Design Researchers Need a Shared Program, Not a Divorce

In a 2017 paper, Forlizzi, Koskinen, Hekkert, and Zimmerman called for a “divorce” between “pragmatic” and “critical” threads of “constructive design research” or CDR. At DIS 2018, they have a workshop around the theme of the paper. (Full disclosure: they invited me and my frequent coauthor Shaowen Bardzell to co-organize it, which we would have gladly done, but for a schedule conflict. This blog post represents what I at least might have brought to the workshop. Also: I personally know and am on good terms with three of that paper’s authors; the fourth–Paul Hekkert–I have not had the opportunity to meet, but I admire and teach his work. This commentary is appreciative of the authors’ goals but constructively critical of some of the individual arguments.)

Summary: Forlizzi et al.’s “Divorce” Paper

Forlizzi et al.’s argument in the original paper is that these two forms of constructive design research have different epistemic stances and purposes, and that the research community confuses them. Much of the basis of their proposal comes from assertions about problems in peer reviewing. Specifically, they argue that critical researchers reject pragmatic papers because they feel these papers “are too applied and don’t take intellectual risks,” while pragmatic design researchers reject critical design research because they “look for pragmatic relevance from work that should be judged based on the quality of polemic it produces.”

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Posted in Critical Design, HCI, Interaction Design, Peer Reviewing, Research Through Design | 4 Comments

Why We Turn Away

Why do we as researchers turn away from accepted knowledge, theory, and/or research?

I don’t mean rejecting a given paper or objecting to a presentation. I am referring to categorically rejecting a whole knowledge practice, on account that it uses some method or epistemology or (fill in the blank) that one doesn’t like. This turning away seems odd, when most of us researchers seem to understand already that what we turn away from could in fact stimulate our own thinking by diversifying it. Further, I think most of us would agree that it leads to counterproductive conflicts, arbitrariness in peer reviewing (as contributions are accepted/rejected for categorical reasons rather than virtues and vices of the work itself), and intellectual silos.

To develop a response to this question, I’ve decided not to cast stones at others but instead to look inward, to offer an Augustinian confession of sorts. That is, I will look at times when I myself have turned away, as well as the causes and consequences of my turning back. (I also confess that some of these turnings have been very recent and are not reflected in my past work, and I further suspect that they are incomplete and so might not be adequately reflected in my future work.)

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Posted in Aesthetics, Design Process, epistemology, HCI, Humanistic HCI, Peer Reviewing, philosophy, Politics, Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Science | 1 Comment

Should the critical-interpretavist researchers of CHI leave the design subcommunity?

In this month’s Interactions magazine, there is an article I feel ambivalent about. It is Gaver and Höök’s “In Search of the Elusive CHI Design Paper“. I am ambivalent because there is much that I agree with and support, but at the same time some of its language–and practices it seems to support that I have seen and experienced–marginalizes research that I believe in and that I believe contributes to design.

The Article’s Argument

Gaver and Höök’s primary purpose is to address the problem that that not a lot of design papers are submitted to or get through the Design subcommittee of ACM SIGCHI. I think the authors’ desire to get more design papers (which I understand in the sense of reflecting the practices of design as a well established discipline) in CHI is one I share with the authors, so I have no objection to the primary purpose of this short article.

The authors further argue (1) that what is submitted to the design subcommittee reflects an over-broad understanding of design and (2) that design subcommittee submissions suffer from inappropriate reviewing standards applied to design.

Here is a key passage about (1):

We worry that Design is becoming something of a catch-all category at CHI. In many ways, it’s a good thing we provide a home for submissions that don’t fit easily into other categories, particularly papers that are risky, transdisciplinary, or unconventional. But all too often we encountered submissions that seemed better suited to one of the other subcommittees at CHI: Understanding Users, for example, or Interaction Techniques, Devices and Modalities. Why do these get sent to Design?

Of course, design has always been a difficult discipline to define. After all, we talk about interaction design, but also user interface design, or the design of computer architectures, or the design of data structures. For that matter, it is not unusual to hear that everybody is a designer—though we tend to agree with Bill Buxton’s rejoinder that if everybody who chooses their own clothes is a designer, then anybody who can count change is a mathematician.

Scoping design so broadly doesn’t seem useful to us. Instead, we think of design as involving certain skills and practices, including, for instance, planning and making finished artifacts, creative processes for reframing problems and developing design spaces, engagement with settings, material explorations, and an attention to aesthetics that seeks not just to make things beautiful but also to convey cultural identity, guide expectations, and shape a dynamic gestalt. Design in this sense may be pursued by individuals, teams, or collaborative groups; design work is increasingly distributed, outsourced, or left open for completion by end users. Nonetheless there is a family resemblance to design practices that Nigel Cross characterized as a way of thinking, involving synthetic, proactive approaches to understanding and shaping the world through artifacts. These are the sorts of practices developed through specialist courses and educational institutions, and though they can be pursued independently, it is important that they speak to those communities: Not everybody who makes something is a designer, and not all studies with relevance to design are design research.

[Full disclosure: As its authors note, the Interactions article reflects a discussion held in one of the design subcommittee’s groups; I was at that meeting where this was discussed.]

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The Materiality of Research Practice

This is a quickie today. Recently (readers might have noticed) I have been reflecting a lot on my research practice. I have been trying to find those moments when I got things right and better recognize when I did not. And I am sharing this reflective process publicly in hopes of helping others find ways to improve their reflections and practices.

Anyway, I came across a wonderful article on the materiality of research practice, which I highly recommend. (Indeed, I recommend it more than finishing this blog post, if you can do only one or the other…)

It is: The Materiality of Research: ‘On the Materiality of Writing in Academia or Remembering Where I Put My Thoughts’ by Ninna Meier

There was a passage in it that really resonated with me:

I actually like review processes or co-authors: they provide a much-needed break and opportunity to distance myself from the text (it’s at their desk, so to speak, and not on mine).

The scary part of this is when it comes back, the text. When this happens, I am often appalled at how unfinished it was when I submitted it and even more appalled that I couldn’t see it at the time (how can this be? I have never understood it). This is perhaps why I don’t trust the ‘current-author me’, because ‘future-author me’ will have read more and understood more and thus be able to write much better thoughts into the text and improve the overall result.

This passage helps explain a deep shift in how I view myself as a peer reviewer. When I was younger, I sought to “protect” the research community from “bad” research. It looks so ugly typed up like that, but there it is.

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Posted in Humanistic HCI, Peer Reviewing, Prewriting, Writing Process | Leave a comment

Critiquing Scholarly Positions

If I am right that HCI and neighboring fields will increasingly rely on the essay as a means of scholarly contribution and debate in the future, then it follows that the construction, articulation, and criticism of intellectual positions will become increasingly important.

In Humanistic HCI, we talk about the essay, the epistemic roles of positions, and how they should be peer reviewed. We defined a position thus:

[A] position is not merely a proposition; it instead holistically comprises an expert-subjective voice; a theoretical-methodological stance; its own situatedness within a domain; and a pragmatic purpose. (73)

But as I read design research papers in the fragmented and emerging subdomain of research through design (and similar practices, including constructive design, critical design, and so forth), I have been frustrated with how researchers characterize others’ positions, especially ones they disagree with.

The purpose of this post is not to discourage disagreement.

It is, rather, to support disagreement in a scholarly way.

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Posted in Design Process, HCI, Humanistic HCI, Interaction Design, Research Through Design | Leave a comment

A Dark Pattern in Humanistic HCI

I have noticed a dark pattern among papers that align themselves with critical or humanistic approaches to HCI. I myself have been guilty of contributing to that pattern (though I am trying to reform). But I still see it all the time as a peer reviewer and also as a Ph.D. supervisor.

And since I spend so much time evangelizing humanistic HCI, I thought it might also be good to point out one of its dark patterns, to encourage critical/humanist HCIers not to do it, and to encourage reviewers to call this out and use it as an argument against accepting the paper.

And of course I want to offer a positive way forward instead.

The dark pattern is:

“I love a critical theory/author; you in HCI should change your practice to use it, too.”

Characteristic features of this dark pattern include the following:

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Posted in Criticism, HCI, Peer Reviewing, Rant | 6 Comments

The “Knowledge as a By-Product of Artistic Practice is Still Not Research” Objection to My “Criterial Knowledge” Post

I spoke to some colleagues about my earlier post, The Criterial Knowledge Argument for Research Through Design, who are themselves experts in research through design [EDIT: the researchers in question are Jodi Forlizzi and John Zimmerman]. While these colleagues were generally sympathetic to the claim that art and design can contribute to knowledge in general and even criterial knowledge in particular, they objected that the sorts of knowledge outcomes I describe in that post can be arrived at not intentionally but rather as a by-product of artistic practice, and therefore cannot be characterized as research.

This is a very reasonable objection. In fact, their objection could be stated even more forcefully: the knowledge outcomes I describe in that post are almost always achieved as a by-product of artistic practice and therefore almost never research as such (at least historically). We don’t view the poet Virgil as a “researcher,” even if his literary depiction of Dido has informed Western people’s cultural understanding of the character and qualities of jealousy for two millennia.

Their objection made me realize that I had left certain things tacit in that post that should have been made explicit. And upon further reflection, I developed some of my ideas about these issues further than I had before. So here are some amendments to the earlier post, addressing their objection:

  1. For a design researcher doing RtD to be able to invoke the Criterial Knowledge Argument for Research through Design in presenting/publishing her own work, she would have to justifiably claim that the processes, methods, and desired inquiry outcomes of the RtD project in question were designed to contribute to criterial knowledge of a given domain, concept, phenomenon, experience, etc., and she would likewise have to demonstrate that she did indeed achieve such knowledge.
  2. If, on the other hand, she was trying to do something entirely different (e.g., in the hope of contributing to “intermediate concepts” that characterize several successful designs) and as a by-product just so happened to contribute to criterial knowledge about X, then the latter knowledge outcome would obviously exist, but it wouldn’t be research (in the same sense that Virgil wasn’t a researcher when he wrote The Aeneid, even if the latter did result in criterial knowledge of jealousy).
  3. Let us consider another example, that of a design researcher theorizing a domain/phenomenon/matter of interest, whose methodology includes a critical examination of other individuals’ research through design projects (and sadly there is not enough of this at present, at least in HCI). If this design researcher is able critically and analytically to discover and to explicate that this corpus of designs do contribute to criterial knowledge of X in such-and-such ways, then that would be research, but it would be design criticism research, and also not research through design.

Centuries of critical interpretation and analysis of works of art as well as the theorization of that critical practice has shown that art works contribute to intellectual virtues in incredibly broad and diverse ways (e.g., criterial knowledge, improvement of our capacities of perception, rendering us more empathic and less egoistic, opening our minds to new ideas and values, and much more). In parallel ways, research through design is likely to achieve many of the same intellectual benefits.

My colleagues’ objection has helped me clarify that it is important to distinguish between those knowledge outcomes intentionally “baked into” a given RtD process as central to, even the point of, the research, and those knowledge outcomes that happen externally to such a research project. I’ve identified two categories of the latter: cognitive by-products of a design practice intended for some other purpose (e.g., to produce a good design), and subsequent critical discoveries, often made by third-parties.

I view it as a happy problem that RtD has such high potential to yield “surplus” knowledge outcomes, but less salutary that our theoretical and reporting vocabulary does not yet allow this community to do them justice.

Posted in Aesthetics, Design Process, HCI, Interaction Design, Research Through Design | 12 Comments