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.

About The Theory-Practice Gap

design, design research, design theory, HCI, hci research, Human-Computer Interaction, Informatics, Interaction Design, knowledge production, knowledge tools, theory, theory building, theory-practice gap, Uncategorized

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.

Bridging Theory and Practice

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

Just as there are lots of discussions and debates about theory building in HCI, there are also some interesting contributions to the discipline that address the theory-practice gap.

In a previous post I wrote about how important it is to think about what words mean for intellectual progress (or just for clarity of communication) in the context of theoretical adequacy. And the same holds for the theory-practice gap. The way we approach it will differ in relation to the meanings we choose to ascribe to theory and practice and gap. I will however leave that line of thinking open for now and instead raise a problem I have with the way the theory-practice gap is attended to in the literature.

It’s not.

Well, it is and it’s not. Scholars attend to the theory-practice gap in the sense that they write about it and they propose ways to bridge it. But as far as I know, no one (in HCI anyway) has engaged in any kind of a conceptual analysis of the theory-practice gap or questioned whether it ought to be bridged or how it ought to be bridged or the implications of bridging the gap for a discipline that also worries about its theoretical adequacy. There is some interesting work in other disciplines (e.g. nursing, psychotherapy, management) that takes a closer look at the gap – instead of taking it for granted – and this is something that I think HCI needs to start doing, too.

**There are several good references re: the theory-practice gap listed on the theory project page on this site. Check them out, and please suggest more if you have them**

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.

Theory and Theory Building

design research, design theory, HCI, hci research, Human-Computer Interaction, theory

I’ve been puttering my way through a lengthy reading list I put together toward the end of the summer. Gathering the list is one of the things I did to fulfill the requirements of my PhD qualifying exam. The other requirements: writing a paper and presenting/defending the content of the paper to my advisory committee.

Anyway, the list is a fairly extensive collection of publications (conference, journal, book sections, and books) on theory and theory building in human-computer interaction and design research (… readings from information systems and management studies are also well represented).

And  as I work my way through I find myself thinking about many potential inroads to the ‘theory’ discourse. In all of these readings it’s quite common to read about the theory-practice gap, which describes the space between theory building in academia and professional hci/design practice.

One of the ways scholars seem to be responding to this issue is by proposing models and frameworks for building theory with practical utility and scientific utility. Examples include Kuechler and Vaishnavi 2012, Gioia and Pitre 1990, Zimmerman, Evenson and Forlizzi 2005, Gregor and Jones 2007. And there are others.

One thing I am curious about is whether these models and frameworks are used (?) and, if so, to what extent they are useful to researchers? Also what are their similarities and differences? I have found fewer examples of papers that compare these different models and frameworks or speak back to them in a meaningful, significant way.

hci theory

HCI, research, theory

I’m re-reading parts of Yvonne Rogers’s good book, HCI Theory: Classical Modern Contemporary for a summer research project, and I’m filled with validation and interest/intrigue in some of the claims she makes. The validation stems from an observation that because the book provides solid grounds in support of an argument for paying more attention to how hci researchers (design-oriented and otherwise) use theory in their publications and the interest/intrigue stems from one of the reasons why there exists a gap between theory and practice, which is that some theory requires too much work to apply in practice.

In the very last chapter of the book, when she writes about why some theory is “more successful” than other theory when it comes to bridging the gap with practice she provides a nice, succinct list of reasons for why the less and unsuccessful theory falls into the categories it does. In short, when theory fails to bridge the theory-practice gap it is because:

  • there is too much work required to understand and apply the theory,
  • the theory is non-intuitive to use, or
  • the theory is adapted as a generalizable method.

With regard to this last reason, when a theory is adapted as a generalizable method, this fails because:

  • theories do not “do” design,
  • theories are not easily related to current practice,
  • a complete theory/design cycle has not yet matured, and, again
  • it requires a lot of work even to understand and apply a generalizable method, and finally
  • there is a lack of consensus about what contribution various theoretical contributions as generalizable methods should make to interaction design.

The framing question of our research project is (as it was for a similar project carried out in design research) how is theory used in written texts? Put this way, we frame theory as an object (maybe a designed object) to be used by users (researchers). And Rogers’s list, then, can be understood as a list of all the things that make theory unusable. As a compass pointing towards “usability guidelines” for theory designed to bridge the theory practice gap.

But I’m curious about the generation of these guidelines from her survey of theory use in the field. The book is quite broad in its coverage of theory use. Does the broadness maybe result in a focusing in on what we could call “revolutionary” theories (to capture their impact in the field) while other kinds of theories were omitted? I’m playing Kuhn to her Popper, here. Also, her discussion of the role(s) theory plays in hci research in an earlier chapter is quite broad. It encompasses a lot, but in its broadness does it lose the details of “everyday, normal” theory use in hci research? These are some interesting and important questions, perhaps especially in light of the picture of the field she paints in her opening chapters as being in danger of “weakening its theoretical adequacy.”