Organising a Special Interest Group at ACM CHI

I helped organising two Special Interest Groups during the 2019 edition of the Human-computer Interaction conference called CHI (pronounced “Kay”), in Glasgow. Here are a few thoughts and tips about SIGs and their organisation.

Special Interest Groups (SIGs) enable conference attendees sharing a common interest to meet informally for 80 minutes of facilitated discussion during a scheduled session at the conference. SIGs offer excellent opportunities for dialog and deliberation on a specific topic. The conference provides each SIG with meeting space and advertises SIG meetings to the rest of the conference in the Extended Abstracts and Conference Program.

https://chi2019.acm.org/authors/special-interest-groups/

The first focused on Queer(ing) HCI. The second focused on developing resources about conducting evaluations for researchers working on assistive educational technologies – let’s call it Evaluating EdTech. If like me, you wonder about how we can best use SIGs to advance research agendas, or if this is your first time at CHI and you wonder if you should attend one, here are a few thoughts about what goes on in SIGs and different approaches to organisation.

Aims, schedule and materials

The aims of both SIGs were different. Queer(ing) HCI aimed at bringing people together to build social bonds and eventual new research agendas. Evaluating EdTech aimed instead at gathering requirements for tools and resources for that research community, and if possible to understand the consensus on certain issues such as experiments design.

Their schedule reflected these differences. In Queer(ing) HCI, the first 15 minutes were used to discuss freely, with paper, post-its and markers available, before the tables were organised around themes, and participants asked to spend 15 minutes at each. Some craft material was available. In Evaluating EdTech we had prepared specific questions and worksheets to facilitate on pre-identified themes. Two were figures and the third a series of list that could be annotated (click here to download the pdf version). A fourth table was set-up for an open discussion on what we missed or critical approaches.

Facilitation (and TEa!)

In both cases, each table had a table leader, one of the member of the organisation team. We also had a quiet area with tea and biscuits (and gluten free options): this is uncommon, and something we had decided for the Queer(ing) HCI event, which we decided to extend to Evaluating EdTech. Although very few participants made use of the table itself, both tea and biscuits disappeared quickly. Strong claim: having food and beverages is always a good idea.

Apart from the difference in (un)planning, the conversations unfolded similarly: personal presentations and presentation of current research interests; someone starts with a question; others comment when they feel it’s relevant. The table leader tries to encourage quieter participants to engage, asks supporting questions or reformulate if it can help the conversation going, tries to make links between participants’ research interests. Before wrapping up, future perspectives and actions for the topic may be discussed.

Structured activities: good or bad idea?

Several participants expressed surprise about the Evaluating EdTech SIG using pre-defined worksheets and activities to ground the discussion. The table leaders were in all cases almost the only ones engaged in note taking and mind-mapping. I tend to do the contrary as a participant (I love mind mapping!), and I find this useful to focus. In the case of the table I led, on systematic literature reviews, this was informative: it didn’t represent what most people at the table felt they needed, and it seems to still support a discussion about the difficulties of finding a common ground on what constitutes ‘good’ evaluations. Some participants hijacked it with post-its.

The OECD learning framework was better receives: the fact the information was already spatialised might have helped. It is also not structured hierarchically, hence maybe better suited for a conversation flow. As a table leader, this is very useful: conversations can be mapped back to initial themes, yet still allow for new themes to emerge during the conversation. It also gives a narrative thread to report results to the room at the end of the SIG.

In summary: no strong claim here. It can be useful if that is your way of supporting a discussion. It can be unhelpful in that SIGs are a great place to hear about one another’s research and issues and it can hinder that process.


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