CHI2018

ACM, design, design research, HCI, hci research, Human-Computer Interaction, knowledge production, knowledge tools, research, science, SIGCHI, theory-practice gap

Looking forward to CHI2018 in Montreal, QC, Canada! This year I am humbled to be first author on one full paper and a contributing author on a second full paper. Two full papers! Huzzah! The first author paper examines the concept of the theory-practice gap as a generative metaphor. Here is the abstract:

The theory-practice gap is a well-known concept in HCI research. It provides a way of describing a space that allegedly exists between the theory and practice of the field, and it has inspired many researchers to propose ways to “bridge the gap.” In this paper, we propose a novel interpretation of the gap as a generative metaphor that frames problems and guides researchers towards possible solutions. We examine how the metaphor has emerged in HCI discourse, and what its limitations might be. We raise concerns about treating the gap as given or obvious, which could reflect researchers’ tendencies to adopt a problem solving perspective. We discuss the value of considering problem setting in relation to the theory-practice gap, and we explore Derrida’s strategy of “reversal” as a possible way to develop new metaphors to capture the relationship between theory and practice. (https://doi.org/10.1145/3173574.3174194)

I’m excited to talk about this ongoing project and discussing its potential with other members in the HCI research community. Onward!

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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.

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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.

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.

The Problem of Problem-setting

design, design research, design theory, HCI, hci research, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, knowledge production

One of the more interesting and recent questions I’ve been thinking about has to do with the theory-practice gap in HCI research. Now, I have very little interest at the moment in bridging the gap. And really there are plenty of folks in the field working on this problem. I’m more interested in the theory-practice gap itself.

I’m especially interested in the fact that when the gap appears in the literature it does so without much criticism or reflection. I haven’t come across any examples yet (in HCI literature) where the gap is discussed as an interpretation of data. Whereas other folks in different disciplines (nursing, for example) have discussed it in this way.

Some HCI practitioners report lacking time and other resources to spend on theory. Others disengage (or do not engage in the first place) with conferences like CHI or DIS because they are too theoretical. These sorts of ‘facts’ have been reported in journal and conference publications, and they have fueled characterizations of theory and practice as separated by a gap, as uneasy bedfellows, and even as seller and buyer.

Each of these ways of framing reality has implications for the kinds of questions researchers ask and the kinds of knowledge they generate in response to the problem. This is important. The problem is set. It’s made. It’s not given. So why don’t we as a discipline spend more time thinking about that?