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.



Bridging Theory and Practice

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**

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?

Attachment to Things | A Eulogy

Anyone who thinks people don’t form emotional bonds with things should reconsider that position. I’ve been a staunch believer in the emptiness that accompanies attachments to things. A person can’t love a smartphone or a car. At least, not in the same way they love a person or an animal. Surely I don’t have relationships with things in the same way I do with people. But maybe I do.

I just said goodbye to my first car, Betty. Betty transported me through almost fifteen years of life. I was seventeen when we met, and I’ll turn thirty at the end of this month. Betty has been (and will remain) an important part of my life story.

We finished high school and spent all of college together. We chauffeured friends to the movies, to downtown Chicago, to parties. We drove from the depths of southern Indiana home to Chicago on many a late Friday night–belting out songs at the top of our lungs. I cultivated a relationship with my wife due in no small part to the fact that I had Betty to take me from Chicago’s Northwest Suburbs to Hyde Park–a not-so-easy trip to make without a reliable car.

Yesterday, I spent part of the day emptying her of all of her accoutrements. Old receipts, aluminum foil balls, operator’s manual(s), clothes, road maps, a defunct iPass… pocket change, sketches, articles, comic books, more receipts, tools, dog leashes, stickers. I left only the things that I couldn’t take.

I wasn’t removing her organs, even though it felt just as vile. I was removing her personality. Her quirks. The ones we developed together. I was prepping her for the next life by taking from her almost all the things that came to define her in this one.

I stripped bumper stickers from the bumper, and state park and village stickers from the windows. I left an “I Voted Today” sticker on the steering wheel because it just wouldn’t peel off.

Today, I watched through the window as the tow truck drove her away, and I felt as though I was watching an innocent, benevolent someone or something being taken by force to prison, an asylum, or a “home.” Chains fettered her to the truck bed. She shook as the truck revved up as though trying to break free and return to the safety of the driveway to live out her days peacefully. But she couldn’t. She went unwillingly.

As the truck disappeared around the corner at the end of the block, I thought about how I had come to define myself in part through her. Betty was (and remains) part of my identity. And now she’s gone. It was truly a wonderful ride, and this (unexpected) eulogy was the only way I could think to cope with its denouement.

In the spirit of connecting this back to my primary object of inquiry, design, I would like to ask a rhetorical questions: what, if anything, my car’s “status” as a designed object contributes to this sort of attachment forming? are these types of attachments unique to designed objects among other kinds of inanimate objects? is time the most significant determining factor in my having developed such a strong emotional attachment to the car? 

Normativity and Design

Story: During a debate about the future importance of design–but not Designers–an audience member raised her hand. She was a designer from Peru. “I have to interrupt,” she said, “because I sense that you’re ignoring the degree to which design is already happening in a substantive, vibrant way in, for example, Peru. Peru doesn’t need the West to come in and ‘save it,’ because its capable of saving itself.” The audience broke out in applause.

There’s something unappealing about the perspective that the developed world has the means to enter a problematic situation in the undeveloped world and generate otherwise unattainable solutions. The Way of the Developed World (hereafter WdW) is thought by many to be a kind of magic bullet. It has the brains, money, time, power, etc. at its disposal which the rest of the world lacks. How could rural villagers in Turkmenistan possibly come up with a solution for showering without indoor plumbing to rival that from a team of thinkers from IDEO or Frog Design? They’re outmatched.

It’s not atypical to hear this sort of thinking challenged. Things that resemble imperialistic thinking tend to invite dissent, which is a good thing. Much less often, one might hear that it would do those Turkmenistani villagers well to consider the WdW rather than write it off in an attempt to maintain the integrity of their ways of thinking and doing. This perspective accuses those who would challenge the WdW of the very thing that it has become so well known for: remaining closed off to other ways of thinking/doing and idolizing its own.

Recall the Peruvian dissenter. She presses on the suitedness of the WdW to “save Peruvian design from itself.” The perspective described in the previous paragraph frames her dissent as (1) unwilling to acknowledge the potential value of the WdW and (2) stubborn in its adherence to local ways of thinking and doing. Why shouldn’t she at least consider that the developed world has something to offer? This is a rhetorical question. I’m not seriously asking it because I see in it some fundamental flaws.

  1. It implies social and/or economic equality which is, in reality, nonexistent, and
  2. It implies that the developed world is willing to hear dissent/challenges and, in the unlikely event that valid opposition manifests, it is willing to recognize superiority from an(other).

Multiplicity of perspectives matters, but cultural hegemony should give us pause. Science is dependent on the scientist. Philosophy on the philosopher. Logic on the logician. And interpretation on the interpreter. Objectivity is chimerical…

[Work in progress. To be continued…]