CHI is an annual international conference that focuses on human factors in computing systems, also known as human-computer interaction (HCI). At first glance this may not sound like an exciting topic until you realize that you are the human factor in computing systems and you are using interfaces and structures created by HCI research all of the time. Asking your phone how to get to the nearest pizza joint? That’s HCI. Celebrating your step count with your fitbit? HCI again. Typing? Definitely HCI. We rarely spend a day without using the myriad forms of interaction circumscribed by human factors in computing systems. It just doesn’t have a sexy name.
As forces for civic and cultural improvement through learning, libraries have an opportunity, and perhaps a responsibility, to discover and invent novel ways for people to interact with information. If we can leverage our access to knowledge in collaboration with technical giants (Google comes to mind), we may be able to open up new avenues to reach our patrons and improve their lives. That’s the point after all.
This year (2018) was my first time attending CHI and I’m coming at it from a library background so the entire experience was an eye opener. The schedule alone was 95 pages long (without abstracts), and contained topics ranging from interactivity in autonomous vehicles to bio design and existence. There were dozens of concurrent sessions and choosing between “Gender-Inclusive Design: Sense of Belonging and Bias in Web Interfaces” and “Evaluating the Disruptiveness of Mobile Interactions: A Mixed-Method Approach” was no simple task. Instead I skipped the anguish of session indecision and took the easier route: attending a few pre-designed 2-4 hour courses over the week, diving in depth into topics and interacting with my fellow conference-goers to brainstorm questions and solutions and learn about each other’s backgrounds.
One course was especially rewarding. “Mobile UX–The Next Ten Years?” taught by Simon Robinson, Jennifer Pearson, and Matt Jones encouraged us to try and extend our minds beyond the flat dark glassy rectangle that mobile devices seem to be stuck in and explore our other senses within the mobile context.  Matt likened our present experience with mobile devices to the story of Narcissus- A beautiful man finds a perfectly still pool of water that mirrors his face and falls in love with his own reflection, eventually wasting away from lack of food and water as he refuses to leave the flawless image he has found.
Much in the same way that Narcissus was entranced by an idealized self we are entranced by our phones, diving into them and rarely coming up for air. Matt posited an idea-what if our phones got us to put down our phones? No, not just some kind of alert saying that you’ve spent too much time on YouTube (although we discussed those ideas too), but actual apps whose intention is to get us to interact with the real world.
Matt told us a story about his daughter. When she was six or so they had purchased a small GPS driving device. On a trip his daughter, holding the device, piped up from the back, asking “Daddy, where are the bears?”. A little baffled, Matt told her he didn’t know. A few minutes later, after peering out the window for while she asked again “Daddy, where are the bears?”. This time he asked why she thought there should be bears and she explained “It says in half a mile bear right!”. Sure, the interaction is cute, but Matt used it to create a game: every time the GPS told them that there was a “bear” on the right or left he and his daughter had to find something outside the car- a bird, stone, a tree, something in the real world. Interaction and creation define much of what it means to be alive but mobile devices are often real-world isolating and consumptive.  So the question remains: how do we change that status quo? Mobile devices are ubiquitous and convincing people to simply use them less is unrealistic. So how can libraries take a leading role in redirecting energy and time towards experience and action? In a purely digital context we could include local clubs and activity suggestions pertaining to subjects in topic guides. In the more focused area of mobile devices we could encourage and participate in the development of apps that recognize geographic location and ping the user with information relating to local ecology, history, or culture. Something along the lines of “You’re near Thoreau’s cabin, would you like to take a detour to see it?”, or “The woods you’re in may have lady slippers (a rare native orchid), keep an eye out! This is what they look like:
Even better, if the app could include crowd-sourced data people would be able to create content and expand the digital way-signs redirecting to the real world. The app could include preference settings so that the user would only be given notifications about nearby natural phenomena or historical monuments, depending on their interests. Somebody start making this, I want to use it.
Libraries have a pressing need to take HCI into explicit account. Historically librarians have been gatekeepers to information but with the advent of the online public access catalog (OPAC) we threw open the doors to knowledge and invited the world to search for it on their own terms. Except we didn’t. The way that resources are organized within a library is a fairly closed system that requires training to navigate, and while we have made great strides in improving our OPACs and websites so that they are more intuitive for our users there is still work to be done. In order to empower our users to find, evaluate, and use the resources we put at their disposal we need to examine the way that they interact with our systems and modify those systems to improve usability. It’s not enough for the library catalog to knows that a book exists. The patron needs to know too.