4 Ways to Integrate Critical Theory and HCI

I’m at a workshop on critical theory and HCI, and one of the participants asked the group to try to articulate what critical theory gets us. People had some very thoughtful reactions and elaborated complex responses. But I had a simpler response. I had been taking notes from people’s talks in the morning, and I had a ground-up answer to that from our group. Specifically, I wrote down the different ways that people articulated their use of critical theory in interaction design, and it seemed to me that each person’s description of her or his own work fell into one or more of four categories. I shared this categorization with the group and they more or less accepted it, so perhaps there is something to it, so I thought I would share it with readers of this blog. (Note: these are not really presented in order, but I want to talk about them afterwards, so I am numbering them for that reason.)

  1. Critical theory can inform one or more stages of the traditional interaction design process (e.g., user research, prototyping, evaluation)
  2. Critical theory can resist, transcend, transform, or subvert the traditional interaction design process (example: the experimental-art-like approaches of Bill Gaver)
  3. Design is used to develop theory (in other words, designs are made only to explore and create theory, not to be released to solve a real-world problem)
  4. The critic stands outside of interaction design and critiques interaction designs

So (1) and (2) directly lead to actual designs. (3) and (4), if they lead to designs, they only do so indirectly.

And, after a comment by Ann Light to the effect that each of these entails ethical positions, I realized her point could be expanded to include epistemological positions, notions of “rigor,” criteria for judgment, skill sets, and therefore training and education. It is worth teasing these out (but not here, at least not today).


  1. maureen

    Jeffrey–I’d like to know what your HCI students think of critical theory. I am in the HCI program at the University of Michigan and find that the students here have no familiarity with critical theory and no real desire to learn it. A faculty candidate came recently and spoke about using the theoretical framework of hermeneutics to characterize processes of human agency in technology use and you could see the students’ eyes glaze over. I had a healthy dose of theory as an art student so I have an appreciation of it and certainly think it can be strongly applied to interaction design.

  2. jeffreybardzell

    Students are receptive to critical theory if it is introduced in the right way. That’s not easy to do, because many come from backgrounds where empirical research is “natural” and therefore anything else comes across initially as unnatural. I try to use many familiar and accessible examples from other fields, especially film, to demonstrate the value of critical theory, and then I work with them to figure out how such an approach might fit in interaction design. Most students are open to this (I think starting with film, rather than e-commerce shopping carts and/or a mobile phone interface helps).

    Also, there is institutional support here in IU HCI: other faculty in the program reinforce the legitimacy of these approaches, so students know they shouldn’t just tune it out.

    Like anything else, patience, persistence, and positivity go a long way. 🙂


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