HCI Invited Tech Speaker Elizabeth Churchill at Grace Hopper 2014

Elizabeth Churchill discussing how all good things evolve.
Elizabeth Churchill's talk at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing wasn't what I expected. As she is the Director of HCI at eBay, I was expecting to hear about all the sexy research going on at eBay. I didn't hear about that and, in the end, I was glad. It turns out her talk wasn't what she expected either. She came to the conference prepared to present a talk titled "Foundations for Designing User-Centered Systems," based on her new book. After arriving in Phoenix and chatting with conference attendees, she changed it to "Journeys and Destinations." What followed was so in line with my interests, she could have titled it "This Talk’s for You, Keita."

Technology is social

One of the four things she’s been reflecting on is this:
“All technologies & technological practices are sociotechnical, inherently social in their creation by us, adoption by us and adaptation by us, toward us and with us.”
I've been recently reviewing literature related to that concept so I found her thoughts on this particularly relevant. I’m intrigued and motivated by the socio-technical gap as discussed by Mark Ackerman in The Intellectual Challenge of CSCW (2000), the morality of adoption as discussed in Beyond the User: Use and Non-Use in HCI (2009) by Christine Satchell and Paul Dourish and the requirements of meaning exchange as outlined in The Social Requirements of Technical Systems (2009) by Brian Whitworth. She showed one of her favorite art pieces, a 3 1/2 minute video called "The Shy Picture" to illustrate true "interactivity." In the video, a photo that would normally be static instead reacts to the viewer which, in turn, changes the viewer’s reaction. The Shy Picture from Narinda Reeders on Vimeo.

Distance collaboration

While she didn't specifically use the term "distance collaboration", Churchill spoke about her work on the YeTi project  – a community bulletin board developed to overcome some of the challenges of being in Palo Alto and trying to collaborate with people in Japan. It created a connection between personal space, online space and public space (this was in the days before MySpace). About 3 years ago, I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Judith Olson at UC Irvine and became very interested in the research her and her husband Gary Olson had been doing in the area of distributed collaboration. So much so, that my original thesis topic was on devising ways to improve system support for partially-distributed learning environments where some students are in one location with the instructor and one or more students are located elsewhere. I enjoyed hearing about the various social and environmental learning that went on as Churchill and her team iterated on the design of the bulletin board  – playing up the scribble feature when they saw how artists used the interface in a cafe and adding video capture so others could "observe" you while you were making your post.

Embodied Conversational Agent (ECA)

Whoa! I didn't see this topic coming. But had I done even a simple Wikipedia search on Churchill, I would have known that she's known for her work on Embodied Conversational Agents (ECAs). 3 years ago, I took an independent course during my Master’s program to specifically study the concept behind ECAs (see my class paper titled "The Credibilty of Embodied Conversational Agents" and to build a conversational agent. I may have even used her book in the class. She talked about the humanizing of technology and encouraged us to read the 1996 book "The Media Equation" by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, and to decide for ourselves how much of it still stands today and how much has changed. It was refreshing to see these things talked about at Grace Hopper. It's what drew me to my first Grace Hopper conference in 2010 in Atlanta when they first introduced the HCI track. These social and contextual research concepts are what fascinate me about HCI but that I don't see discussed much out in industry practice where much of the focus is on interface concerns: UI design patterns, wireframing, prototyping and user testing. Which brings me to another reflection that Churchill mentioned and that I think is perfect to end with:
The interface is always more than a screen. Focus on usage, not “the user.”