Stephann co-chairs 1st international conference of the Serendipity Society

posted Nov 5, 2019, 4:41 AM by Stephann Makri   [ updated Nov 5, 2019, 4:45 AM ]

On 5th and 6th September 2019 Stephann co-chaired the 1st international conference of SerSoc - The Serendipity Society, alongside Wendy Ross from Kingston University London and SerSoc chairs Samantha Copeland and Lori McCay-Peet. This was the first inter-disciplinary conference on serendipity, with participants from a broad range of disciplines - from Psychology and Human-Computer Interaction, to Information Science, Philosophy, and Creativity and Innovation Studies.

Aside from traditional presentations, discussions and workshops the conference also featured some unconventional activities befitting a conference on serendipity. These included a serendipity 'walk and talk' that involved discussing key research challenges while on the move and using environmental triggers to shape the conversation and a discussion that aimed to identify unexplored overlaps in participants' research interests.

For more information about SerSoc - The Serendipity Society, visit

Stephann gives keynote at OzCHI 2018

posted Dec 17, 2018, 9:47 AM by Stephann Makri   [ updated Dec 17, 2018, 9:53 AM ]

In December 2018, Stephann gave the opening keynote at the 30th Australian Conference on Human-Computer Interaction. Stephann presented his work on serendipitous information acquisition, using the conference theme 'physical, digital, interactive, human' to frame his talk.

In the keynote talk, Stephann argued that serendipity researchers may have "fallen into a recursive trap" by suggesting it is possible to 'create opportunities' for serendipity through design without systematising it to the point it loses meaning. He argued that "even attempting to systematise something that makes any attempt at recommending, suggesting, even nudging users may be trying to capture something that is too elusive."

An excerpt from his keynote follows:

"I am not concerned if some users become habituated to positive outcomes, as at least they are obtaining them. But I fundamentally question the premise that serendipity, as complex and context-dependent as it is, can be adequately modelled with today’s and even tomorrow’s capabilities. Even now that we are beginning to see recommender algorithms being built based on information theory, the tendency has been to try to ‘boil down’ serendipity into constituent components such as novelty and usefulness without attempting to model the user, information or environment context. This can potentially be done through user interest profiling, search history tracking, and perhaps behaviour tracking and analytics.

As the models become more and more sophisticated, perhaps some designers (and designs) will try to convince us that we actually needed ‘serendipity on a plate’ after all. And perhaps some will reject the urge to systematise it altogether and instead opt to design exploratory browse-based interfaces where the only ‘intelligence’ involves identifying patterns and anomalies as prompts to encourage users in making their own meaningful connections. Many may be starting to believe the AI hype again after decades of good old-fashioned disillusionment. But I’m not sure if AI can ever get to the stage where it can guarantee a user has not yet seen a piece of information, had a particular insight already or will find particular information interesting or useful. Future designers must reflect on whether they continue to design without such guarantees, or shift most or all of the connection-making ‘intelligence’ to the user.

Both approaches run the risk of systems never reaching their maximum serendipity potential. The former may potentially frustrate users by presenting them with information they already knew or does not turn out to be useful, the latter may potentially frustrate users by making them do all the work, in the name of providing them with maximum agency."

Stephann runs 'serendipty by design' masterclass to widen university participation

posted Mar 21, 2018, 12:23 PM by Stephann Makri   [ updated Mar 21, 2018, 12:26 PM ]

In March 2018, Stephann ran a 'masterclass' on 'serendipity by design' to London college students who were considering studying a degree in Computer Science. All attendees had experienced some level of educational disadvantage during their schooling (first in family to higher education, refugee status, disability, in care or a care giver etc.) and so are underrepresented at university level.

Part of the session involved the students designing a novel mobile app prototype for encouraging unexpected and useful (potentially serendipitous) connections between people, information or ideas. They presented some great prototypes, including an app that encourages users to broaden their food horizons by recommending restaurants with cuisines they have not tried before and an app that helps users burst their online news 'filter bubble.'

Stephann commented:

"I was delighted to take part in this event, where Year 12 and 13 pupils from a mix of schools and backgrounds worked together to apply research ideas from a mini-lecture on 'serendipity by design' into the the design of a novel mobile app prototoype. They shared some brilliant app ideas for connecting people, places and information in unexpected ways. There's nothing academics want more than to enthuse the next-generation of students. I could see that this session ignited a passion for Computer Science  among several pupils and I hope they'll consider City, University of London as their top choice when applying to study it at university. I felt energised by the excitement in the room and I hope the pupils enjoyed this taster of university teaching as much as I did."

Stephann participates in ASIS&T panel on 'Research perspectives in serendipity and information encountering' in Copenhagen

posted Nov 16, 2016, 4:05 AM by Stephann Makri

In October 2016, Stephann participated in a discussion panel on 'Research perspectives in serendipity and information encountering' at the Assiciation for Information Science and Technology annual conference in Copenhagen. The panel comprised inter-disciplinary researchers in serendipity and information encountering, including Lennart Björneborn from the University of Copenhagen, Naresh Agarwal from Simmons College, Elaine Toms from the University of Sheffield, Jannica Heinström from Åbo Akademi University, Sanda Erdelez from the University of Missouri and Jamshid Beheshti from McGill University.

The panel included discussion on how serendipity in the context of information acquisition could be best understood, captured and designed for. There was enthusiasm about the potential for serendipity and information encountering to enhance the lives of users of digital information environments - by helping them to discover useful information unexpectedly.

Stephann participates in debate on 'The Serendipity Engine - How to bring the unexpected online'

posted Jun 21, 2016, 10:19 AM by Stephann Makri   [ updated Jun 21, 2016, 10:22 AM ]

On 8th June 2016, Stephann Participated in a debate hosted by Westminster Reference Library on how digital technologies can be best designed to support serendipity on the Web. The debate 'The Serendipity Engine - How to bring the unexpected online' explored the benefits and drawbacks of supporting serendipity online and how to encourage a mindset that is conducive to 'happy online accidents.' The debate also featured Dr Eitan Buchalter - Senior Anthropologist at global innovation consultancy Idea Couture.

Stephann judges ASIS&T student design competition in St Louis, USA

posted Nov 16, 2015, 3:48 AM by Stephann Makri

On Tuesday 10th November, Stephann was one of the judges of the Association for Information Science and Technology's student design competition in St Louis, Missouri. He judged the competition alongside the University of Western Ontario's Anabel Quan-Haase and Victoria Rubin and Florida State University's Gary Burnett. This year's theme of designing to create opportunities for serendipity resulted in lots of hard work and highly-creative designs all-round. Well done to all the students involved!

Stephann's research features in ABC 'Future Tense' radio programme

posted Nov 4, 2015, 2:20 PM by Stephann Makri   [ updated Nov 4, 2015, 2:30 PM ]

On 20th October 2015 City University London’s Lecturer in Information Interaction, Dr Stephann Makri and his research featured in an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) radio programme exploring the topic of supporting serendipity in search and discovery tools.

 Dr. Stephann Makri discussed the joys and pitfalls of designing online tools that assist users in ‘seeking serendipity’ in an episode of the technology programme Future Tense, presented by award-winning broadcaster Anthony Funnell on ABC Australia.

Alongside author and former MIT researcher Kevin Ashton, King’s College London Research Fellow Toby Burrows, and West Australian entrepreneur Brodie McCulloch, Dr Makri described the value of serendipity in information search and discovery:

 “It’s something that can take people in new directions and can surprise and delight them along the way. And I think that serendipity is actually a really positive component of User Experience”.

On the radio programme, Dr Makri examines ways search engines can ‘create opportunities’ for serendipity, taking inspiration from Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who envisages the technology giant moving from a search engine to a discovery engine.

To listen to the radio programme, click here and select either ‘listen now’ or ‘download audio.'

'Serendipity on the Shelves' - Sat 3rd Oct. Barbican & Clapham libraries

posted Sep 29, 2015, 2:22 PM by Stephann Makri   [ updated Sep 29, 2015, 2:23 PM ]

Want to have more 'happy accidents' in the library? Dr. Stephann Makri and MSc Human-Centred Systems student Shermaine Waugh will be running a 'Serendipity on the Shelves' event at Barbican and Clapham libraries on Sat. 3rd Oct. as part of the 'Fun Palaces' initiative. The event, which run from 10-11 and 11-12 at Barbican and from 2-3 and 3-4 at Clapham libraries will include a short tutorial from Stephann on how to 'seek serendipity' on the library shelves - featuring a number of 'serendipity strategies' from his research. Visitors will then be given the opportunity to try out these strategies in the library.

Please do come along!

For more information, see:

Stephann gives invited talk on relationship between Architecture and UX at ARCLIC 2015

posted Jul 13, 2015, 12:04 AM by Stephann Makri

Stephann has given an invited talk on the relationship between Architecture, User Experience and Information Interaction at ARCLIB 2015 ( In the talk, Stephann discussed parallels between themes raised in Alain De Botton's seminal book on the nature and history of architecture ('The Architecture of Happiness' - and those that drive UX and Information Interaction. Here's an excerpt from the talk:

People focus

What do Architecture, User Experience and Information Interaction have in common? A focus on people.
More specifically, a focus on understanding people and their needs and designing physical or digital spaces based on this understanding in order to meet those needs. There is a shared ethos that permeates across these design disciplines – an ethos where we make design interventions not for the purpose of creating something novel or cool (that might happen as a by-product), but in order to support peoples’ important tasks. Just as an Architect might design a home to facilitate efficient living – with rooms to support important householder activities such as eating, sleeping, bathing and relaxing, an Information Architect might design the navigation element of a homepage to facilitate efficient orientation and wayfinding – with a structure and labelling to support important user activities such as searching for something specific, or browsing for something not-so specific. A User Experience Designer might design user interface and interaction elements to ensure ease of use. All of these designers share one common ethos – to make peoples’ lives easier and that is an ethos that drives me personally – it’s what makes me get out of bed in the morning.

Defining success

One theme in The Architecture of Happiness involves defining success. De Botton states:

“We have to confront the vexed point on which so much of the history of architecture pivots. We have to ask what exactly a beautiful building might look like” (pp. 25-26).

Analogous questions for User Experience Design are: How do we define success? What will make our digital tools useful? What about usable, or likely to be used? There is no guarantee that asking ourselves these questions about the digital information tools we design will result in successful tools. But defining success criteria as part of the design process allows us to reflect on what our users need and to what extent we are meeting those needs.

Suggesting, not prescribing

The next theme I want to talk about is architecture’s tendency to make suggestions rather than prescribe solutions:

“Architecture… offers suggestions instead of making laws. It invites, rather than orders, us to emulate its spirit and cannot prevent its own abuse” (p. 20).

The same applies to User Experience Design; rather than prescribe specific design solutions aimed at ensuring a digital tool is useful or usable, we make suggestions based on design guidelines – guidelines which we do not apply blindly and uniformly, but adopt and adapt for our particular purpose.

Information professionals as designers

An important message delivered by De Botton is the importance of architects appreciating the challenges associated with design:

“It is only when we try our own hand at construction that we are initiated into the torments associated with persuading materials and other humans to co-operate with our designs, with ensuring that two pieces of glass will be joined in a neat line, that a lamp will hang symmetrically over the stairs, that a boiler will light up when it should or that concrete pillars will marry a roof without complaint” (p. 15).

Similarly, it’s only when a User Experience Designer moves beyond making design suggestions to actually designing digital tools that they can fully appreciate the constraints they face. But this message also applies to information professionals; I would urge you to ‘become a designer’ – by gaining a greater appreciation of the role and importance of User Experience Design when developing digital information tools and perhaps even designing a wireframe or two to give you a feel for it.

Putting users first: Making the case

Finally, De Botton delivers another important message; that we must fly the flag for good design. He concedes:

“Architecture will always compete poorly with utilitarian demands for humanity’s resources. How hard it is to make a case for the cost of tearing down and rebuilding a mean but serviceable street. How awkward to have to defend, in the face of more tangible needs, the benefits of realigning a crooked lamppost or replacing an ill-matched window frame” (p.18).

So our job is to make a compelling case for putting users first when we design digital information tools, or any type of interactive system for that matter. Our job is to convince the sceptics of the importance of fulfilling user needs – to convince them that designing useful, usable tools makes sound business sense. That time and money spent improving early prototypes as a result of user testing is worthwhile – that the investment will yield a strong return. ‘Evaluate early, evaluate often’ certainly has a price tag attached. But it would be a far greater cost to have to re-develop a tool from scratch because users did not find it useful or easy to use. This is a cost Microsoft are currently paying with Windows 8. Luckily for us, we get an upgrade to Windows 10 for free!

Stephann is LIKEd by the London Information and Knowledge Exchange

posted Oct 29, 2014, 4:04 AM by Stephann Makri

In his first talk hosted at a pub, Stephann discussed strategies for 'seeking' serendipity and how we might support them in both physical and digital libraries. Stephann asked LIKE to share their serendipity stories and discuss novel ways that digital information environments might support users in unexpectedly discovering useful information.

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