For the second year, an attempt to join the CHI Doctoral Consortium has been denied. Last year, I was focusing on barriers to entry in joining online communities, and this year I switched to merging complexity and HCI design. This is an idea that arose from an experience with Alex Vespignani’s “Simplicity of Complexity” course in the Fall of 2005, and then reinforced by ongoing conversations with professors and colleagues at the IU School of Informatics—a program uniquely placed to help develop this exchange of ideas between interaction design and complex systems.
My expectations were a bit higher this year than last, when I submitted mainly to get in the habit of creating short-form documents about research interests and meeting deadlines. Since the consortium is looking for students who “have a clear idea and an area, and have made some progress, but who are not so far along that they can no longer make changes,” the reality is that a Ph.D. student who hasn’t even cleared the qualifying exams (that comes a year from January) is a long shot. Still, the theme of this year’s CHI is “Art. Science. Balance.” … which seemed like a good fit for my interests.
In the interest of transparency, here is the long abstract—”Complexity in Interaction Design“— and the comments from the two reviewers. The first reviewer wrote:
The idea in this DC-proposal is that we can analyze online communities in terms of “complex systems” and design them bottom-up rather than top-down. That is, the different components (e.g. the activities of the users) can be seen as independent units that together form the system, actively constructing themselves and thereby the overall (complex) system. This is different from a top-down perspective where the system “enforces” certain behaviors through its design.
What worries me about this proposal is that we do not get presented with a lot of solutions yet, only a set of high-level concepts like flow, fuzzy determinism, etc. Since the author has been doing his PhD-studies for quite a while, I would have expected something more? The concepts presented look really interesting but I am not certain how they translate into design? I know for sure that designing for flow is a hard task. And the other concepts do not look any simpler…
Very little has been published yet.
And from the second:
This is an interesting topic, but I wonder about the join between the theory (complexity) and the application target- e-communities. There is a considerable work on e-communities in CHI (see Preece Maryland, Kraut, CMU), so improving design of community systems needs to take this into account. Also I think the theory angle on complexity needs to be
sharpened, some of the influences you have chosen have little to say about complexity (e.g. Flow), and if you are taking a contextual approach better to look at McCarthy and Wright and Dourish’s books. How will you validate your complexity framework or demonstrate its utility ?
I draw a few conclusions from this, most notably about the selection criteria.
I’m in the second year of a Ph.D. program, only two years into contemplating this notion of complex design, among other interests. What the first reviewer is telling me is that, in order to be considered next year, I not only have to up my pedigree through publication but also develop the thoughts sufficiently to have reasoned and supported conclusions formed. In practical terms, my CHI 2009 entry won’t have a snowball’s chance, either, and I might be best waiting until CHI 2010 to have a good candidate. Unfortunately, there is a better chance that I could have my dissertation completed before that particular conference begins. The ideal time to get the feedback would be in the spring after my quals, and to get accepted I need to spend the next ten months focused on publishing some preliminary ideas that will make the complex design idea official.
The short form of the abstract is a bit unwieldy, too. The challenge of a big new theoretical idea is that there are a lot of concepts to not only introduce but synthesize, and there are many resources that could be cited to help this. In a 4-page CHI format abstract, though, there isn’t enough room to do so. Does that mean my idea for a possible dissertation is too broad? Maybe. It could also be that the constraints of a 4-page document bias the selection toward very narrowly-focused and traditional research.
The comments are helpful in reinforcing what I already know: this is going to be a difficult idea to explain. The depth of research in any one of these ideas (situated action, complexity, flow, criticality, online community) is sufficient to guarantee that even in a full paper I’d have to leave out relevant archival work. I’m also dealing with talking to two if not three distinct communities with this research: complex systems scientists, human-computer interaction folk, and designers. It is a tall order to demonstrate both interest and relevance to all groups when there is also some educating needed to bring the groups up to speed on the basic concepts and terminology. Perhaps the only way to do this is to publish the groundwork first, citing those papers as a means of cutting to the chase in the Doctoral Consortium submission.
In the short-term, I’m going to let this research rest for the holidays and pick it back up after the new semester starts. I would appreciate any thoughts you have on the short paper, submission process, or complex design as a possible dissertation.Tags: CHI doctoral consortium, complex design, complex systems, denied, failure, human-computer interaction design, online community, reviews, transparency, transparent process