Low-Level Interpretive Strategies, or, Things to Look For
In Part 1 of this series, I covered three high-level critical strategies: thinking through associations, modeling the act of reading/interpretation, and identifying resonant passages/examples. Reading through them, I can imagine interaction design professionals thinking that all that sounds fine and well, but still not really knowing how to go about doing those things with any clear purpose, let alone rigor.
This post will offer much more concrete, do-it-yourself strategies that I believe anyone could start doing today. It’s not a comprehensive list, since the whole point of what makes a critic a critic is a personalized and cultivated habit of thinking that consistently leads to productive, deep thought. We all develop this over time, through practice, and (of course!) through engagement with other critics and acts of criticism. All too often, however, this need to develop one’s own critical voice becomes an excuse not to teach critical strategies explicitly, out of the fear they will be misappropriated or used in slavish and/or stupid ways. (Deconstructionists were infamous for denying that deconstruction was a “methodology,” which was a legitimate philosophical point that somehow wound up in service of obscurantism.) Misappropriation is a risk we’ll have to run.
I’ll stop ranting here. 🙂 As always, the goal is to make critical approaches accessible and try to walk the line between oversimplification and obscurantism.
Critical Reading Strategies, Or, How to Do a Close Reading of an Interaction Design
Following are six particular strategies you can use, which are not presented in any particular order and which are interrelated anyway.
- Try to make explicit to your own consciousness the overall effect (“gestalt” or “organic unity”) of the design. Next, identify diverse elements (graphics, interaction types, uses of language, fonts, white space, etc.) that make up that overall whole. How does each individual element contribute to/compete with/undermine the whole? How does the particular combination, juxtaposition, or “syntax” of these elements give them new or interesting meaning?
- Seek out the affective. It’s no secret that information, cognition, and disembodied universalizing knowledge have been dominant in interaction design for decades, often excluding emotion, affect, embodiment, desire, etc. HCI is belatedly addressing this, and critics, I think, are uniquely positioned to help interaction designers become more sensitive to these thoroughly subjective phenomena. Interaction is personal. Make that visible.
- Identify key terms/concepts in the interaction (e.g., the user, the participant, the company, the site, its value to you, incentives, other users, news, truth, terror, home, ethnic). Next, rather than passively accepting these terms as representing something “we all know,” explore the extent to which this term or concept is constructed in the interaction design, that is, how it is described, labeled, and positioned. How else could it have been positioned or constructed? Why would the designers/company behind the interaction have positioned or constructed key terms in these particular ways?
- How does the design “want” you to interact with it? Literary critics say that every novel projects its ideal reader. Surely interaction designs do the same. How does a design construct and project its ideal user? What are ways to resist this projection? What are the consequences of resistance? Griefing, emergence, harassment, evolution, and frustration (that is, some of the most important issues in HCI) all seem tied to resistance.
- Interaction designs often change our relationships with other humans. In some cases, an interaction design replaces interacting with a human (such as an ATM). In other cases, it may facilitate interactions with humans that you might never have otherwise known (e.g., World of Warcraft and Second Life). In still other cases, it may facilitate simple interactions that help maintain one’s largest social networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). In each of these, technology enters human-human relationships, and in so doing, shifts them. What are those shifts and how can we intervene as designers to understand and then encourage the best outcomes?
- Examine the marginal. If we can understand why something is in the margins, we can often understand better features in the mainstream. Marginal content/features often reflect social anxieties (e.g., the reluctance to talk about human sexuality in HCI), arbitrarily subordinated discourses, and opportunities for future innovation.
Conclusion to Part 2
OK, so that list gets at many of the things critics look for when they do a “close reading.” When I was doing close readings in literature, I would read the same thing over and over again. Through repeated readings and reflection, those patterns, those margins, and those resonances begin to become visible. In each iteration, the critic is focusing more or less on the same things; what happens is that focus evolves, or dials in, and when that happens, that which is hidden and yet often most significant begins to emerge.
In Part 3 of this series, I’ll talk about how the grist found from strategies here in Part 2 start to come together through critical interpretation.