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.



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.”

Demarcating Design Research

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.

why is theory useful to designers

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.” [1] Theory is an “ordered set of assertions about some generic behavior or structure assumed to hold throughout a wide range of specific instances.” [2] 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.

On Writing Papers

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:

  1. Start early… and by start early I mean gather a metric ton of papers (i.e. 30-40 papers)
  2. Create an annotated bibliography that includes: citation, summary, and relevance of each source to my purpose
  3. Engage in a lot of exploratory brainstorming
    1. Stream-of-consciousness writing
    2. Affinity diagramming
    3. Sketching
  4. Skip the outline. Write the first draft.
  5. Revise thrice and send the draft to the Professor for feedback
  6. 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…