Report from DIS 2004
The Cambridge Marriot
Boston, MA, USA
August 1-4, 2003
By Jonah Brucker-Cohen

The 5th bi-annual conference on Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) began on an early Monday morning at the Marriot hotel in Boston. DIS is an event focused on the marriage of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research and Interaction Design (IA). The conference caters to user experience designers seeking to go beyond usability by combining disciplines and research methodologies. This year’s event featured artists, designers, commercial practitioners, musicians, and researchers from over 20 countries and was a lively three days of panels, posters, and hands-on exhibits.

The opening keynote was a lecture by MIT professor of Architecture and head of the Media Arts and Sciences program at the MIT Media Lab, William Mitchell. Mitchell’s talk was on “rethinking campus design”, a topic that MIT was currently working on with three major architectural projects underway and completed. Despite a well-crafted overview of the building projects around campus (including the new Frank Gehry Lab and Simmons Residence hall), Mitchell focused too much on the special design attributes of the buildings and glossed over their use. His statement that wiring the dorm room made people less social and increased roommate conflicts seemed a bit uninformed. To Mitchell, having a flexible, informal space is a key element in creating a positive social space. This view seemed too utopian for the designers in the room, who really wanted him to answer the questions: Is there any proof that working in a nicely designed building makes the work better? Is there ever a feeling that the space you are working in is better than your work? When does the space become too much? Unfortunately, Mitchell missed a good opportunity to emphasize how mis-use of space often yields better results than intended use.

The conference also featured a wide array of papers, panels and posters, ranging in topic from “Interactive Systems in Public Spaces” to “Science Friction: Fashion and Interaction” to “Designing the Future”. Some of the posters that stood out included MIT Media Lab student, Tad Hirsch’s “SpeakEasy”, a community development project that gives immigrants access to shared social services over mobiles phones through a local volunteer network. Users volunteer skills and are connected to people who need information within the local urban context. Also integrated into city space was Liz Goodman and Michelle Chang’s “FIASCO”, a street game that pits online and offline players together to create street performance and upload evidence to a shared website.

In the papers section, the hot topic this year was social networking. One of the biggest problems with social networking is syncing these networks across different technologies and platforms. Hillary Smith’s paper, “Eliciting Reactive and Reflective Feedback for a Social Communication Tool” examined the ways people stay in contact and use social networking software and devices like IM, email, mobile phones. Her approach was in-depth user studies that attempted to uncover the strengths and weakness of these devices in order to uncover their conceptual models. Other interesting papers included “Making Tea: Iterative Design Through Analogy” by M.C. Schraefel about how using the analog act of making tea in a social scene can augment the design of a digital prototype. Using this idea of shared control in public space was “Jukola: Democratic Music Choice in a Public Space”, by Kenton O’Hara from mobile Bristol’s Appliance Studio. Jukola is a networked MP3 player (like Mark Argo and Ahmi Wolf’s Bass-Station project – which was not credited!) meant to be deployed in a public space where people can access, upload, and rate songs for public play. During the papers, I found myself engaged in a new type of conference social messaging system I made up called “SSID messaging”. This is when you create an ad-hoc network with your laptop and broadcast a message to the entire room in the form of a made-up network name. People can see it and respond by creating their own ad-hoc networks. The only problem with this is that the presenter’s computer – also Wi-Fi enabled – kept getting messages popping up during her talk asking her to connect to a network called “How’s the talks in the other room?” This type of re-purposed messaging system was the perfect example of how systems can be changed with new contexts and needs from participants in a wired social situation.

The exhibition was full of interactive projects that attempted to display the diversity of DIS’s emphasis on usability and human-centered design. “Context Photography”, a project from Sweden’s Viktoria Institute, looked at how external factors like pollution and sound could change the visual output of a camera. Also working with augmented displays was “Dialog Table”, a projected screen where users placed their hands over it and video tracking changed their hands into a shadow that could grasp some digital artifacts and examine them. While interacting with this work, I exclaimed: “This would really work better with a mouse!” to which I got a lot of laughter. To me, replacing a mouse with your hand movements on an interface that a mouse can easily be used with defeats the purpose of the experiment. They should have created an interactive experience that cannot use a mouse! That would have been more interesting and would have gotten their point across much better.

I spoke on a panel called “Design For Hackability”, moderated by Ottawa-based ethnographer and avid blogger, Anne Galloway. Our panel was focused on shifting context of everyday experience and displacing the use of systems from their original use to forms that challenged this use. Panel member, Dan Hill of the BBC spoke about “Steam”, an application created by a BCC fan that rips radio streams from the BBC website into a custom program. This application allows people to set alerts when radio shows will occur, something unavailable on the website that Dan was developing. A nice example of how open systems such as RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and media streams are making their way into creative public uses. Overall, I think our panel was successful by examining the nature of hackable systems and how they exist in everyday life and practice.

Despite having to leave DIS early, I thought the overall production of the event and the range of topics covered lacked focus. There were too many DIS-connected topics and the audience seemed more observers than questioners. Some of the projects mentioned in panels and talks reminded me of ideas I had heard before the dot-bomb crash and were overly optimistic. I was hoping to find critical analysis of the state of designing interactive systems and how these were relevant on social, political, and everyday situations. Most of the conference seemed to focus on how systems and technological innovations were used instead of why they were important. I’m hoping that the next DIS will honor a stronger theme and attempt to emphasize why design is becoming less important than content.