Interaction Criticism: How to Do It, Part 1

[Update] I have converted this 7-part series to a convenient PDF. You can download it here.

General Introduction

In my previous post I concluded that those of us who have a foot in the two worlds of literary/art criticism and interaction design should promote interaction criticism. I often get asked–by students, by design professionals in the HCI community–how someone without degrees in literature (etc.) can practice criticism. It’s tempting to resist such a request and point people at a bunch of handbooks of literary theory, and I’ll probably also add a post that does just that.

But for the sake of accessibility, and at the risk of being flamed for attempting to present the practice of criticism in a bullet-list laden blog post, I offer a high-level overview of what (I think) interaction criticism looks like. To make it manageable, I divide it into sections:

Part 1: What generally a critic has to offer, that is, high-level goals

Part 2: Low-level, everyday strategies of applying “close reading” to interaction design experiences

Part 3: Techniques for robustly and powerfully interpreting experience with interaction designs

Part 4: Some general thoughts on how to present these interpretations in the form of a critique

Part 5: Analysis of critical writing: Design magazine reviews

Part 6: Analysis of critical writing: Academic design writing

Part 7: Further reading: an edited list of accessible works on criticism

[Update: The above list has been expanded to reflect deviations from the original plan]

Without further ado, the rest of this post is devoted to some rough thoughts on what I think the primary strategies of the critic.

1. High-Level Strategies: What an Interaction Critic Does

Critics make sense of cultural artifacts in part by thinking deeply through associations, that is, what a particular interactive artifact can be connected to. Connections might include personal, socio-ideological, material, bio-historical and other associations. Though computationally we often represent knowledge hierarchically (remember Yahoo in the mid-90s?), humans think associatively and metaphorically (see Lakoff and Johnson for more on this). Critics cultivate these associations in profound, reflective, personal, and intimate ways as a means to develop deep, subjective understandings of phenomena. (In other words, I am certainly not talking about a network diagrammable set of objective relations; each critic builds her or his own networks of connections.)

Critics model expert reading (or, in our case, they should model expert interaction). What this is not: How do people do X (which is an empirical question that psychologists of aesthetics and user researchers often ask)? Instead: How does an expert do this to have the most comprehensively aesthetic experience possible (which is a speculative question without a definitive answer)? The point is that there is no single best or authoritative reading or interaction, and therefore there is no one to point out what that would be. The critic instead models how she or he approaches an interaction with the goal of doing so in the richest, most fulfilling, and/or most worthy way. Those who read criticism incorporate these models into their own interpretive practice.

Critics identify “resonant” passages and examples. Social scientists often seek to find representative passages, and so we get sampling, statistical significance, and so on; in doing so, they are trying to get a handle on “what’s out there.” Criticism identifies passages not by claiming they are representative, but rather by claiming they are “resonant” of something deep and messy (in speaking of “resonance,” I am appropriating Stephen Greenblatt). Often what resonates to a critic is below the surface consciousness of the designers (i.e., their intentions) or their users. This may sound elitist or perhaps even somewhat hocus-pocus, but it need not be; Dick Hebdige’s classic study of subcultures revealed much behind the emergence of punk and countercultural fashion and ideology that none of its stakeholders–the punks themselves, the music industry, the fashion industry that both sells to and borrows from them–were aware of. Thus, the worth of one critic’s versus another critic’s “resonant passages” is connected to erudition, insight, experience, conceptual command, and domain expertise. The cliché that “everyone is a critic” may have some truth, but that certainly does not mean that everyone is an equally good critic!

I’ll wrap up part 1 here. I welcome constructive criticism and insight. I am putting this out there in good faith and hope to expand criticism to a new domain, rather than impoverish it by oversimplifying it. If you can help me walk that line better, I certainly want to hear from you!

Onto Part 2!


  1. Svante

    Hello Mr. Bardzell! I am wondering, as I currently have a school assignment to learn more about interaction criticism and to write a critical interaction critique of a type of media, is it possible to do so with a website? For example, a community or forum website, where teenagers interact with each other? The purpose would be to analyze how the language on the website is designed, what it permits me as a user to do and not to do, how the website wishes I as a user interacts with it and other users, compare the website to similar websites and so on. I would be very thankful for an answer, if this is a legitimate choice for me to critique. I am sorry for my bad english, as I am from Denmark and english is not my real language. King Regards, Svante.

    • jeffreybardzell

      Yes, of course! I think the key issue is to identify, define, and justify (or simply explain) why you chose a given web site (or part of a web site) as interesting for critique.

      • Svante

        Hi Mr. Bardzell! Thank you so very much for the quick reply! I will make sure to motivate and justify my choice of this website. Once again, thank you!

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