Species of Interaction Criticism

One problem that is likely impeding the development of critical approaches in HCI is equivocation. Equivocation occurs when different meanings or uses of the same word are used interchangeably. “Criticism” appears to be just such a word, and the origin of this post was to offer some fundamental distinctions among different uses of “criticism” in the hope of helping prevent this sort of confusion.

Some quick examples will make the point clear. The following are examples of “criticism”:

  • A book or film review in a newspaper
  • A “close reading” of a work of Shakespeare, to explicate its greatness (etc.)
  • A “close reading” of a magazine ad for spaghetti, to develop a theory of semiotics (e.g., Barthes in Mythologies)
  • When a peer offers a critique to a design mid-process (e.g., studio critique)
  • The use of a case study as a deep, representative example
  • Theorization surrounding an experiential quality accompanying a cultural artifact
  • Comparison of a given example with a rubric, heuristic, or other evaluative framework
  • The act of constructing such an evaluative framework out of many examples
  • The development of an overarching explanation of a large group at a given time or place (e.g., postmodernism, Victorianism)
  • The development of a comprehensive philosophical system (e.g., Kantianism)

One might quibble that I have included an item or two I shouldn’t have, or failed to include an item I should have. Be that as it may, I hope the central argument holds: we use the word “criticism” in drastically different ways. And therefore, terms such as “critical HCI,” “interaction criticism,” and the like are subject to widely different understandings, unless given proper context. And unless we create that context, we are likely to be mired in confusion.

To help think through this problem, I moved up a level of abstraction to consider how different meanings of “criticism” might be situated in a field of possibilities in interaction design. I represent that field as follows:

The range of audiences (X axis) versus levels of abstraction (Y axis) for criticism
The range of audiences (X axis) versus levels of abstraction (Y axis) for criticism

The X axis represents the primary audience for criticism, that is, for whom it is offered. It does not represent the position of critics themselves (who lamentably are not really represented on this graph). It ranges from laypeople to academics, and in between are professional practitioners. The Y axis ranges from particulars (i.e., individual artifacts, such as that film, or this version of the iPod, or that novel) to abstractions (such as genre, qualities, categories, and types).

It is important to note that the picture I will develop in this post represents only my take on criticism in interaction design. If one were to explore criticism in film or literature, it likely would like quite different. Much of this has to do with relationships among key categories, such as the academic, the layperson, and the professional. In HCI, the professional seems to occupy a privileged role, in that any HCI theory that fails to offer explicit take-home points for practitioners is generally considered deficient (I am merely stating, not endorsing, this point of view). In literary criticism, by contrast, the distinction between professional practitioners and academics, and for that matter, between lay connoisseurs and the latter two categories, is much less clear.

So, in the context of interaction design, criticism at the level of the layperson can be charted as follows:

Interaction criticism at the level of the layperson
Interaction criticism at the level of the layperson

A review of a piece of software, e.g., in MacWorld or Electronic Gaming Monthly, is written about a particular piece of software for a lay reader. Thus, it winds up in the lower-left corner. I put Taste in the upper left corner, because it gets at how laypeople feel collectively about all of the relevant particulars in their time. The work of Genevieve Bell (or for that matter, Shaowen Bardzell) exploring domestic spaces in non-Western homes as a prelude to domestic and/or intimate IT design would fall into this category. Maybe “taste” isn’t the best word (disclosure, for what it’s worth: I was thinking about Bourdieu when I put that there).

With that out of the way, let us now turn to professional interaction design practice. Here’s how I see criticism playing out.

Interaction criticism as it manifests for professional interaction designers.
Interaction criticism as it manifests for professional interaction designers.

These are all presented as ranges, because I see lots of flexibility in their application. Across the bottom is studio critique. This is where peers offer one another expert design critiques, and where designers offer their own design rationales. Toward the layperson side of the range are student applications of critique, while workplace critique is professional. (Arguably, this line could be extended further rightward; I can imagine studio critique of avant-garde design–e.g., someone like Bill Gaver or a visionary Ph.D. thesis–taking place in relatively academic settings.)

Informing studio critique are abstract evaluative frameworks, heuristics, etc. These may be more or less abstract (hence the range). Nielsen’s Web Usability Heuristics are fairly general, and one can easily imagine heuristics for Web e-commerce shopping cart usability, for example, which would extend further downward toward the particular than Nielsen’s heuristics.

I also include case studies in this group. Case studies are interesting. On their face, they would appear to be particulars, so it might be a little mysterious why I positioned them higher on the abstraction axis than studio crit. The reason is that most of the case studies I have ever seen are accompanied by an at least implicit claim that this case represents something broader (i.e., more abstract). So it is on the basis of this additional claim that I consider case studies to be at least partially abstract. I have seen them used in professional and academic contexts, hence the horizonal range.

OK, next! In the top-right corner is abstract/academic, and no one will be shocked to see what lives up there:

The abstract-academic aspect of interaction criticism features theory.
The abstract-academic aspect of interaction criticism features theory.

In this I am trying to represent a distinction that I consider to be very important for HCI. In the extreme top-right is philosophy and critical theory that itself has origins outside of HCI, but which is brought into HCI via HCI theory. An obvious example of this is phenomenology, a philosophical system developed in continental philosophy by the likes of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty and appropriated into HCI by Winograd & Flores, Dourish, Sengers and Gaver, Fry, Willis, and others. Likewise, Bakhtinian literary theory has been introduced into HCI by McCarthy & Wright, Blythe, and others. Each of these HCI writers is engaging in a double-move: On the one hand, there is the contribution of new interaction design theory that has been informed by philosophy and critical theory (this is the Interaction Design Theory contribution); at the same time, there is some representation in HCI literature of what this philosophy is. That representation includes Winograd & Flores’ summary of Heideggerian concepts, McCarthy & Wright’s summary of Bakhtin, and so on. I want to stress that the original philosophy and critical theory are not represented in my picture, only their summaries and representations in HCI discourse. (The extent to which this philosophy and/or critical theory is robustly represented–and even understood–in HCI is also a matter with which we should be concerned.)

I see the Interaction Design Theory as forming a bridge between Philosophy/Critical Theory (which is academic) and Interaction Frameworks and Heuristics (which are professional practitioner-based). In a way, they are meta-frameworks, in that they offer the criteria out of which frameworks and heuristics are made. As XML is to MathML, so is design theory to design frameworks/heuristics.

My own perspective suggests that one potentially significant area of innovation in HCI research is the downward and leftward movement from philosophy and critical theory through interaction design theory and into professional practice through frameworks and heuristics. I do not mean to suggest that this is the only or even preeminent mechanism for this innovation to happen; but it does represent an alternative to technology driven innovation, and insofar as it does that, it creates a human-centered counterbalance to a technologically driven HCI agenda. In that dialogue–between technological and philosophical innovation–HCI is surely positioned to do its best work.

I want to return to the beginning of this post. The question was what are the species of criticism, insofar as criticism is a part of interaction design. As I have tried to show, it is incredibly diverse. To think of “criticism” as “magazine software reviews” or even “studio crit” is overly limiting. Criticism informs the full range of our work, as academics, as professionals, as everyday users. The following is the complete picture. I must reduce it on this screen to make it fit, but if you click it, you should be able to see the full-resolution version.

The field of possibilities. Click to enlarge.
Criticism and interaction design: The field of possibilities. Click to enlarge.


  1. Rajasee

    Wow, this is going to be greatly helpful in writing my class paper…’cause now I know which quadrant my artifact would lie and which axis I belong to as I write this paper.

    its interesting and insightful how you have carefully placed the egs. of criticism ~!

  2. anandkshitiz

    Great Post.
    I agree to Rajasee. This is definitely going to give a better understanding of this space to write the final paper.


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