Theory Use has not been framed as an HCI Problem

design, design research, HCI, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, knowledge production, knowledge tools, research, science, scientific method, theory, theory building, theory development

Theory in HCI research appears to be of interest to a number of researchers working in the field. Theory use, which refers to the different roles or functions theory may play in scholarly research or publishing, is one way of exploring the topic, but, in my view, neither topic has been framed as an HCI problem.

Each has been framed as a problem of maturity (or, more accurately, one of immaturity) and, perhaps more recently, as a problem of identity. But these framings transcend the field of HCI research. They are (and have been) relevant to many other academic disciplines.

To the extent that HCI is grappling with its maturity (or immaturity) and/or its identity as an intellectual community, theory and theory use are relevant topics of study. But they have not been formulated or engaged with in terms of human-computer interaction. Such a formulation will be a necessary, good step forward in the discourse.



design, design research, HCI, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, Informatics, research, science, scientific method, Uncategorized

Research has the potential to move in many different directions. There are constraints, sure. But regardless of where one starts, multiple paths reveal themselves at each step. Choosing a path is crucial for making progress. Moreover, revisiting and refining the intentions motivating one’s travels down a particular path is important. There is always value in asking why we’re doing the work we’re doing. Asking and answering this question is like steering the rudder on a boat.


the future of hci research

HCI, hci research, knowledge production, knowledge tools, peer review, philosophy of science, quality control, science, scientific method

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.