Research during COVID-19: Collaborating during CHI Season

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted the research landscape. In this series, we explore how our community is navigating their daily lives and innovating to adapt their research and collaboration techniques.

The Human-Computer Interaction labs at the Games Institute, and at the University of Waterloo overall, emphasize collaboration between and within groups so any one student is uplifted by the entire network of HCI researchers.

Working online with someone on videoIf you are not involved in HCI research – studying the design of and engagement with technology – you might not know that conferences are top publication channels and have journal-like review processes. Thus, it can feel like the yearly research cycle revolves around conferences, with the height of the year being the Association for Computing Machinery’s Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference.

Submissions to CHI are typically due at the beginning of September, and the weeks leading up to the submission deadline have come to be known as “CHI season”. Prior to COVID-19, if you were at the Games Institute during CHI Season you would have seen the HCI groups participating in writing circles and pizza breaks during all hours of the day. How did they adapt this entirely virtual CHI Season?

HCI and Health Lab

“Online tools like Overleaf, Word365, and Google Docs have been so important as they allow multiple people to either work on the same document or have a shared point of reference when discussing part of a document,” says Robert Gauthier, graduate student in the HCI and Health Lab, which is led by Dr. Jim Wallace. “People have been super positive and flexible with using different platforms as needed for different tasks and looked beyond their personal preferences making collaborative work possible,” says Gauthier.

HCI Games Group

“I was on a couple of different papers, so I saw different types of collaboration and teamwork, across a variety of online tools,” says Katja Rogers, postdoctoral fellow with the HCI Games Group led by Dr. Lennart Nacke. Rogers, who is currently in Germany, says they used Slack, Zoom, Overleaf and Miro for co-writing. “I also really enjoyed the active online community. Despite the stress, people provided feedback and asked questions. Professors were very involved in the process, too, which was great.”

Karina Arrambide, graduate student in the HCI Games Group, offers another perspective on the virtual writing season: “I found that writing CHI papers in a virtual format was not entirely different as we used to collaborate before. However, meeting physically at the lab to discuss our projects is something that was definitely a huge change from previous CHI conferences. I think that teamwork and the ability to adapt to different online tools was something that we all had to learn, but luckily we helped each other and found ways to collaborate”.

UW Touchlab

During a regular CHI season, the UW Touchlab would host writing sprints for students. For COVID-19, director Dr. Mark Hancock used Teams to translate this format. “People could join in [the sprint] whenever they can and talk to other collaborators and push the work forward,” notes Milad Soroush, HCI Touchlab graduate student. “There are definitely some limitations when collaborating online, but overall this new approach we took was working well.”

“This CHI season was totally unlike previous CHI seasons,” says Cayley MacArthur, also from the HCI Touchlab, “we would be on a Teams call every day, Mark (our supervisor) included. We would be starting around 10:00am and would go at least until mid-afternoon if not longer most days. Mark would come back at 8pm and we would all just stay up and keep on writing. We could have another whole 6- or 7-hour meeting of just being together on Teams, working away, but also helping each other.” Drs. Daniel Harley and Oliver Schneider, faculty members from the larger HCI group, popped into these meetings as well to support collaborations and join in the fun.

Haptic Computing Lab

The Haptic Computing Lab led by Dr. Oliver Schneider used video calls to foster synchronous collaboration. “Throughout summer, we conducted user studies (with data from 348 participants!), made illustrations and content for the paper and thought it would be easy for us to combine it at the end. However, it took longer than expected and we worked pretty hard to submit the final piece,” says Suji Nivedita Sathiyamurthy, graduate student with HCL. “We got on a call for the last few hours and made corrections together. It was a really memorable experience. I loved the energy and adrenaline rush in the last few days”.

Though the labs look forward to next CHI Season in person, the circumstances of the pandemic led to great strategies they can take up again in the future. Not only did virtual writing accommodate collaborations with researchers in different time zones students were also able to feel solidarity with each other as they kept long hours, without even leaving home. Cayley MacArthur says, “It was really nice. After doing our research sprints online we realized how beneficial it would be to stick together through this”.

Learn more about the HCI research labs at the Games Institute by visiting these links:

CHI 2021 will be taking place online in May. Learn more about the conference at this link.

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