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’m really excited about an introductory HCI course I’m developing (with some amazing collaborators) for the spring semester. For the last week or so, I’ve been working with several practicing designers to establish a set of core skills interns and/or entry-level designers ought to know in order to succeed in the workplace. Their comments and insights have been interesting to read, inspiring to think about, and generative of a much stronger course design than if I had worked independently. I’m appreciative of their help, and I look forward to sharing this collaborative approach with the students in my section. Onward!
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.
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?
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.
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**
I’ve added some new pages — well one new page and a few revised page names — to the site! I’m really excited about the new page: the theory project. It is one of the outcomes of a research project that I’ve been involved in for the past couple years examining theory from various aspects.
So far we’ve been asking questions like (1) whether there can be scientific theories about the design process, (2) how theories are used in design research and hci research publications, (3) whether there can be theoretical cohesion or consensus in multidisciplinary fields of study, and (4) how researchers talk about the theory-practice gap.
Last year we started publishing some of the outcomes of this work and more are on the way this year!
But in the interest of sharing some of the resources that we have accumulated and maybe kindling some interest from potential collaborators, I’ve gone ahead and created a page containing 250ish texts that form a substantial collection of readings on theory. If you’re interested in theory (its meanings, the implications of these meanings for research and practice, etc.) then check out the bibliography and get in touch so that we can talk more about this relevant and fascinating topic.
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.”
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.