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.



On the Amazon Echo

Note: This is an old post that I guess I never published. Hence the 2016 Labor Day reference.


Over labor day weekend (2016) I had some trouble with Alexa. But that’s all I know. I don’t know anything about the cause or anything about possible solutions. Here’s what happened.

On Sunday morning I asked Alexa to tell me the weather. The blue ‘listening’ light appeared and bounced around for a few moments longer than usual and then.. nothing. No ‘flickering’ lights to indicate that she was processing my request and no telling of the weather. What the heck?

And then an ominous red ring of light pulsed a few times and Alexa spoke. Something about how the echo had lost its connection followed by silence followed by “I’m having trouble understanding right now, please try again later,” or something along those lines.

No matter what I requested (or when I requested it) this same sequence of events played out so many times during the day Sunday and Monday. And I have no idea why! I opened the Alexa app on my phone to see if there might be anything helpful there. Nope. Nothing. The app gave me every indication that the Echo should be working. While it was frustrating enough that things were going wrong, it was even more frustrating that the most straightforward way I had of finding out what those things might be (the app) contradicted the fact that there was even a problem.

I use the Echo mostly for banal stuff like getting the news, weather, playing music, and adding items to digital shopping lists. I do have it paired with a smart thermostat, though. What if the Echo were an integral part of how I manage my day-to-day life and what if I had it paired with other smart devices (lights, a fridge, a car). It would be like multiple colleagues being out of the office without having giving any reason thus requiring you to change your schedule and take on a bunch of tasks that you no longer do. Not cool.

I don’t know what the takeaway is here: feedback is important, it’s better to know than not know, the Amazon Echo gives poor feedback, nodal point amenities (I’m making this up this stuff as I go along..) can make day-to-day life just a little bit better but when they fail they can induce anxiety and stress. Somehow I think this relates to the concept of faceless interaction. In the middle of the day on Sunday, staring at that broken cylindrical speaker in my kitchen, I wished, oh how I wished, for a screen.

Adolescence as a Metaphor for HCI

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.

A Short Story About Interactivity Clutter

A few weeks ago, I acquired a Myo armband. Myo is a muscle-movement sensor worn around the forearm. And on the basis of a series of hand gestures, the person wearing it can control anything from a slide presentation or a cursor to an r/c car or drone. You can read more about it and watch some neat videos of it in action on the Myo website.

As an input device, it takes some getting used to. When I set it up to control the cursor I found it so difficult to use that I almost immediately resorted to using the trackpad.

And here is where the interactivity clutter became obvious. A quick note: interactivity clutter is a term coined by Lars-Erik Janlert and Erik Stolterman to describe possible consequences of the increasing number of (co-existing) interactive artifacts in our environments. This definition doesn’t do justice to their work but it suffices for my purpose in this post. You can read more about it and get the citation information here. I will just finish telling my story to illustrate a simple way clutter can impact daily life.

I was wearing the Myo around my right forearm. And I was the using my right hand to manipulate the trackpad. The cursor began shakily darting around the screen in response to the slight but apparently detectable tension created by the direction of my arm/hand movements and my finger movement on the trackpad. I grew frustrated and a little more stressed than I had been moments ago, and I took the Myo off of my arm after several failed attempts to expand a ‘file’ menu.

I shudder to imagine what would have happened if I had tried to use the wireless mouse…

hci 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.”

Knowledge Claims in Design Research

One of my summer research projects has to do with knowledge claims in design research publications. The question stems from an interest in understanding the similarities and differences between how knowledge claims are formulated in design research publications as opposed to natural and/or social scientific research. One would expect there to be some overlap as there is scientific work done in design research. In fact, there are lots of different kinds of researchers publishing in design journals so one might expect to see a variety of kinds of knowledge claims (claims with different ontological and epistemological underpinnings) being made in a given journal or conference. But what (if anything) sets a knowledge claim in design research apart from knowledge claims in the natural and social sciences? A preliminary observation is that within some articles there are a variety of different kinds of knowledge claims that have conflicting epistemological and ontological underpinnings. How do we account for this variety? And what are its implications for publishing in design research?

Summer Research Projects

The academic year is over, and after having taken a few days off, today is the day I launch into several really exciting and interesting projects.

Following are summaries of each major project. Hopefully, writing about each of them on the blog throughout the summer will provide (1) a modicum of accountability to the anonymous readers who may be checking in with me and (2) an opportunity to play a bit with the ideas in a public forum. This latter provision stems from a perceived need to achieve a greater comfort level with playing with ideas “out in the open” instead of waiting to share them in a more final, polished format.

For each project, I provide the “framing question,” and some amplification.

  1. What form do knowledge claims take in design research? This project is a comparative analysis of three different kinds of research publications: design publications, natural science publications, and social science publications. Random samples of each type (e.g. papers from Design Studies, Nature, and the American Sociological Review) have been preliminarily analyzed in order to gain a deeper understanding of the practice of making knowledge claims in design research by comparing a sample of its claims against other kinds. This is part of a larger project aimed at explicating the practice of design research.
  2. How do design researchers cite Donald Schon? Schon is probably one of the most frequent citations in design research. When researchers cite Schon, how are they citing his work? Are they demonstrating their familiarity with the “canon,” or does the citation have broader implications for their research questions or analysis? This paper is a first step towards a broader project of understanding the practice of design research. This project is being done in collaboration with Laureline Chiapello, from the University of Montréal.
  3. How is theory used in ToCHI publications? A similar study currently in review for publication in Design Studies asks how design researchers use theory in their texts. We distinguish between theory use in a written texts and theory use in a research project. We make no claims about how theory functions in the broader research project–only about how it functions in the text. This paper asks the same question, but focuses on publications in a leading HCI journal: ToCHI. **Another paper follows this same pattern in analyzing papers published as CHI, the leading HCI conference.**
  4. What possible (presents and) futures does the design research community imagine for itself? One way to approach this question is to inquire as to how we characterize it now. When I say “design research,” I mean “research through design,” as opposed to the scientific, humanistic, and historical (among other) kinds of research being conducted in the field. I use discourse analytic techniques to explicate a lengthy discussion on the PHD-Design listserv in order to suss out the generative metaphors that writers use to (1) characterize the current state of design and (2) imply (particular) possible futures.
  5. How have design theories progressively deepened our understanding of designing? Building off of a current project that adopts methodological falsification as an analytical lens, this project departs from Lakatos’s notion of sophisticated falsification and asks how a sub-set of design theories (theories about design) have deepened our understanding of design. In Lakatos’s words, referring to scientific theories, “… a theory is ‘acceptable’ or ‘scientific’ only if it has corroborated excess empirical content over its predecessor (or rival), that is, only if it leads to the discovery of novel facts.” (Lakatos and Musgrave, 1970) Using CK theory, the FBS framework, Figural Complexity, and Bounded Rationality, we ask what “novel facts” each theory provides.
  6. Can there be scientific theories that do not scientize design? This question served as the foundation for a paper recently presented at the European Academy of Design conference in Paris. It uses Karl Popper’s criteria for scientific theories as an analytical framework to argue that there can be scientific theories of designing and, importantly, that these theories do not “scientize” the design process, which is to say that they do not provide us with an understanding of designing as a scientific activity. We are in the midst of overhauling the paper in order to submit it for publication in a leading engineering design journal.

Aside from preparing for my qualifying exams in the fall, this list describes how I’ll be spending my summer days (save for a week off in August before the semester begins). Now the only thing left to do is get started…

Some Thoughts About Design

I’ve been thinking about a question put forth by people smarter than me about Design. John Heskett articulates it best:

[Why has design] never cohered into a unified profession, such as law, medicine, or architecture, where a license or similar qualification is required to practice…? [1] 

I’m wondering if an answer to this question isn’t veiled in another widely argued–if not accepted–truth about design. Namely, that it is a basic human activity.

It is our very ability to design that determines our humanness. [2]

Design is one of the basic characteristics of what it is to be human. [1]

I don’t have a fully formed answer, here. So if you’re expecting something more articulate, now would be the time to recalibrate your expectations. But consider this: law and medicine are not basic characteristics of what it means to be human, nor does our ability to practice these things determine our humanness. Since these are not basic characteristics of what it means to be human, it seems to me that the licensure/qualification procedures, the governing bodies, and the gaining of entry through “regulated procedures” [1] are necessary whereas the same cannot be said of design.

Nelson and Stolterman state that “everyone is designing most of the time,” which implies that licensure/qualification need not extend beyond birth. Is design, then, a birthright imposing no prerequisite knowledge or skills or tools in order to act (as a designer) other than the possession of life? Echoing the sentiments of the aforementioned authors, Klaus Krippendorff articulates it perfectly with the claim that, “Design is intrinsically motivating and a constitutionally human activity, it is not the privilege of a profession.” [3, emphasis added]

This does not mean that a design profession categorically does not, should not, or cannot exist in the same way as Law or Medicine. But it may have interesting implications for what that profession looks like and how we might go about licensing (or qualifying) individuals in order to be part of it. It may have implications for regulating procedures for admitting designers into the profession. It may have implications for using a term like “unified” to describe the profession.

What if Law or Medicine were constitutionally human activities? What if they were not the privilege of professions? How would they change?


[1] Heskett, J. (2005). Design: A very short introduction. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press.

[2] Nelson, H., & Stolterman, E. (2012). The design way: Intentional change in an unpredictable world. (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

[3] Krippendorff, K. (2000). Human-centered design; a cultural necessity. Unpublished manuscript, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.

Experience Design | Manipulation | Perversion

I’ve been thinking about morality and manipulation since class today especially as it pertains to experience design. I get the impression that when we talk about manipulation we generally do so with an implied value judgment: manipulation = bad.

But when we were talking today about theme parks and movies, aren’t we talking about places people want to be (at least in part) manipulated? Maybe this isn’t a conscious thought. Maybe we don’t even think about going to theme parks or movies in terms of manipulation. But upon self-reflection, manipulation of my perceptions and emotions and even my values (consider today’s example of Dexter…rooting for a serial killer) is in large part why I watch movies and why I go to theme parks.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that manipulation is one-sided. It’s not just something that happens to me. It’s something I have to invite even if I don’t acknowledge the invitation. It’s a bit perverse, I suppose. So maybe thinking about manipulation re: experience in terms of a perversion would prove fruitful.

Barnard gets into psychoanalysis in his book, so I think I’ll invoke Freud. In particular, his explication of sadism and masochism in the Three Essays on Sexuality.

I want to draw a parallel between sado-masochism and my pursuing a (manipulative) experience in order to attain consummation.

Freud writes, “…the most remarkable feature about this perversion is that its active and passive forms are habitually found to occur together in the same individual…A sadist is always at the same time a masochist…” (25)

I see a clear parallel with the notion of manipulation (esp. in reference to theme parks and movies). I go to the movies and theme parks in order to be manipulated (masochism) but also to participate in the manipulation (sadism).

So, what does this all mean for designers? I suppose it depends on what kind of thing(s) we’re designing. But suppose there’s a tacit understanding that when we’re designing things for entertainments’ sake we’re going to be engaging in some form of manipulation and that even if our users don’t acknowledge it in these terms, they’re putting themselves in a position to be manipulated..


Freud, S. (2000). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. (p. 25). New York: Basic Books.

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