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.

 

Rudders

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.

ship-470083_1920

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.

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.

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.

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.