How did we get here in HCI?

For the first time this semester I left a T/Th class session without cognitive overload. Things are coming together, but I’m not sure I’m there yet. Please help fill in the gaps.

I’m OK with not knowing where we’re going yet, but I would really like to figure out how we got here. So here’s my cognitive dump on where we are: HCI is clearly phenomenological in nature, we eschew the idea that we can know of “the thing in itself” we just deal with the world as it is presented to us. Each of us lives in our own little lifeworld, with our own prejudices, ideas, tendencies, memes, and experiences all of which could be called horizons.

(It strikes me at this point that the world horizon isn’t that useful a concept, perhaps someone could help me out here? I mean why not just call all those things by their names, do we need an overarching term here? Does it simplify our lives? OK back on track…)

Practitioners in HCI are “human-centered” because we are looking for intersubjectivity through various methods, we then take what we learn of that intersubjectivity and use that ‘inform’ation to inform new designs to make technology better. To break that down a bit more we ignore the “thing in itself” i.e. what the user “really is” we just take what we are given. We do ethnography and ethnographic types of activities (user studies, focus groups, interviews, and so on) to get a deep understanding of a sampling of the users. That understanding helps us understand what the user wants (i.e. what where the commonalities are, what part of their lifeworlds overlap, etc). By going through all this we make the people who use our designs more important than the designs themselves. (? Maybe? I don’t know)

So back to the piece by Boedker we references earlier in the semester, we’re in the start of 3rd wave HCI. What does this mean philosophically? HCI was born out of a reaction to terribly designed systems, the so-called engineering design of the early 70s, since it was so new then did they really have any philosophical basis? Enquiring minds want to know. With it’s emphasis on GOMS and other highly technical (utility optimization anyone) ways of analyzing things, it seems not to be so phenomenological. I think part of that must be my lack of familiarity with what that was all about. Enter wave two, which seems to be phenomenology and HCI as I described above. Now we are (at least some of us) moving into third wave HCI, a more “experience design” kind of thing where we’re not just looking at productivity apps, and the workplace, but webs of technology, leisure computing, entertainment computing (games woohoo!), and all that jazz. In 502 Jeff talks about the whole experience design thing an d draws heavily on the likes of Dewey and all his philosophical descendants, which are pragmatists. How does that work into the whole phenomenological thing?

So here I am at the end of my posts with more questions than answers, most of them are stated in my post, but here they are again:

1. How did we arrive at phenomenology as an underpinning to HCI, did it just fit?

2. How does phenomenology and pragmatism play together in the blending of 2nd and 3rd wave HCI?

3. I know we covered this in class briefly, but can I get a short reminder on the roots of Phenomenology? What was it in reaction to? What was Husserl, Heiddger et al trying to solve or get at?


  1. jeffreybardzell

    There is a lot here, so I can’t deal with it all, but I can make one or two comments. First, as to the question of how we arrived at phenomenology as an underpinning to HCI, I think you’ve got things backwards. It’s not the case that a bunch of HCI folks sat around a table and asked, “hey, which philosophical system should we use as a resource?” (Though there indeed works of that nature, like Winograd & Flores).

    But the primary way this sort of thing happens is that HCI can be seen as an evolved expression of phenomenology. That is, HCI was founded primarily by psychologists, and the discipline of psychology was itself deeply indebted to phenomenology (it should be obvious why), and in fact phenomenology itself was founded by a psychologist: Edmund Husserl.

    Thus it is not the case that phenomenology is a dead philosophy of the past appropriated to help a new discipline, but rather the new discipline itself is one form of the living philosophy.

  2. jeffreybardzell

    How do philosophy and pragmatism play together? I love this question. We should talk about it in class! Though I’m a little sketchy on it myself. They are basically compatible in that both focus on the human experience of the world, as opposed to the world itself, and both rely on late modernist theories (phenomenology and pragmatism were roughly contemporary). But pragmatism appears to be more “introduced” into HCI, where phenomenology has been at the core of the discipline (per my previous comment). I’m not at all certain our field has really worked through the deep issues in bringing these two together. And I certainly don’t see myself as putting forward a compelling answer to that any time soon, either. It might make an interesting paper, though.

  3. houssian

    Re: Q1
    Yeah I didn’t think that a bunch of people go together and said. “I sure wish we could make computing better with some kind of great application of a philosophical system.” I guess I’m interested in the history there… … .. I sound like such a nerd.


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