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!
I’ve been wondering for a few months about how to orient my HCI work towards organizing for causes, and today I am pleased to say I started making some headway. I made a few connections with folks at the AAUP, and I’ve got messages out to folks at Action Network. At this stage, I’m curious to know more about organizers, activists, and community members engaged with different causes and, in particular, the role technology plays in supporting their activities. Seems as good a time as any to start doing this sort of work.
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.
Most of my blog entries are announcements of publications or generic thought pieces about topics of interest. One thing I’d like to do differently going forward is keeping track of current research projects here at Penn State University’s Center for Human-Computer Interaction (C4HCI) as way of providing some insight and value to folks outside of my network; especially members of community organizations, local government, and industry.
Community Data & Water Quality. A current project underway here at C4HCI has to do with water quality data as a kind of community data around which different stakeholders could organize and act. There are already several groups in State College collecting and analyzing water quality data, and our working assumption is that this data could be made accessible and interpretable to a wider group of residents.
In my view, and in an ideal case, the outcome of such would be a more data literate citizenry confident and capable to engage with local government around water quality (and other) policy and decision-making.
Tonight we held the first meeting of what we hope will be a series of conversations and workshops with folks who work for and with different water quality collection groups in Centre County, including: ClearWater Conservancy, PaSEC, WRMP, and Trout Unlimited. The goal of the meeting was to share our vision for a possible project built around water quality data and to engage in a meaningful conversation about what a collaboration between our groups could look like. The meeting was great. Our group learned a lot about the kinds of data these different organizations collect and about some of the barriers to sharing/using the data that we had not yet considered. We even identified a possible opportunity for supporting (one of) their efforts to build out an online resource for community members to learn more about water quality issues.
Looking forward to more!
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.
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.”
I’ve been thinking over these last few days about just what we mean when we say “design research.” Does saying we do design research or that we are design researchers imply that we do a different kind of research? Does it mean that as design researchers we make a unique intellectual contribution to the realms of scholarship and practice that couldn’t be made by psychologists, sociologists, linguists, or cognitive scientists?
I want to make sure I’m not being misinterpreted here, and so I need to clarify that when I say “design research,” I do not mean, “design inquiry.” I think these are two different things. Design inquiry is unique. It is distinct from other kinds of inquiry. If design researchers practiced design inquiry, then perhaps their contributions (in terms of methods or methodics) would be a unique contribution to the intellectual landscape.
But to my knowledge doing design inquiry is not part and parcel of design research. In fact, it’s maybe only essential to research-through-design, which currently enjoys a kind of pariah status (at least informally) in the design research community. So, is design research writ large just a lot of scholars working “on a common theme but [from] different disciplinary perspectives” (Gibbons et al. 2006 on p.28)? A cursory look at the TOC of some design conference proceedings might support an answer in the affirmative. And if so, then what are the implications for the field?
Gibbons, M., Limoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P., & Trow, M. (2006). The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Erik Stolterman and I are currently working on a paper about design theory and design research. When I gave a recent presentation of our progress, I discussed the origin of the ideas for the paper. I located the origin in conversations we’d had during the last academic year; conversations that centered on the gap between “theory” and practice. I put theory in quotes because it really is a synonym for academia. There is a gap between academia and professional practice, which is to say that there is a gap between the work design researchers are doing and the work that designers are doing in the private (i.e. non-academic) sector.
As we make progress on our paper, I find myself wondering about interesting things that I want to share here. So, first, how do designers in the private sector use theory in their everyday work? I know they do. They have to. To some degree, everyone uses theory in their day-to-day lives. How do designers think about/understand theory? My understanding of it is probably naive and incomplete; it’s a work in progress But I can articulate it thanks to the help of other thinkers.
Theory is the thing that helps us “go beyond observation of a phenomena towards explanations of how and why given phenomena occur.”  Theory is an “ordered set of assertions about some generic behavior or structure assumed to hold throughout a wide range of specific instances.”  Ken Friedman’s definition (the former) is perhaps more useful than Karl Weick’s (the latter) in forging a connection between theory and non-academic design practice. Don’t designers go beyond observation of phenomena all the time? When designers create a design, isn’t that design one of the key constructs in a theory about why or how some artificial phenomenon (might) occur in the future? Of course it is.
Perhaps the more interesting/relevant question is, What does framing a design as a key construct in a theory about some future phenomenon do for the designer? How is this useful?
I’d welcome any answers (or challenges or suggested revisions) to these questions. I have some thoughts in mind, but I’ll save those for the next entry.
Referenced material/suggested reading:
1. Friedman, K. (2003). Theory construction in design research: criteria: approaches, and methods. Design studies, 24(6), 507-522.
2. Weick, K. E. (1989). Theory construction as disciplined imagination. Academy of management review, 14(4), 516-531.
In the interest of writing more posts, I’m going to try constraining myself to just a few hundred words or less for each entry. We’re talking 250-ish words. I need to get better at jamming lots of meaning into a few words instead of saying a lot without actually saying much. This came into sharp focus tonight as I chipped away at the first draft of one of my final papers. It’s a 10-pager exploring a common thread of computational thinking in the works of Kuhn, Popper, and some third guy who isn’t a philosopher of science.
While working, I had the realization that I’m going to be writing papers more or less for the rest of my days (unless my career path veers out of academia and into the private sector). And if that’s going to be the case, I should probably develop some kind of system for writing so that I don’t reinvent my writing process with every paper… which is kind of what I’m doing now. I wrote a lengthy piece last semester critiquing the design of interactive learning applications by doing a close reading of Khan Academy, and that writing process broke down as follows:
- Start early… and by start early I mean gather a metric ton of papers (i.e. 30-40 papers)
- Create an annotated bibliography that includes: citation, summary, and relevance of each source to my purpose
- Engage in a lot of exploratory brainstorming
- Stream-of-consciousness writing
- Affinity diagramming
- Skip the outline. Write the first draft.
- Revise thrice and send the draft to the Professor for feedback
- Write final draft
But different classes necessitate different processes. I haven’t followed the same process for this most current work-in-progress. I suppose, ultimately, the nature of my research will dictate the nature of my writing process. For now, it remains in flux…