CHI2012 opening Keynote by Margaret Gould Stewart – Empowerment, Disruption, Magic

Margaret Gould Stewart, a highly regarded user experience designer currently leading UX design at YouTube, presented the opening keynote at CHI2012.  She started her talk with reminding us that humans are story tellers – they always have been and probably always will. What is not constant is the medium – as technologies change so do means for storytelling and sharing.

The topic started out with talking about video connects the world. It extended to a larger view – changing the world through experience design (in the context of video). I often wonder what designers are and she added another quite interesting explanation: designers are humanist. By putting up the definition for humanism she made her point clear that this could apply to good people in design, essentially it is down to caring for humans in their works.

To show the power of video in connecting people she used the following example: the film “Life in a Day” and as it said in the credits “a movie filmed by you”. I have not seen it yet, but the trailer made me curious to look at this one (see the film on YouTube).

By asking the question: what are the things that make sites like YouTube have impact? she introduced 3 principles. Sites have to be:

  • Empowering
  • Disruptive
  • Magical

She outlined what these 3 principles mean for user experience design.

For empowering she had very strong examples: how photo sharing, video sharing, and social networks changed what we see of natural disaster and the effect on people. It also changed way we see it and how we can respond to it. The concrete example was the information coverage on the Hurricane Katrina 2005 (pre-video-sharing age) and the recent flood in Asia. Empowering = helping people to share their stories.

Disruption is in this context the change in use of media and especially how it changes how we perceive the ubiquitous technology of TV. The capabilities of video sharing platforms has, are very different than those of TV – at the same time it is disrupting TV massively. She had a further example of how such technology can disrupt: The Khan Academy (basically sharing educational videos) is challenging the education system. As a further step she had an example where a teacher encourages students to make their own instructional videos as means for them to learn. Disruption = finding new ways that are challenging / overthrowing the old approach.

Magic is what makes technology exciting. There is a quote by Arthur C. Clarke “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. The term “magic” has a long tradition in human computer interaction. Alan Kay talked about it with regard to graphical user interfaces. We had some years back a paper  a paper on Magic beyond the screen [1]. In the talk Margaret Gould Stewart used as another example Instagram, as software that provides magical capabilities for the person using it. Another example of magic she discussed is the GPS based “moving dot” on a map that makes navigation in mobile maps easy. Even without navigational skills people can “magically” find their way. Her advice is “do not get in the way of magic” – focus on the experience not technology in the back ground. In short she summarized:  “Magic disrupts the notion of reality”.

She combined the principles in one example in the design of YouTube. She discussed the page design using an analogy to a plate.  A great plate makes all food presented on it look more attractive and the design goal of the YouTube page is to be such a plate for video. It should make look all videos look better.

Another example used to highlight how to empower, disrupt, and create magic is the Each participant can manipulate one frame of the video (within given limits) and the outcome of the whole video is amazing. Cannot be described, you have to watch it.

Related to the example above an interesting question comes up: How much control is required and what type of control is applied. Here one example is twitter, which limits how much you can write but it does not limit what you post (limiting the form but not the content). She made an interesting argument about control. If you believe that democracy works and is good you can assume that people in general will make the right decisions. One further indicator is, that positive things go viral much more often than negative things. One of the takeaway messages is to believe in people an empower them.

To sum up, there are three questions to be asked when designing an experience:

  • How to empower people?
  • How to disrupt
  • How to create magic?

A final and important point is that there are things that cannot be explained and she argued that we should value this.

[1]  Albrecht Schmidt, Dagmar Kern, Sara Streng, and Paul Holleis. 2008. Magic Beyond the Screen. IEEE MultiMedia 15, 4 (October 2008), 8-13. DOI=10.1109/MMUL.2008.93

Poker surface on youtube – 5000 hits in a day :-)

A video describing the poker surface is available in youtube. It is an implementation of a poker game on a combination of a multi-touch table and mobile phones, for details see [1].

It is amazing how quickly it is picked up. It gained about 5000 views in a single day and it is already features in,, and on But as the comments on show the real poker players are hard to impress…

This really makes me think how research, publishing, and public perception of research is changing – rapidly…

[1] Shirazi, A. S., Döring, T., Parvahan, P., Ahrens, B., and Schmidt, A. 2009. Poker surface: combining a multi-touch table and mobile phones in interactive card games. In Proceedings of the 11th international Conference on Human-Computer interaction with Mobile Devices and Services (Bonn, Germany, September 15 – 18, 2009). MobileHCI ’09. ACM, New York, NY, 1-2. DOI=