HCIR 2012: A Personal Report

Human-computer information retrieval (HCIR) is the study of information retrieval techniques that integrate human intelligence and algorithmic search to help people explore, understand, and use information. Since 2007, the HCIR Symposium (previously known as the HCIR Workshop) has provided a venue for the theoretical and practical study of HCIR. We even inspired an EuroHCIR workshop across the pond that started in 2011 and is going strong.


The Sixth Symposium on Human-Computer Interaction and Information Retrieval (HCIR 2012) took place on October 4th and 5th at IBM Research in Cambridge, MA. The 75 attendees represented a cross-section of HCIR research and practice. Over a third of the attendees were from industry — including startups and large technology firms. We had a similar diversity of sponsors, benefiting from the generosity of FXPAL, IBM Research, LinkedIn, Mendeley, Microsoft Research, MIT CSAIL, and Oracle. And we had participants from 6 countries: Canada, Germany, Israel, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United States.


We started the Symposium with a keynote from UC Berkeley professor Marti Hearst, a pioneer in the area of search user interfaces, as well as a prominent researcher of information visualization, natural language processing, and social media analysis. Marti set the tone for the symposium with a visionary keynote that she entitled her “Halloween Cauldron of Ideas for Research”.

She started by talking about the unaddressed seams of sensemaking, reminding us that information seeking is only one part of an overall sensemaking process. She used the challenge of saving and personally organizing search results as an example of a neglected but crucial part of a search interface.

She then challenged us to think about how audio could be used in search interfaces. She cited a study showing that programmers comment their code better when the commenting interface uses speech rather than the keyboard. She then challenged us to consider how auditory notification or feedback could enhance the search experience.

Finally, she presented the idea of “radical collaboration”, offering as an example the use of Mechanical Turk to crowdsource vacation planning. The plans were tested by real tourists, who were delighted with the results.

Marti’s keynote was not only insightful and entertaining (one of her slides featured brain cupcakes!), but notable in how much she engaged all of us in discussion throughout her presentation. This approach was especially appropriate for an HCIR Symposium, given our emphasis on human interaction. For more detail about the keynote, I recommend Gene Golovchinsky’s summary.

Short Paper Presentations

After a coffee break, we had a session devoted to 5 short papers. Each presenter had 10 minutes: 5 minutes to present and 5 minutes for discussion.

The short presentation format was extremely effective, encouraging presenters to communicate their ideas efficiently and leaving ample time for discussion.

Posters and Demos

As in previous years, we followed lunch with a vibrant session for posters and demos. Some of the more popular poster themes included question answering, task difficulty, and collaborative information seeking. Here is the full list of poster / demo presentations:

Full Paper Presentations

The full paper presentations were split into two sessions, the first held on the 4th and the second held on the 5th. Each presentation slot was 30 minutes. The full papers will be made available soon through the ACM Digital Library.

  • University of Magdeburg student Marcus Nitsche presented “Knowledge Journey: A Web Search Interface for Young Users”, joint work with Tatiana Gossen and Andreas Nürnberger. The authors performed a study in which they found that children liked having personalized avatars that offer guidance, a wheel-shaped browsing menu, and a coverflow-style results presentation. It will be interesting to see how their study holds up in larger-scale user studies, and whether adults like some of these interface elements too.
  • Oregon State University professor Carlos Jensen presented “Leyline: Provenance-Based Search Using a Graphical Sketchpad”, joint work with Seyedsoroush Ghorashi. I was intrigued to see a search approach focused entirely on provenance — that is, the history of a document’s ownership and transformations. I’m particularly curious about this area, since I’m a committee member for Aleatha Parker-Wood, who is pursuing a dissertation on “Making Sense of File Systems Through Provenance and Rich Metadata“.
  • University of Waterloo professor Mark Smucker presented joint work with Charlie Clarke on “Modeling User Variance in Time-Biased Gain”. Their simulation-based approach produced distributions of gain that agree with distributions produced by real users. By emphasizing the effect size of differences, their approach could help uncover how much the performance differences among systems matter to real users.
  • Finally, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Barbara Wildemuth and University of British Columbia professor Luanne Freund delivered a highly interactive presentation on “Assigning Search Tasks Designed to Elicit Exploratory Search Behaviors”. They performed an extensive survey of information exploration literature to identify concepts that authors have used to characterize exploratory search tasks. They tested examples on the audience to see how well we agreed with their characterization and with one another.

HCIR Challenge

With Friday morning came the most anticipated event of the Symposium: the HCIR Challenge. The Challenge is now in its third year: the 2010 Challenge focused on historical exploration of news using the New York Times Annotated Corpus; the 2011 Challenge focused on the problem of information availability using the CiteSeer digital library of scientific literature.

This year, we turned to the problem of people and expertise finding, a topic of obvious personal interest. We are grateful to Mendeley for providing this year’s corpus: a database of over a million researcher profiles with associated metadata including published papers, academic status, disciplines, awards, and more taken from Mendeley’s network of 1.6M+ researchers and 180M+ academic documents.

We asked participants to build systems that could perform three kinds of tasks:

  1. Hiring. Given a job description, produce a set of suitable candidates for the position.
  2. Assembling a Conference Program. Given a conference’s past history, produce a set of suitable candidates for keynotes, program committee members, etc. for the conference.
  3. Finding People to deliver Patent Research or Expert Testimony. Given a patent, produce a set of suitable candidates who could deliver relevant research or expert testimony for use in a trial. These people can be further segmented, e.g., students and other practitioners might be good at the research, while more senior experts might be more credible in high-stakes litigation.

Each of the 5 teams was given 30 minutes to present.

THE WINNER: Virtu! The competition was fierce, but Virtu stood out for the compelling approach it took to offering users control over the expert-finding process. Congratulations to Luanne, Kristof, and their colleagues for their outstanding work and well-deserved honor.


After we wrapped up the first day of the Symposium, we walked over to the nearby Technique, a restaurant in the Athenaeum Press building (home to two of Endeca’s offices in our early years) where students of Le Cordon Bleu practice their culinary skills. I’m no master chef, but I certain hope these students earned excellent grades for their performance. We enjoyed a delightful sampling of wines, appetizers, main courses, and desserts.


HCIR has been getting better every year, and this year was no exception. Many attendees in previous years had felt that the one-day format made the event feel rushed, and expanding to a second day took off much of the time pressure. We had ample opportunity for discussion, during the presentations as well as at the coffee breaks and reception. Finally, the Challenge was our best yet, eliciting extraordinary results from the five participating teams.

I’m proud of how far we’ve taken HCIR in these six years, and especially grateful to co-organizers Robert CapraGene GolovchinskyBill KulesCatherine Smith, and Ryen White.

Time to start thinking about HCIR 2013!

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

3 replies on “HCIR 2012: A Personal Report”

Comments are closed.