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.

 

Adolescence as a Metaphor for HCI

design, design research, design theory, HCI, hci research, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, Informatics, theory, theory building, theory development, theory-practice gap

Early in the book HCI Theory, Yvonne Rogers takes a few pages to establish that research in the field is rapidly expanding/diversifying and that it’s difficult to pin down just what kind of field HCI is and what kind of research academics who identify as “HCI researchers” do. Somewhere in those first few pages, she characterizes the field as being in its adolescence and there are other bits of language that support this metaphor (e.g. she describes its “growing pains” etc.). It’s not part of her aim to spend time examining the metaphor of adolescence in any kind of depth, but some of the key ideas in the book make exploring the metaphor seems like a good use of time.

Consider the concerns she expresses over the weakening theoretical adequacy of the field. For now let’s assume this means the degree to which HCI has developed theories that explain or describe its core objects of study. Let’s also assume HCI knows/agrees upon what it’s core objects of study are. Is it reasonable to expect that a field born in the eighties to be theoretically adequate? No. But this strikes me as a totally reasonable adolescent expectation!

I don’t think HCI researchers know what their core objects of study are (or should be), but, riffing on the adolescent metaphor, why should it? Is it because we indulge an almost mythical narrative about how life is supposed to unfold? Should we expect to have our core interests “defined” or “figured out” in our adolescence? I don’t think so, but I know that’s a dominant mental model… in Western culture at least.

In adolescence we experience what HCI has been experiencing — a proliferation (in both volume and speed) of information. Tons of different things to study and different ways of studying them. One result of this is the anxious self reflection that our research doesn’t seem to fit or that everyone else seems to have their role and contribution figured out “except me.” And it can be (and obviously is, for some) overwhelming.

I had a good chat with some colleagues recently about trying to pin down a reading list of canonical HCI texts. But the truth is that there probably isn’t (a) canon nor can there be (one). But a canon is exactly what an adolescent craves because a canon provides identity and, through identity, stability. In other words, a canon provides reassurance that when the time comes, we’ll be able to point to it and say, “This is the foundation of our field.” We know who we are and where we come from and maybe even where we’re going. This arc is reflected in how Rogers organizes her book. Just read the abstract and table of contents. She wants to provide this!

And this, again, is what most need when they’re young (myself included).  The world can seem a complex and scary place without the presence of a few useful frames to make sense of it all. And when it all comes at you so fast and in such high volume, maybe it’s quite a reasonable reaction to retreat and reflect. To try and find the core. The foundation. But things only seem/appear/feel dim if we focus on the parts of the metaphor that Rogers’ brings into focus.

Incidentally, the same thing happens with the theory-practice gap metaphor. We focus on what’s not there and as a consequence we never look elsewhere to see what’s going on.

For the adolescent metaphor (and its apparently generalizable ‘identity crisis’) we don’t stop to think, “Huh, well, what comes after adolescence?” Potentially a lot of really excellent deep insights and cool theoretical work! In fact, lots of cool stuff like this happens during adolescence, too. That much is also clear from Rogers’ text even if it paints an unsettling picture to begin with.. So, sure, the short term might — and I’m really emphasizing the might here — might seem like a confusing mix of questions, approaches, and contributions coming so quickly that we feel validated in our concern that the field is spinning out of control. But, that’s what adolescence is for most folks.

There is a ton of interesting theory work going on in the field! We’re developing theories originating in other fields and we’re developing our own! Check out the theory project page for some good citations. I can understand why someone might choose to frame the field in terms of weakening theoretical adequacy even though I disagree with it. Its negative charge is too strong. It strikes me as a “let’s be reactive and protect against this outcome from happening” instead of a “Let’s cultivate the good theory work that’s already happening.” Yvonne Rogers framing can be read as a warning and so I think it skews towards the former. However, the latter is in my view morally superior.

Adolescence brings with it enough anxiety. We don’t need to be fearful of possible future outcomes. That only subtly undermines our ability to do good work now.

New Journal Article

design, design research, design theory, theory, theory building, theory development

Terrific news! The new issue of She Ji: The Journal of Design Economics and Innovation is out today, and it features an article I wrote with Erik Stolterman. Check it out here:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/24058726

We received some excellent commentaries by Danah Henriksen, Jeff Bardzell, and Deirdre Barron. I hope you’ll read all of them as they contain important, unique insights.

Theoretical Adequacy in HCI Research

design, design research, design theory, hci research, HCI/d, knowledge production, theory, theory building, theory development, theory-practice gap

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.

what should theory mean?

design, design research, design theory, HCI, hci research, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, karl popper, philosophy of science, theory, theory building, theory development, theory-practice gap

I’ve been collecting (and modifying and losing) thoughts about theory and the different ways it has been discussed and debated in academia for some time now. Recently I started organizing a collection of readings on/about theory according to different concepts like: theory development, theory-practice relationship, theory-artifact relationship, etc.

What’s really striking about all these readings is the way in which authors talk about what theory means before ultimately choosing a meaning to work with. There is almost universal agreement that theory is a complex word that can mean lots of things to lots of different people who work in different places and think about different things.

But how do we make a choice between different meanings and do we examine the consequences for our choices? Why do we not write about the choice when we write about the multiple meanings of theory?

Contemplating these questions would bring a great deal of clarity to an ambiguous discourse (esp. in HCI where researchers have since the early days of the field wrestled with theoretical adequacy, the relationship between artifacts and theory, etc.)

The Theory Project

design, design research, design theory, hci research, karl popper, knowledge production, knowledge tools, theory, theory building, theory development, theory-practice gap

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.