Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Studying the nature of interactivity (HCI)

I have always been drawn to research that is trying to understand the 'nature' of some phenomenon. There are several reasons for this. I am attracted to the idea that as a researcher I am actually improving my own understanding of the phenomenon I am studying and increasing my ability to explain its nature, and that this knowledge grows over time and is in some sense is cumulative. As a consequence of this, I have had two major research projects during my career. One has been to understand the nature of designing as a human approach to change and the other has been to understand the nature of the interaction between humans and interactive artifacts/systems.

I have realized that this aim is commonly confused with a radically different purpose which is to develop support that can improve peoples ability to design new technology and systems. As any kind of basic research, the results it produces will never be able to tell anyone what to design or create. Basic research primarily provides a deeper understanding of some phenomenon.  Instead of leading to prescriptive knowledge that could make design easier, it leads to increased complexity and from a design perspective often increased difficulty.

After being involved in basic research for many years I am more than ever convinced that it is not just necessary, it is also possible, even when it comes to a field like HCI. It is possible to study the nature of interactivity. It is possible to develop a deeper understanding of interactivity as a real phenomenon, something we, over time, can actually become better at explaining with sound and well-grounded theories and models.

For this to happen HCI research has to change some of its fundamental assumptions. For instance, HCI research has as a primary goal to lead to some form of (immediate) improvements or usefulness. In Habermas terms it is possible to say that HCI research is driven by a "control knowledge interest" and less of a knowledge interest of "understanding" or "emancipation" (which are his other two categories.  Of course, I am not saying that research with a "control" knowledge interest is not needed or should not be done. HCI is as a research field primarily aimed at improving practice so that is fine. But the field would benefit from also engaging in these other knowledge interests with a strong passion.

I am therefore both happy and proud of the work I have done with my colleague Lars-Erik Janlert about the nature of interactivity, where we did set out to do what I discussed above. We examined an existing phenomenon (interaction/interactivity) with the purpose to describe and explain its nature, to the best of our ability. Of course, we only reached so far. But I believe that it is a start that hopefully will inspire others. The result is the book "Things That Keep Us Busy -- the elements of interaction" (MIT Press, 2017)

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