The CHI 2009 conference was April 4-9 in Boston. I’m not here to give a trip report, not going to do it. I just want to mention one highlight.

I saw the most entertaining CHI event ever (and this was my 16th CHI conference: yikes!). It was a paper + panel session titled “Ethnography Considered Harmful”. The featured paper was written by a quartet of British ethnomethodologists: Andrew Crabtree, Tom Rodden, Peter Tolmie, and Graham Button. The presentation of their paper was followed by remarks from Bill Gaver, Wendy Kellogg, Mark Rouncefield, and Tracey Lovejoy.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking “yes, that sounds just fascinating!” But just in case you’re not, here’s why you should. Crabtree et al. criticized the use of certain methods in HCI and systems design that they chracterized as “newer” or “cultural” approaches, claiming that they simply did not provide useful guidance for design. Now, I haven’t read their paper, nor am I very familiar with the approaches they critique. However, as someone who teaches user interface design, including discussing the use of observational methods like ethnography, I think this is a crucial topic. Most of the students I teach are going to go into industry (and, in my program, most will not take another HCI course). Therefore, I want to outfit them with the most useful tools and knowledge of when and how to use these tools.

So, after the four authors had their say, it was the panelists turn. And here’s where things took a turn I’ve never seen before.  Three of the four panelists attacked Crabtree et al.’s arguments in a way I’ve never seen before at CHI… or any other scientific conference I’ve attended. The attacks were witty, knowledgeable, sarcastic, scathing, and well-performed. The audience responded with a mix of laughter and stunned silence. It was great theater.

OK, great theater, but was it a positive thing? Or was it sound and fury? And hey, you might wonder: do I think the authors or the panelists are right? Let me me tackle all these questions.

Yes, it was sound and fury. Am I shallow for enjoying it? I don’t think so, provided that all the participants meant it. As long as they were sincere and not just posturing, I welcome a heated argument. It has made me — and I’m sure many others — pay much more attention to this set of issues than we otherwise would have.

Was it positive? Yes, as I already said, I think so. But others certainly disagree. The first speaker from the audience scolded everyone on the stage, said they should be ashamed of themselves, and expressed embarassment that any students and newcomers to CHI should have seen the event. Well…. like I said, as long as the participants were sincere, I don’t feel that way. This event certainly was not representative of the CHI ethos (which is friendly and positive to a fault). But I just don’t think a heated argument now and then hurts anything. Of course, I admit that I would never have acted the way the panelists did… too polite, I guess. And I’m sure glad I wasn’t in the authors’ shoes!

Finally, who do I think is right? Well, I don’t know yet. I haven’t read the “Ethnography Considered Harmful” paper nor the works it critiques. For what it’s worth, I thought the panelists made the best showing on stage (they certainly were the superior performers), but my inclination is with the authors. (In any case, I will evalute the merit of these (and other) approaches in terms of their ability to inform design.) Again, what makes me think this was a valuable event is that I will read these papers. And if everyone on the stage that day in Boston had been polite, I probably would not have.

So bravo (and brava) to all of you for sticking your necks out.

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