More about the workshop

Background to the workshop

Serendipity is generally considered to involve discoveries that are unexpected, surprising and fortuitous - a “unique and contingent mix of insight coupled with chance” [1]. Many important scientific and engineering discoveries have been attributed to serendipity, from Inkjet printers to Insulin and from Velcro to Viagra.

While not usually life-changing like Fleming’s discovery of Penicillin, we often make serendipitous discoveries (that involve a mix of chance and insight and lead to a valuable outcome) – particularly when interacting with information and people.  For example, consider finding a useful article for a paper you are currently writing while researching a different topic entirely, meeting someone with mutual business or research interests in an unlikely place (e.g. at a conference on a different subject), or applying for a job position after being approached by a company that notices your enthusiastic tweets on Twitter.

Although there have been a few empirical studies aimed at understanding serendipity (e.g. [3, 4, 5]), these studies have not informed the design of interactive systems. Similarly, existing systems aimed at encouraging serendipity (e.g. [6, 7, 8]) seem to be hit and miss attempts that are system rather than user-focused.

Interactive systems cannot directly ‘induce’ serendipity. Indeed, it can be argued that even ‘designing to encourage’ it is an oxymoron; as soon as serendipity is ‘engineered’ into a system, discoveries might cease to be regarded as serendipitous (even if they lead to a valuable outcome). This is because the system is likely to reduce the amount of chance and insight involved in the serendipitous discovery simply by helping to encourage it. Indeed, it has been argued that current technology actually reduces the potential for serendipitous discovery by over-encouraging efficiency and specificity [2].

So how, when we design future interactive systems, can we harness the potential of this fleeting concept? How can we best design interactive systems that surprise and delight users without devaluing users’ perceptions of the role of chance or insight? And how can we best evaluate the success of the systems we design if by designing to encourage serendipity, we might actually make the resultant discoveries appear to be less serendipitous than if they had been made without our assistance? With these tensions in mind, this workshop will identify key requirements and research challenges for designing and evaluating user-centred systems that aim to encourage serendipity.

Workshop focus and objectives

The aim of this workshop is to encourage discussion among people from HCI and other related disciplines (e.g. Design, Engineering, Psychology, Information Science, Information Retrieval, Computer Science, and Management) who share an interest in the user-focused design and evaluation of interactive systems that facilitate serendipity. Whilst there is a continuum of existing definitions from accidental to sagacious [9], the aim of the workshop is to scope out the conceptual space surrounding serendipity. Indeed, workshop participants’ definitions of serendipity are bound to overlap and will not only provide us with a holistic understanding of serendipity and the conceptual space surrounding it, but also identify commonalties and points of departure to encourage knowledge-sharing and collaboration.

Workshop themes

The workshop will be structured by the three user-focused themes of: 1) understanding serendipity to inform design 2) designing to facilitate serendipity and 3) evaluating the success of interactive systems aimed at facilitating serendipity.


In order to design for serendipity we need to better understand this complex phenomenon. The complexity of serendipity is often masked by associating it only with the informational content of the trigger – unexpected, divergent information. But what do we know or need to know about the conditions that stimulate serendipitous interactions? Are there other components of serendipity that we need to understand that would help support the whole process of serendipity? For example, it is widely acknowledged that serendipity is not necessarily instantaneous, but rather requires a period of incubation [10]. What other components of serendipity should we explore and how do all of these components fit together? And further, what methodological frameworks and approaches would allow us to better translate an understanding of serendipity into more specific recommendations for systems design?  


Based on what we know about serendipity, how can we implement design so that conditions are optimum for serendipity to occur? In the past 20 years there have been two types of systems aimed at supporting serendipity: 1) those that put the opportunity for chance discovery in the foreground but require a more active interaction approach (e.g. visualisations), and 2) those that put the opportunity for chance discovery in the background (e.g. recommender systems) [9, 11]. What is the current state-of-the art in relation to designing these types of systems to enable serendipity? And what other types of systems encourage or might be designed to encourage serendipity?


Finally, we will focus on the evaluation of systems designed to facilitate serendipity. Serendipity is difficult to induce in research studies, whether in a lab during a single session [12] or in a more natural setting over a period of months [13]. With this significant challenge (plus the fleeting nature of serendipity once engineered into a system) in mind, can we expect to isolate serendipitous episodes within systems use? If so, how do we “measure” the effect of that serendipitous incident on users? Are there other approaches and criteria we could use to judge the success of serendipity-inducing interactive systems?

Workshop schedule (subject to some amendment)

9:00-09:45 - Plenary: Introduction to the Workshop and 1 minute introductions by each participant, focusing on serendipity-related interests. Each participant asked to mention which of the 3 workshop themes they are most interested in. Aim: Getting to know each other. This will be followed by the organisers presenting a summary of the issues presented in the serendipity-related research interests and examples present in attendees' position papers, structured according to the 3 workshop themes. Aim: Getting an overview of the important issues. Followed by morning break.

10:15-12:00 – Group discussions: Multi-disciplinary groups of 3-4 (chosen by the organisers based on the attendee’s research interests) will sub-divide by the 3 workshop themes to discuss the current state-of-the-art for understanding serendipity, designing to encourage it and evaluating the success of interactive systems that aim to encourage it. Aim: Getting a detailed understanding of the current state-of-the-art and associated research issues.

12:00-13:00 - Plenary: Presentations from each group summarising issues related to each theme and links across themes will be discussed as a whole group. Aim: Communicating the current state-of-the-art and associated research issues to the workshop. Followed by lunch.

14:00-15:45 – Group design activity: After lunch, a group design activity will allow participants to consider how serendipity might be enabled by future technologies. Individuals will be asked to think of a novel interactive tool or system aimed at encouraging serendipity, then pair up with someone from a different institution with a similar/complementary idea. The process will be repeated to form groups of 4 and these groups asked to devise a scenario of how their tool/system might be used and reflect on the key requirements and research challenges highlighted by their scenario for understanding serendipity and designing and evaluating systems aimed at encouraging it. Includes 30 minute afternoon break. Aim: Considering and applying the research issues identified in the morning session to the design of future technologies.

15:45-17:00 –Plenary: Presentation of designs. This will be followed by a discussion and synthesis of possible future research directions. Aim: Communicating designs to workshop group and mapping out future research directions. Followed by optional group dinner.

Potential attendees

In line with this year's conference theme of 'building bridges,' we would like to  encourage attendees from a mix of HCI and related 
disciplines (e.g. Design, Psychology,
Information Retrieval, Information Science, Computer Science) who share an interest in the
user-focused design and evaluation of interactive systems that aim to encourage
serendipity. We would also like to encourage
attendees from both academia and industry.

Expected workshop outcomes

The current approaches and research challenges identified for each workshop theme and future research directions will be summarised on the site and will form the basis of an article to be submitted to ACM Communications and one aimed at communicating our findings to practitioners to a magazine such as Interactions. Update:  Accepted position papers will be published in workshop proceedings and distributed to attendees by e-mail before the workshop and in hard-copy at the workshop. We will also post the proceedings on the workshop website.


[1]    Fine, G. & Deegan, J. (1996). Three Principles of Serendip: Insight, Chance, and Discovery in Qualitative Research. Qualitative Studies in Education 9(4), pp. 434-447.

[2]    Danzico, L. (2010). The Design of Serendipity is Not by Chance. Interactions 17(5), pp. 16-18.

[3]    Foster, A. & Ford, N. (2003). Serendipity and Information Seeking: An Empirical Study. Journal of Documentation 59(3), pp. 321-340.

[4]    Erdelez, S. (2005). Information Encountering. In Fisher, K., Erdelez S., & McKechnie, E. (Eds.) Theories of Information Behavior. Medford, NJ. Info. Today.

[5]    Leong, T.W., Vetere, F. & Howard, S. (2008). Choice: Abdicating or Exercising. In Proceedings of CHI’08, 715-724. Florence, Italy. ACM Press.

[6]    André, P., Teevan, J. & Dumais, S.T. (2009). From X-Rays to Silly Putty via Uranus: Serendipity and its Role in Web Search. In Proceedings of CHI’09, 2033-2036. Boston, MA. ACM Press.

[7]    Beale, R. (2007). Supporting Serendipity: Using Ambient Intelligence to Augment User Exploration for Data Mining and Web Browsing. IJHCS 65(5), 421-433.

[8]    Toms, E. G., & McCay-Peet, L. (2009). Chance Encounters in the Digital Library. In Agosti, M., Borbinha, J., Kapidakis,s.,  Papatheodorou, C. & Tsakonas, G. (Eds.), LNCS: Research and Advanced Technology for Digital Libraries, (Vol. 5714, 192-202). Berlin; New York: Springer-Verlag.

[9]    André, P., schrafel, m.c., Teevan., J. & Dumais, S.T. (2009). Discovery is Never by Chance: Designing for (Un)Serendipity. In Proceedings of Creativity and Cognition, 305-314. Berkley, CA. ACM Press.

[10]  McCay-Peet, L. & Toms, E. G. 2010. The Process of Serendipity in Knowledge Work. In Proceedings of the Third Symposium on Information Interaction in Context (New Brunswick, NJ, USA), 377-382. ACM Press.

[11]  Bellotti, V., Begole, J., Chi, E.H., Ducheneaut, N., Fang, J, Isaacs, E., King, T.H., Newman, M., Partridge, K., Price, R., Rasmussen, P., Roberts, M., Schiano, D.J. & Walendowski, A. (2008). Activity-Based Serendipitous Recommendations with the Magitti Mobile Leisure Guide. In Proceedings CHI’08, Florence, Italy, 1157-1166. ACM Press.

[12]  Erdelez, S. (2004). Investigation of Information Encountering in the Controlled Research Environment. Information Processing & Management 40(6), 1013-25.

[13]  Sawaizumi, S., Katai, O., Kawakami, H., & Shiose, T. (2007). Using the Concept of Serendipity in Education. Paper presented at the KICSS 2007: The Second International Conference on Knowledge, Information and Creativity Support Systems, Nomi, Ishikawa, Japan.