Friday, June 16, 2006

Ethnography in HCI -- Comments on Dourish CHI paper

In his CHI2006 paper “Implications for Design”, Paul Dourish gives a portrait of ethnography that helps me (and hopefully others) to understand its role in HCI. I have for a long time been looking for a kind of research in HCI that would provide me (and others) with substantial and solid ways of thinking about interactive systems and how they are appropriated and used. I would like such research to be focused on creating challenging new theoretical constructs that could help us to see invisible structures and processes that influence the complex interactions between people and technology. My constant disappointment with many attempts is that when I read so called "ethnographic" studies, they are usually interesting and worth reading as long as they do the "scenic fieldwork" (concept from Dourish paper), but they completely let me down at the end, since they don't move to what Dourish calls the "analytical" level. There is no theoretical or conceptual outcome that inspires my thinking that challenges me. There is, in other words, no learning on a general level. I usually get this, almost bodily reaction (and not a nice one) when I read these papers and I come to the conclusion (or "implication for deisgn") and I realize that the outcomes are highly intuitive, everyday common sense, not surprising, not challenging, and I react with "didn't we already know that".

I have usually no problems with the way designers "use" ethnography (or its simplified versions), I agree with Dourish that they should be more informed about what they actually do and label their work appropriately. I do have problems, however, with the way it is done as a way to confirm an already planned and developed design idea (as is almost always the case in HCI). Coming from a deep understanding of design (as presented in my book "The Design Way"), interpretation and measurement of the existing reality is in a design process something very different from interpretation and measurement of the existing reality with a research intention. Design demands immersion into the full complexity of reality and from that full immersion you have to come out (within a limited time frame) with an understanding of something not-yet-existing that transcends the existing. This is to me not the same thing as being involved in deep ethnography with the purpose to come out of "immersion" with a deep understanding of the existing. These two goals are very different and I suspect that is one reason why ethnographers don't like the notion of "implications for design", since it is the wrong kind of outcome. They do create deep and insightful understandings of what-exists. This outcome is always important in design, but it does not tell the designer what to design. The creation of the not-yet-existing demands something more than a deep understanding. Ethnographers should therefore be allowed to do their work, i.e. create deep understandings not for design, but for designers. Knowledge that will change the designer’s way of approaching the specific design situation with its demands, needs and desires. The field of HCI needs really good and insightful ethnographic work, without demanding results easy to apply in design.

So, I really hope that Dourish paper will help the field in recognizing (1) the need for "ethnography" in a form that is intended, aimed, and designed to support in a design process (i.e. design oriented ethnography). I think this is not something we are good at today. And the need for (2) ethnographic research in our field that can create a deep understanding of the intricate relationships between people and technology, and that gives us new theoretical and conceptual "tools" to think about these relationships, not focused on a specific designs but creating a solid understanding that every good designer should be knowledgeable about.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

HCI research and the common good

When reflecting on CHI2006 there are some things in the academic field of HCI that I find problematic. Maybe the most pressing issue that raises many questions is the relation between research and development (I am not using "design" here for specific reasons). Many academic fields have the purpose of building universal true knowledge, and some also have the purpose of building knowledge that is "useful". This is true in the fields like medicine, health, and others. In these fields it is quite easy to see that research and development (i.e., inventions and innovations of new artifacts and procedures), is aimed at serving the common good. Improving health is always a valid reason for doing research (or?). But, what about a field like HCI? What is the common good? What is the goals, the intentions, for research that in a similar way is obviously for the greater good? Are new technological artifacts for any purpose in itself a worthy outcome? With what intention and purpose should we study new interaction technologies? Is the benefit for organizations and companies in general (efficiency, effectiveness, userfriendliness, etc) worthy intentions? Or can we use the same reasons as for health, so our research should support people's wellbeing? Depending on how we frame our purpose and our "clients" we will be facing different "measure of success". If true universal knowledge is our foremost goal, then the procedures of science and its "measure of success" must be taken more seriously than today. If the aim is to support the greater good, then we really have to get into some serious discussions about what that purpose stands for in our field!

[Of course we have to do research for one obvious purpose -- that is to expand and improve the knowledge and skills of professors in a way that supports their teaching. Research hopefully forces anyone to broaden perspectives, challenging ideas and views. These are outcomes that (in the best of worlds) will benefit the students at any level.]

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