Theory Use has not been framed as an HCI Problem

design, design research, HCI, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, knowledge production, knowledge tools, research, science, scientific method, theory, theory building, theory development

Theory in HCI research appears to be of interest to a number of researchers working in the field. Theory use, which refers to the different roles or functions theory may play in scholarly research or publishing, is one way of exploring the topic, but, in my view, neither topic has been framed as an HCI problem.

Each has been framed as a problem of maturity (or, more accurately, one of immaturity) and, perhaps more recently, as a problem of identity. But these framings transcend the field of HCI research. They are (and have been) relevant to many other academic disciplines.

To the extent that HCI is grappling with its maturity (or immaturity) and/or its identity as an intellectual community, theory and theory use are relevant topics of study. But they have not been formulated or engaged with in terms of human-computer interaction. Such a formulation will be a necessary, good step forward in the discourse.


New Journal Article

design, design research, design theory, theory, theory building, theory development

Terrific news! The new issue of She Ji: The Journal of Design Economics and Innovation is out today, and it features an article I wrote with Erik Stolterman. Check it out here:

We received some excellent commentaries by Danah Henriksen, Jeff Bardzell, and Deirdre Barron. I hope you’ll read all of them as they contain important, unique insights.

Bridging Theory and Practice

design, design research, design theory, HCI, hci research, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, theory, theory building, theory-practice gap

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**

Theoretical Adequacy in HCI Research

design, design research, design theory, hci research, HCI/d, knowledge production, theory, theory building, theory development, theory-practice gap

Theoretical adequacy is an concept that comes up in some form or another in various readings in the hci literature. More often than not, authors express concern that hci is currently (or soon-to-be) theoretically inadequate. But what does this mean?

What is theoretical adequacy? Is it the degree to which knowledge produced and published in a discipline is adopted and applied in a profession? Or does it refer to our production (or lack thereof) of scientific explanations of the phenomena we study? For the former, adequacy would be a high adoption and application of disciplinary knowledge in professions. And “theory” is really just another word for knowledge produced (primarily?) in a discipline. For the latter, adequacy could be a numbers game (how many theories do we produce?) or a utility game (do our theories have high scientific utility) or even an interest game (are the theories we generate interesting?).

Whatever meaning we choose, it seems reasonable to claim that theoretical adequacy is important. It seems important that we concern ourselves with the adoption of disciplinary knowledge in the professions (but maybe we should stop using the word ‘theory’ as shorthand for disciplinary knowledge since it does not describe all knowledge produced in the disciplines…). It also seems important that the theories we produce have a high degree of scientific utility or interest. But if I set out to address the applicability of disciplinary knowledge in the professions then I may set aside entirely my concern with scientific utility. Intention and meaning are intertwined, and this message gets lost in the literature.

We can’t hope to address theoretical adequacy without addressing its meaning.

what should theory mean?

design, design research, design theory, HCI, hci research, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, karl popper, philosophy of science, theory, theory building, theory development, theory-practice gap

I’ve been collecting (and modifying and losing) thoughts about theory and the different ways it has been discussed and debated in academia for some time now. Recently I started organizing a collection of readings on/about theory according to different concepts like: theory development, theory-practice relationship, theory-artifact relationship, etc.

What’s really striking about all these readings is the way in which authors talk about what theory means before ultimately choosing a meaning to work with. There is almost universal agreement that theory is a complex word that can mean lots of things to lots of different people who work in different places and think about different things.

But how do we make a choice between different meanings and do we examine the consequences for our choices? Why do we not write about the choice when we write about the multiple meanings of theory?

Contemplating these questions would bring a great deal of clarity to an ambiguous discourse (esp. in HCI where researchers have since the early days of the field wrestled with theoretical adequacy, the relationship between artifacts and theory, etc.)

The Theory Project

design, design research, design theory, hci research, karl popper, knowledge production, knowledge tools, theory, theory building, theory development, theory-practice gap

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.

hci theory

HCI, research, 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 Contributions | Discourse Analysis

design, design research, design theory, knowledge tools, philosophy of science, science, theory

Borrowing from a personal email exchange, in my final paper I’d like to look at “how publications in a journal like Nature talk about their knowledge contributions and how publications in a journal like Design Studies talk about their knowledge contributions.” The interest stems from a parallel research project I’m doing about theoretical vs schematic knowledge contributions.

One of the things driving this topic is the seemingly perpetual comparison (stacking up?) that seems to happen between science and scientific knowledge and other disciplines and other types of knowledge in the academy. I’m not really taking issue with the comparison. Of course, one way disciplines come to achieve “self” knowledge is by comparing themselves to others. It’s important for design to compare itself with science, art, sociology, psychology, medicine, etc. in order to map the intersections and divergences. Divergences. That’s a key for me right now.

Wooffitt writes, in the section on externalizing devices, “How can we use language to establish that something is ‘out there’, and that it has an independent objective existence?” And in the context of the chapter (and elsewhere) it’s quite apparent why we would want to do that. It enhances our credibility in casual conversations and in publishing academic research. I pulled the following from a document that serves both as part of my final project research for this class and as a part of an outside research project:

After skimming five [design research] articles, there seems to be a balance between the use of the language of “truth” and that of the language of “utility” with regard to the knowledge contribution. I looked both at abstracts and conclusion sections as primary sites in the texts for talking about the knowledge contribution(s)…

There are lots of instances of what could be construed as scientific buzz words [words that lend themselves to the idea of objective existence] like “experiment,” “results,” and “hypothesis.” These words are of course flexible and they are not necessarily connotative of [empirical] science. However, when these words are used primarily by authors in talking about their “observations” or “experiments” it seems fairly obvious that, in context, they are imbued with the values of empirical science. In other words, they are tools for affirming the objectivity of the claims being made.

There’s no 1:1 correlation between the language of truth as I describe it in the above paragraphs and the language of utility. And actually the question I’m grappling with right now is whether it’s possible to warrant a claim to utility without appealing to the language of truth. For instance, one of the texts I read contains the following quote:

“We have repeatedly observed that with descriptions of biological phenomena, designers tend to rely on non-analogous associations over analogical reasoning… Our work suggests that specific mapping instructions and problem-independent scenario mapping could enable designers to better focus on analogical reasoning.”

The “observations” in the first sentence seem to me to be an example of language use that establishes that “something is out there” and not “from the researchers themselves.” This is what I’m calling the language of truth. The second sentence is interesting, too, because it contains elements of the language of truth. The blue text imbues “our work,” which is not the same thing as “us,” with the authority of more objective truth to warrant the utility claim highlighted in green. Note that the scientific language in the first sentence reaffirms the “objective truth value” of the blue text. It creates some space between the scientists (who are biased and flawed) from their work, which, so long as it followed a scientific process, transcends their biases and flaws.

Currently, I’m curious to know how these claims can be made in different ways. And so this is where I think something like Jorgensen’s analytical tools can come in handy. Something like substitution, perhaps? How do the words “repeatedly observed” effect the claim? How does the claim “read” differently with words cut and/or swapped out?

With descriptions of biological phenomena, designers tend to rely on non-analogous associations over analogical reasoning… We suggest that specific mapping instructions and problem-independent scenario mapping could enable designers to better focus on analogical reasoning.”

What’s lost? What’s gained? There is certainly objectivity lost. But could it also be argued that “designerliness” is gained? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know yet. It is an agenda-laden question, too. I ask it as someone currently trying to understand what makes a designerly knowledge contribution different from a scientific one and, ultimately, probably, to argue for making more the former in design research publications in order to build design as a discipline.

why is theory useful to designers

design, design research, design theory, theory

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.