the future of hci research


My PhD advisor, Erik Stolterman, recently penned a blog post called hci research and the problems with the scientific method. It’s a good post and you should read it. It was motivated by a New Yorker article written a few years ago about the ‘decline effect’ in science, which refers to the phenomenon wherein at-first positive results of scientific experimentation decline over time. I’m simplifying here, but you can read more about it in the New Yorker piece itself or the Wikipedia page on the decline effect.

In any event, this article led Erik to speculate about the implications of this ‘problem’ with the scientific method for hci research, a field grappling with a dilemma that he describes as “[stemming] from a shared view that HCI is not really a scientific enterprise while at the same time scientific research is still valued and rewarded.” He then speculates about how hci will develop in relation to science and expresses optimism about where the field will go, and here is where my thinking picks up the thread.

His last paragraph makes me think about the possibility of greater diffusion of the field and what that means for something like ‘quality control,’ in other words, “the criteria to assess the quality of the work and the teams that carry it out,” in hci research. I’m using Gibbens et al.’s definition of quality control from their book ‘the new production of knowledge’.

Anyway, when he writes that hci research could move in the direction of science ‘or’ the humanities ‘or’ design, I wonder whether that means that one of those paths will be dominant. For instance, if hci moves towards a more scientific tradition, that could mean that the humanistic and design traditions become ‘lesser research traditions’ within hci research. And if one of the traditions becomes more dominant, then quality control seems like it might be less of an issue since science and the humanities, at least, have rich histories and rigorous ways of evaluating research contributions. This might not be so true of design research.

But of course there doesn’t have to be a dominant path, and maybe a dominant path is impossible in hci research. Say hci continues to diffuse towards each of the traditions and maybe even, as he mentions, towards some new ones. That there ceases to be a dominant approach probably means that quality control becomes more context-dependent, temporary, and fluid, descriptors I’m borrowing (again) from Gibbens et al.

With respect to the dilemma he describes, denying that hci is a scientific enterprise while simultaneously valuing and rewarding scientific research, i think the possible “diffuse” future encourages a resolution characterized by valuing and rewarding scientific research, humanistic research, design research, and maybe to spend more time thinking about the relationship between these different traditions.

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