Wednesday, October 31, 2007

HCI theory and HCI practice

This semester I am teaching a course on philosophy and theory of design. The course also covers theories in HCI and how they can be understood from a design perspective. The more I work on this, the more I realize that the field is not paying enough attention to the difference between theories/methods/concepts to be used in HCI research and theories/methods/concepts intended to support interaction design practice.

It is to me obvious that these two forms of activity, HCI research and design practice are so distinctly different that they have also distinct different requirements for what can constitute useful intellectual support. This distinction that has to be made more clear. There is nothing that says that an intellectual tool that works well for HCI research would support design practice, or vice versa. For instance, the theory of distributed cognition, is an intellectual tool that, used in the right way, can be quite useful in a research setting, while as a tool for practice is quite cumbersome, time consuming, technical, difficult, etc, to be useful. At the same time, in design practice, an intellectual tools such as brainstorming can be quite useful, while it might not provide the rigor and rationale for the outcome that is needed in a research setting. This is of course quite obvious, but the literature in HCI does not address this distinction in a clear and serious way--which causes a lot of confusion....


Tyler Pace said...

I'm a mentor for the first year HCId students and we had this very discussion for an hour or so last night. We all agreed that it's extremely difficult to delineate between the intellectual support required for HCI research and design practice.

As practitioners/researchers who do both, it can become quite costly to a project when you incorrectly map the research to practice or vice versa. The stress this places on designers, especially new ones, is great!

I imagine every group pursuing the CHI design competition is struggling with this murky situation on a day to day basis.

Erik Stolterman said...

Hi Tyler

Yes, you are right, and that is why this is such an important issue, both for practice and for research. However, I think the pressure highest on students who are in the academic environment, doing real design work, but sometimes are expected to do it as if it is a research project. That causes stress :-)


Webfoot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Webfoot said...

Hi Erik

The absence of accepted standard of rigor can be and is very frustrating. It was very obvious for me at CHI's student design competition last year. The tension of the poster session was really that you don't know what is expected of your defense!
At the same time, while rigor might be nice to have, jumping into prescribed methodologies so early in the field of HCI easily means we might preclude newer modes of thinking for this rapidly changing field. Argh.

Pin Sym

Craig Birchler said...


Though I can add little substance to this argument, I can easily back up the claims made. Having been a graduate of your program I left for the "real world" (Pearson Education) knowing those in practice have little to no knowledge and/or desire to use HCI theory. I left academia with a goal of blending the lines between theory and practice. Though I have come to find a very old model to be quite true: Big business is like a grand ship, once it is set it motion it can be nearly impossible for one, or even a few members of the crew to alter its direction.

Current business models seem to be the culprit most often. Saving time and money. Situational arguments relating to specific design situations can be made which over ride or even support the business side. But without entering on the ground floor, when these business models are being developed, HCI practioners have few options other than "grass-roots", "from the ground up" efforts. It is almost as though complete success can't occur until some of the HCI/d course structure is held jointly in the Kelley School of Business.

I still have an ultimate goal (blurry and relatively undefined as of this point) of pushing design practice towards HCI theory. However, I'll 1) need to learn to make quite a bit more commotion to be seen and heard by the "captain", or 2) I'll need to find a bigger oar.