seems to embrace more situations, domains and use cases. Based on these observations, she points to four main ‘big’ challenges for the HCI community: context of use, multiple devices everywhere, blending the physical and the virtual, and looking at big common interactions. Although these topics are increasingly emerging within HCI, connecting them in a meaningful and ‘big’ way indeed shifts the focus from ‘only’ studying the human to new perspectives on the role of technologies in a broader societal setting. To start such a process, Bødker proposed a research hackathon/conference where researchers come together to present papers and technology designed around specific prescribed cases, allowing for a certain theoretical fundamentalism that explores the boundaries and conflicts between methods and perspectives.

Dr. Stuart Reeves took a quite different approach to this interpretation of ‘grand challenge’ and discussed some of the disciplinary and conceptual ‘troubles’ in HCI. The central question discussed in his talk was “Is HCI—or can HCI be—a scientific discipline?“. Using the mouse as an example of how verificationism and cognitive science can be leveraged to create good design, he proceeded to argue for a ‘science of design’ next to the traditional scientific methods. Through an historical overview of HCI, his talk outlined successful examples of standardization, replication but also a move to push HCI forward as a scientific discipline. As main challenge to make HCI research ‘scientific’ he proposed three mains methods: (i) accumulation through a layered incremental process, (ii) replication and reproducibility to verify findings leading to (iii) generalizable insights and knowledge. Moving forward in his talk, he discussed the plasticity and dynamics of the problem and the solution of research in a fast moving field, yielding the question whether HCI is a discipline at all? And if not, his analysis points to the core question: “how do we get ‘comfortable’ with HCI as a resolutely heterogeneous, coreless, non-discipline?

Next to speak was Professor Andrew Howes who discussed the “seven myths about interaction science” which I did not know existed. As someone who is rather unfamiliar with interaction science, I found this a fascinating insight into the purpose and role of interaction science within a larger HCI field. To frame his talk within the topic of ‘grand challenges’ he borrowed the EPSRC goals revolving around behaviour change, international development, assistive technologies, and connected communities. As HCI keeps claiming to play a big role in solving major societal issues, he wondered what kind of theories and methods we really developed that led to these contributions? Reflecting on HCI as a field, he claims there are two main approaches: (i) the scientific approach, based around empirically validated and mathematically described theory, and (ii) interpretivism and critical theory, which is based around investigations into contexts. Throughout his talk, he refuted seven myths of interaction science in an attempt to demonstrate the effectiveness of the scientific method in addressing issues that are embodied, situated and rational, while still maintaining generality and mathematical rigor.

Professor Yvonne Rogers shifted the discussion back to what we as a field might consider ‘grand challenges’. Her inspiring and forward looking talk titled “Can we change the world with HCI?“, enumerated a number of fields and domains that have the potential to be influenced or changed by HCI. Examples included climate change, health and wellbeing, air quality, poverty, illiteracy, developing countries, and yes… even ‘world peace’. Inspired by Sneiderman’s  book on “The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations” [4], she proposed a new ‘macro’ perspective on HCI that embraces applied research aimed at solving big problems using in-the-wild methods such as citizen science, participatory design, or action-based research. The aim of this macro approach is to establish long-term research collaborations with local communities, organizations and councils that are faced with hard and very real problems. HCI can change the world, but the field needs to change to consider who it collaborates with, whether it contributes to science or society,  and whether it is willing to move from a ‘rhetoric of compassion’ for people  to a ‘rhetoric of engagement’ empowering communities and society at large.

The final, and by far most spectacular talk in terms of forward looking ideas and visions, was delivered by Professor Gregory Abowd His talk on “today’s and tomorrow’s interactive technologies” summarized the three known periods in HCI: mainframe, PC, and UbiComp, and proposed that we are in the beginnings of a fourth phase, which he refers to as collective computing. Collective computing makes use of three important trends in modern HCI: the cloud, the crowd, and the ‘shroud’ (= IoT + wearables). Looking even beyond this fourth phase in HCI, he discussed the radical idea of ‘computational skins’ which is computing power that is embedded into materials that can store information, sense, actuate, communicate and harvest their own power. Computational skins will be ubiquitous and “weaved into the fabric of everyday” as suggested by Weiser. In his talk, Abowd claimed that Moore’s law is obsolete, and rather pushed forward his ‘COSMOS conjecture’ that claims that “the global annual area produced of computational skin (materials with self-sustaining computational capabilities) will double every 18 months.” However, his grand challenge does not revolve around this technology but rather around “how will these emerged/emerging technologies best serve human needs?

Lots of interesting discussion, and there do seems to be a number of recurring themes. First, a lot of discussion, both during the talks and panel, was focused on the ‘identity’ and future of HCI. With a plethora of methods, disciplines, perspectives and even fundamentally different research approaches, there are many questions to what kind of discipline we are, and how we move forward. Second, most proposed grand challenges point to solving problems at scale. To paraphrase Rogers: we need to go macro if we want to change the world. How we might go about doing that is unclear from these talks as most of our methods, approaches and funding models are based on ‘the old way’ of doing things. Third, as technology will inevitably progress and impact the world, HCI can play a crucial and central role in positioning those technologies into society. As summarized by Abowd: “how will these emerged/emerging technologies best serve human needs ?”, and how can HCI play a role in applying these technologies to important problems in society.

– Steven

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