Interaction Criticism: How to Do It, Part 7

Readings: Going Off on Your Own

Continued from Part 6 of the Interaction Criticism series, which starts here.

Acknowledgment: Many of the ideas and readings cited throughout this series and particularly in this post reflect the research and contributions of my colleague and spouse, Shaowen Bardzell.

I certainly have enjoyed composing this series of posts, and I hope to revise it into a paper soon. In the meantime, I have gotten lots of requests for places to start reading, and so this final post in the series I offer some resources for you to explore.

There are two categories of works I will mention here. First, there are works in the field of HCI that take critical perspectives. Second, there are general and introductory works to critical theory and aesthetics.

Critical Approaches to HCI

I will mention a few works in HCI that take critical perspectives. But before I do, I want to take a position. All of the works in this area I am about to cite are inspirations and models to me. While I have various pecky critiques and peeves for each, I love them all and must acknowledge how enormously influential and inspirational they have been to me.

That said, I do not recommend that interaction designers, especially with scientific backgrounds, rely on them to understand how critical theory can interface with HCI in a way sufficient to support critical practice (they’re fine, of course, if all one wants is to get a sense for what critical HCI looks like). None of them are introductory works on critical theory, because all of them are original applications of critical theory in the domain of HCI. They may offer some introductory remarks, but these are (appropriately) merely geared to ensure that readers understand the works in question–not to ensure that readers understand critical theory in any nuanced way. But critical theory is all about nuance; none offers an explicit methodology, as it relies instead on the creative intellectual capacity of the critic to make use of the theory to explicate and/or interpret a given phenomenon. Additionally, critical theory has its own history and relationships to the history of art and design, and it loses quite a bit when it is ripped out of that context.

The risk–and one I have seen actualized many times–is that people appropriate critical theories that they have read about in HCI literature in poor ways. They simply don’t understand them, and it’s obvious to anyone who has had exposure to the theory in question. I don’t want to be an elitist at all–I really want our field to make full use of critical theory and (I really mean this) to innovate on it–but at the same time, there have to be some standards with regard to how these are appropriated. Yanking a critical concept willy nilly out of its context because of apparent similarities to the way one already understands something in interaction design is a poor use of critical theory. Critical theory does not exist to confirm what we think, offering a fancy vocabulary to justify us; it is supposed to transform how we think, offering an approach to helping us think the unthought, to have ideas we couldn’t have without it.

So, without further ado, here are things I heartily recommend as ways of seeing how critical theory interfaces with HCI, and which I heartily do not recommend as introductions to critical theory. It is not comprehensive. Remember this is just a blog!

  • Bardzell, J. & Bardzell, S. Interaction Criticism: A Proposal and Framework for a New Discipline of HCI. In In CHI’08 Extended Abstracts. ACM Press (2008), 2463-2472.
  • Bertelsen, O. & Pold, S. Criticism as an Approach to Interface Aesthetics. Proc. of NordiCHI ’04, ACM Press (2004). 23-32.
  • Blythe, M., Wright, J., McCarthy, J., and Bertelsen O. Theory and method for experience-centered design. Proc. of CHI 2006, ACM Press (2006), 1691-1694.
  • Boehner, K., DePaula, R., Dourish, P. & Sengers, P. Affect: From information to interaction. In Bertelsen, O. et al. (eds). Critical Computing—Between sense and sensibility, ACM Press (2005), 59-68.
  • Dourish, P. Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA, 2001.
  • Löwgren, J., & Stolterman, S. Thoughtful Interaction Design. MIT Press, 2004.
  • McCarthy, J. & Wright, P.  Technology as Experience. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. (2004).
  • Sengers, P. and Gaver, B. Staying open to interpretation: Engaging multiple meanings in design and evaluation. Proc. of DIS 2006, ACM Press (2006), 99-108.
  • Sengers, P., McCarthy, J., & Dourish, P. Reflective HCI: Articulating an agenda for critical practice. In CHI’06 Extended Abstracts. ACM Press (2006), 1683-1686.
  • Udsen, L., & Jørgensen, A. The Aesthetic Turn. Digital Creativity, 16 (4), 205-216.

So I hope that’s helpful.

Introductions to Critical and Cultural Theory and Aesthetics

If you want to practice, as opposed to read up on, critical approaches to HCI, then in my opinion, you minimally need to read about critical theory in its original context, which is literary, art, design, and cultural criticism. As noted earlier, I believe this because critical theory is not merely difficult (like all theory) but also because (also like all theory) it emerged in historical contexts, where one theorist was responding to the works of an earlier theorist, or a theorist was elaborating new theory at a time of major political or aesthetic change (e.g., the rise of modernism and the totalitarian state). These contexts matter!

I also recommend that people start with introductory readings. That may sound condescending. You might think, why don’t I just go out and read Heidegger or Barthes myself and form my own opinions? You can, but I don’t think it’s the most efficient way to get a practical, working knowledge of how to use the theory. This is so for many reasons. The main one is that Foucault or Derrida or Bakhtin or whoever wasn’t writing in Silicon Valley in 2008 about interaction design, but rather was writing in a different country, in a different historical era, about different stuff. And, by implication, for an audience other than us! That audience is assumed to know all sorts of things that, if you are still reading this post, you probably don’t already know. Derrida, for example, wrote assuming that the reader had already mastered (i.e., studied extensively, know the secondary literature on, and have mature, philosophical opinions of one’s own on), for example, Heidegger. Of course, to understand Heidegger, you need to have a similar mastery of Husserl, Kant, and Aristotle. And so on. Most of us aren’t in that audience, and that means we’ll miss a lot of nuance and significance of what we read.

Introductory books explain the key ideas to serious, intelligent people who don’t yet have that mastery. There is no shame in that, and I cite them all the time. My student’s edition of what could have been titled “What Foucault Said” has been more influential on me than anything Foucault wrote, and I actually have read the majority of Foucault’s writings available in English, right down to interviews and minor essays. Still, that intro book lays out the big picture and offers the framework in which I organize all those writings.

So there are five introductions to literary and critical theory that I am happy to recommend. I even append a brief comment about each, to help you in your selections. Again, this is not a comprehensive or carefully crafted list.

  • Peter Barry. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1995 (second ed. 2002). I just discovered this one, and I really like it. It does a good job of balancing theoretical concepts with a focus on method, that is, how such and such a concept might affect the way you read. I really wish I had had it as an undergrad.
  • Terry Eagleton. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1983. This is the classic work that everyone has read, but I actually am not crazy about it as an introduction. (I like it as an original work of theory, though.) My concern is that Eagleton does not really try to fairly represent the core ideas of each theory on their own terms, but rather interprets them on his own terms as he presents. Thus, there is a lot of critique in this book, which itself is great, but it interferes with its introductory capacity, IMHO.
  • Raman Selden (Ed.). The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism: Volume VIII: From Formalism to Poststructuralism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995 (2005). I love this volume, but it may be a little too oriented toward practitioners of literary studies. If you want to take your skills to the next level with key 20th century literary theory, particularly those influenced by linguistics, then this is a good next step. But if you’re just starting, I probably wouldn’t recommend this one.
  • Lois Tyson. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2005. This book delivers on the promise of its title. It introduces all the major schools in very acccessible chapters. My favorite feature: every chapter contains a section called “Some Questions ____ Critics Ask About Literary Texts,” (the blank is filled with the chapter topic: psychoanalytic, deconstructionist, feminist, etc.). These questions are a fantastic launching point for people first acquainting themselves with these theories who also want to practice using the theories. Love. It.
  • Patricia Waugh (Ed.). Literary Theory and Criticism: An Oxford Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. This phone book of an anthology covers quite a bit of ground. The chapters I have read have been readable and accessible introductions to the relevant theory–quite impressively so. The only downside is that some of the chapters introduce, develop, and justify the theoretical concepts without really saying anything about how to apply them. You are supposed to figure that out for yourself (and that’s exactly what is expected of trained critics, but those of us outside literary studies might prefer at least a little direction).

So much for the big introductions. I also want to mention aesthetics in this post. One might think that literary/cultural studies and aesthetics would more or less be synonymous. In a sense, they are. But there’s also a very significant distinction that’s worth mentioning. And I’m going to oversimplify it, but that’s too bad. This is a blog.

In the 20th century, there was a split in philosophy, whereby the field broke into two large camps. One was called Analytic, and it emphasized logic and cognition and tended to be practiced in the UK, USA, and Scandinavia. It gave us thinkers such as Carnap, Russell, and Quine. The other group was Continental, and it was primarily French and German, and focused on language, reader reception, and ideology; it gave us thinkers such as Heidegger, Habermas, Foucault, Derrida, and concepts such as postmodernism. These two groups had unpleasant things to say about each other.

The significance for our purposes is that, from what I can tell, people who use terms like literary theory, cultural theory, critical theory, and so on, are generally influenced by Continental philosophy. (Full disclosure: this was my training, and my strength, but I’m no longer a partisan for it–or against it.) In my readings, people who use the term “aesthetics” are more likely to have an Analytic background. And I love their work, even though they say bad things about my French intellectual heroes. There are many introductions to aesthetics as well, but there are two I have read cover-to-cover and wholeheartedly recommend:

  • George Dickie. Introduction to Aesthetics: An Analytic Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Dickie is deservedly famous for his institutional theory of art, a brilliantly clear thinker, and a surprisingly concise, accessible writer. How can I possibly improve on that as a recommendation? This book is under 200 pages!
  • Gordon Graham. Philosophy of the Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics. New York: Routledge, 1997 (3rd edition 2005). I need to teach more classes so I can make more students read this book! After offering a general theory of art, Graham examines each of the arts (visual arts, literary arts, music, performing arts, architecture, etc.) focusing on two seemingly simple questions: “What is the distinctive value of ____” (where the blank is filled with a given type of art) and “How does ____ direct the mind?” This second question, which at first struck me as a little idiosyncratic, is, in Graham’s hands, quite fecund. (It is also bracingly cognitive, but I’ll resist further criticism for now.)

Finally, and I really, really need to stop, unless someone is going to give me tenure based on a series of blog posts, I want to direct your attention to a few series that overall I really like, even if individual items in them can be uneven. Basically, and this is true of all four of the series, each volume takes on a single topic, is slender (usually between 100-200 pages), and written for a serious, but introductory audience. Rather than offering brilliant critique and original thinking, each instead offers a meat-and-potatoes introduction to its topic, based on the present consensus view of that topic. All are well referenced and, from what I have seen, actually written by legitimate experts in the field. So, if after reading some theory you decide you want to get a better handle on Lyotard’s critique of twentieth-century scientific thinking, you’ve got a great next step. Combined, these four series have over 100 volumes. They’re totally overpriced, so if someone from Routledge is reading this, now is the time for you to blush. Still, you’ll get a lot out of them, so bite the bullet.

  • Key Sociologists (series editor Peter Hamilton), published by Routledge. Sample authors: Simmel, Foucault, Weber, Bourdieu.
  • Routledge Critical Thinkers: Essential Guides for Literary Studies (series editor Robert Eaglestone), published by Routledge. Sample authors: Barthes, Lyotard, Kristeva, Zizek.
  • A Guide for the Perplexed (no specified series editor), published by Continuum. Sample authors: Deleuze, Derrida, Adorno, Levinas.
  • A Very Short Introduction (no specified series editor), published by Oxford University Press. Sample topics: Poststructuralism, Barthes, Literary Theory, Kant, Wittgenstein, Russell.

Of course, none of the books in the second half of this post are meant to replace reading the real thing. I certainly would not discourage someone from reading Foucault. But I would strongly discourage interaction designers who do not have a background in the humanities from reading Foucault or Barthes or Bakhtin without also reading some of the introductory literature about Foucault or Barthes or Bakhtin. This will hopefully help prevent the problem of people citing critics where their understanding is actually (and all too obviously) derived from reading about them in HCI literature.

“Interaction Criticism: How to Do It” Series Conclusion

I hope this collection of posts is helpful in arousing interest and giving leads to people with new interest in critical approaches to HCI. I also welcome constructive criticism, via email, as comments right here on the blog, or in your own blogs.

Thanks to all of you for the encouragement to see this series through, especially Shaowen Bardzell, Erik Stolterman, Mark Blythe, Gilbert Cockton, Alan Blackwell, Mattias Arvola, Tyler Pace, Will Odom, Hyewon Gim, James Pierce, Jordan Fugate, Heather Wiltse, and the PhD Design distribution list.


  1. Dave Royer

    Nice series of posts. Gracias.


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