Conceptual Gaps in Interaction “Design”

I’m not finished working on my multipart series, “Interaction Criticism: How to Do It,” and I’m really looking forward to the next installment, which will present and discuss some examples from “serious” design criticism (i.e., design criticism published in academic books on design), but today instead I’m taking a mini hiatus and posting something different.

The more I immerse myself in readings that explicitly call themselves “design” (e.g., architecture, visual/graphic design, fashion, product design, interior design), the more obvious to me that certain forms of interaction “design” don’t resemble design at all. I have considered writing a post (or maybe even a paper) explaining why “game design” is not “design” at all, by showing its intellectual roots, methodologies, and above all slightly depressing history of copycatting (99% of games) and deifying those very few that have had original ideas (“ZOMG Will Wright is a genius“). (I respect Will Wright, but romanticizing him as some Achilles of intellection is a cop-out.) Game “design” needs to move beyond the idolatry of the auteur, and at least one way to do so is to connect itself more rigorously to the field of design than it currently does. </rant>

I’ll settle for a more modest focus today. This morning, I read a paper by Roger Scruton, noted British philosopher of aesthetics. Now, I’m normally not a big fan of his; he’s hostile to the continental philosophy that has shaped my ways of thinking. But he’s no slouch, and in the article I read, “Judging Architecture,” he was grappling with an idea that I care very much about: demonstrating that aesthetic judgments are not anything-goes subjectivism, but are in fact grounded in rationality. After reading so many scientific papers (which are structured as a straightforward narrative of a study design, its results, and a deliberately narrow interpretation of the data), it was refreshing to read a truly philosophical argument concerning reasoning about judging architecture.

In the essay, Scruton carefully distinguishes among a number of key concepts: chief among them are taste, judgment, experience, preference, and rational thought. I didn’t necessarily agree with his treatment of them all, but I sincerely appreciated the fact that he treated each of them with intellectual rigor.

After I read, I had a brief conversation with Erik Stolterman, and we discussed the absence of most of these terms in the field of interaction “design.” Interaction design, as a field, has developed only the concepts of reason and (recently) experience from that list. The rest of the terms–taste, preference, and judgment–don’t come up seriously in HCI literature. When I bring them up in papers, I inevitably get some smack-down from a reviewer that these ideas are “just subjective.”

Scruton opens his essay attacking this position (that taste is all subjective and isn’t worth arguing about) as indefensible. In his introduction, he writes,

Our [aesthetic] preference means something more to us than mere pleasure or satisfaction. It is the outcome of thought and education; it is expressive of moral, religious, and political feelings, of an entire Weltanschuuang, with which our identity is mingled.

Taste here is both based in human rationality (i.e., it is not irrational) and in education (i.e., it is intersubjective, not individual). So if taste is rational (not completely arbitrary) and shared by groups of users, it is something that interaction designers ought to care very much about. Other designers obviously do. Yet reviewing the previous paragraph of key words, the only one that traditional HCI cares about is “satisfaction”–one of the two terms Scruton rejects with a contemptuous “merely.” The rest of the categories, which arguably are the most important in our lives, don’t yet register: socio-cultural morality, an intersubjective world-view, and our identity itself.

There are objective and empirical aspects of a domain that obviously have huge importance for interaction designers, and social science research methods can be extremely effective at getting at them. But there are other aspects of a domain that require interpretation: identity, beauty, taste, morality, judgment among them. Why not turn to disciplines, especially sister design disciplines, that have developed rigorous approaches to dealing with them?

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