IASDR 2017

Some additional good news to report. I submitted an abstract for a short paper to the upcoming IASDR conference in Cincinnati about some early-stage research that I’m working on with Erik Stolterman, and the abstract has been accepted! So now we’re writing the short paper and creating a poster to present at the conference.

Here is the abstract we submitted:

Scholars in a variety of academic disciplines have studied the peer review process. There are examinations of the biases that pervade peer review (Lee, Sugimoto, Zhang, & Cronin, 2013). Other studies propose tools or methods that might be useful for improving or standardizing the peer review process (Hames, 2008; Onitilo, Engel, Salzman-Scott, Stankowski, & Doi, 2013). Still others examine the kinds of criteria that ought to be relied upon in peer review processes, and in some cases these criteria are widely known and agreed upon. In the natural sciences, for example, we might say that there is a relatively stable set of criteria that can be used to assess the rigor, relevance, and validity of a scientific knowledge contribution. In this paper, our aim is to examine the process of peer review as it pertains to research through design. We aspire to build an understanding of the criteria scholars use when a design or prototype is the main contribution. How do reviewers evaluate designs as knowledge contributions? Is there any uniformity or stability to the review criteria? Are criteria from other fields (e.g. scientific criteria) used to evaluate designs? Toward this end, we report the outcome of a survey conducted with a group of meta-reviewers (n=15) from the design subcommittee for the 2017 Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) Conference, which is the flagship conference in our field of expertise. The design subcommittee reviews papers that “make a significant designerly contribution to HCI [including but not limited to] novel designs of interactive products, services, or systems that advance the state of the art.” Our findings suggest that there is little agreement on a common set of criteria for evaluating research through design.

I look forward to sharing more as this important project moves forward!

New Journal Article

Terrific (not-so-new) news! She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation published an article I wrote with Erik Stolterman about whether knowledge claims could be a useful way to distinguish research communities from one another. Here is the abstract:

While much has been written about designerly knowledge and designerly ways of knowing in the professions, less has been written about the production and presentation of knowledge in the design discipline. In the present paper, we examine the possibility that knowledge claims might be an effective way to distinguish the design discipline from other disciplines. We compare the kinds of knowledge claims made in journal publications from the natural sciences, social sciences, and design. And we find that natural and social science publications tend to make singular knowledge claims of similar kinds whereas design publications often contain multiple knowledge claims of different kinds. We raise possible explanations for this pattern and its implications for design research.

… and a link to the article, which is freely available for download. I’d welcome any comments or feedback. This is part of a broader project investigating the transfer and interplay of knowledge in research communities.

Finally, DIS

After a few years of submitting papers to HCI venues and learning how to cope with rejection after rejection after rejection*, I finally managed to get one accepted at ACM Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) 2017.

It’s a full paper, and it’s the outcome of a collaboration with Erik Stolterman. Here’s the abstract:

What are big questions? Why do scholars propose them? How are they generated? Could they be valuable and useful in HCI research? In this paper we conduct a thorough review of “big questions” literature, which draws on scholarship from a variety of fields and disciplines. Our intended contribution is twofold. First, we provide a substantive review of big questions scholarship, which to our knowledge has never been done before. Second, we leverage this summary as a means of examining the value and utility of big questions in HCI as a research discipline. Whether HCI decides that generating and having big questions would be a desirable path forward, we believe that examining the potential for big questions is a useful way of becoming more reflective about HCI research.

I’ll add a link to the draft soon, so if you find the abstract intriguing please do check back to download the paper. Can’t wait to visit Edinburgh!

*If you’re looking for an entertaining text on rejection-proofing yourself, I highly recommend Rejection Proof.




James Baldwin is a wonderful writer. I’m working my way slowly through The Fire Next Time, and the following passage just punched me in the chest:

Here was the South Side – a million in captivity – stretching from this doorstep as far as the eye could see. Ands they didn’t even read; depressed populations don’t have the time or energy to spare. The affluent populations, which should have been their help, didn’t, as far as could be discovered, read, either – they merely bought books and devoured them, but not in order to learn: in order to learn new attitudes. (Baldwin, 1993 p. 61)

Never have I ever felt so nailed by a critique. Have I ever really read to learn? Or has it always been to learn new attitudes? What’s the difference between learning [x] and learning a new attitude? What sorts of books is Baldwin talking about? And how does Baldwin distinguish between learning and learning new attitudes?

This last question seems to me to be a consequential one, and I would love to know how Baldwin makes the distinction (and if he is on record explaining it anywhere, I would love to read/watch.. so please leave a comment if you know).

I quoted from the First Vintage International Edition of the book, published in 1993.

About The Theory-Practice Gap

I’ve been spending some time looking through the CHI best paper award winners from the past five years — all the while continuing to think about the theory-practice gap. And now I have a question. How is it that we distinguish between theorists and practitioners? Who is creating the knowledge that seems to lack practical utility or accessibility?

Just looking at the best papers, one might be struck by the volume of publications using theory, models, frameworks, etc. to do design work. And judging from the author credentials, there is quite a lot of industry collaboration, which makes me think that practitioners (if an academic/industry credential could be casually used to make this distinction) are not only using theory but they are in some cases actively contributing to it.

The theory-practice gap is simple, useful metaphor in the sense that it has guided researchers to ask interesting questions and pursue intriguing and insightful projects — think about things like intermediate-level knowledge objects — but the metaphor has been used for quite a long time (in HCI and in other disciplines) and I’m curious to know whether it has outlived its relevance in spite of its apparent utility.

The Problem of Problem-setting

One of the more interesting and recent questions I’ve been thinking about has to do with the theory-practice gap in HCI research. Now, I have very little interest at the moment in bridging the gap. And really there are plenty of folks in the field working on this problem. I’m more interested in the theory-practice gap itself.

I’m especially interested in the fact that when the gap appears in the literature it does so without much criticism or reflection. I haven’t come across any examples yet (in HCI literature) where the gap is discussed as an interpretation of data. Whereas other folks in different disciplines (nursing, for example) have discussed it in this way.

Some HCI practitioners report lacking time and other resources to spend on theory. Others disengage (or do not engage in the first place) with conferences like CHI or DIS because they are too theoretical. These sorts of ‘facts’ have been reported in journal and conference publications, and they have fueled characterizations of theory and practice as separated by a gap, as uneasy bedfellows, and even as seller and buyer.

Each of these ways of framing reality has implications for the kinds of questions researchers ask and the kinds of knowledge they generate in response to the problem. This is important. The problem is set. It’s made. It’s not given. So why don’t we as a discipline spend more time thinking about that?


Theoretical Adequacy in HCI Research

Theoretical adequacy is an concept that comes up in some form or another in various readings in the hci literature. More often than not, authors express concern that hci is currently (or soon-to-be) theoretically inadequate. But what does this mean?

What is theoretical adequacy? Is it the degree to which knowledge produced and published in a discipline is adopted and applied in a profession? Or does it refer to our production (or lack thereof) of scientific explanations of the phenomena we study? For the former, adequacy would be a high adoption and application of disciplinary knowledge in professions. And “theory” is really just another word for knowledge produced (primarily?) in a discipline. For the latter, adequacy could be a numbers game (how many theories do we produce?) or a utility game (do our theories have high scientific utility) or even an interest game (are the theories we generate interesting?).

Whatever meaning we choose, it seems reasonable to claim that theoretical adequacy is important. It seems important that we concern ourselves with the adoption of disciplinary knowledge in the professions (but maybe we should stop using the word ‘theory’ as shorthand for disciplinary knowledge since it does not describe all knowledge produced in the disciplines…). It also seems important that the theories we produce have a high degree of scientific utility or interest. But if I set out to address the applicability of disciplinary knowledge in the professions then I may set aside entirely my concern with scientific utility. Intention and meaning are intertwined, and this message gets lost in the literature.

We can’t hope to address theoretical adequacy without addressing its meaning.

The Theory Project

I’ve added some new pages — well one new page and a few revised page names — to the site! I’m really excited about the new page: the theory project. It is one of the outcomes of a research project that I’ve been involved in for the past couple years examining theory from various aspects.

So far we’ve been asking questions like (1) whether there can be scientific theories about the design process, (2) how theories are used in design research and hci research publications, (3) whether there can be theoretical cohesion or consensus in multidisciplinary fields of study, and (4) how researchers talk about the theory-practice gap.

Last year we started publishing some of the outcomes of this work and more are on the way this year!

But in the interest of sharing some of the resources that we have accumulated and maybe kindling some interest from potential collaborators, I’ve gone ahead and created a page containing 250ish texts that form a substantial collection of readings on theory. If you’re interested in theory (its meanings, the implications of these meanings for research and practice, etc.) then check out the bibliography and get in touch so that we can talk more about this relevant and fascinating topic.

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