This post is a speculative exploration of an interesting position. I do not present it as my considered position; rather, I am just trying to think through some interesting thoughts. I encourage people to engage with me on this via comments.
The gist of the issue has to do with what we take to be the primary “way in” to understand and evaluate interaction designs. What I am interested in is how seriously we (as researchers, practitioners, users, and members of society) should seek to understand and factor in the intentions of the designers who made them and the felt experiences of those who use them. Such intentions and felt experiences may include cognitive states, affective states, assumptions and values, predispositions, aspirations, and so forth.
The alternative view that I wish to explore dispenses with such subjective qualities and seeks meaning only in the qualities of the artifact itself. Representing this approach, I will work with a seminal pair of papers in literary theory called “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy” by Wimsatt and Beardsley, as my primary sources for this position, though I will also explore what it means to apply this work of literary theory to design (since literature and design seem to be two different sorts of thing). Again, this is all very speculative and playful for now.
I. The “Intentional and Affective Fallacies”
Both papers were first written in the 1940s and revised and republished in 1954, so they are hardly the cutting edge of literary theory and in fact pre-date the Grand Theory movement in literature in the 1970s and 80s (e.g., deconstruction, feminism, postcolonialism, Marxism, etc.). They are generally grouped with The New Criticism, a modernist movement that set itself in opposition to traditional literary approaches that fundamentally looked to the author as the primary source of meaning for a work (e.g., the expression theories of the Romantics, which were developed in the philosophical writings of R.G. Collingwood and Benedetto Croce). The New Critics rejected expression theories and instead sought to direct critical attention to “the text itself.” In doing so, they also rejected “affective” theories, that is, criticism that begins with the private subjectivity of the critic, for example, her or his emotions, imaginative activities, or even physiology (e.g., Emily Dickinson’s “goosebumps”). The following quote summarizes both positions and is from the introduction of “The Affective Fallacy”:
The Intentional Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its origins, a special case of what is known to philosophers as the Genetic Fallacy. It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological causes of the poem and ends in biography and relativism. The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results, (what it is and what it does), a special case of epistemological scepticism…. It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism. The outcome of either Fallacy, the Intentional or the Affective, is that the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear. (AF, p. 345)
There are several points that should be made about this quote.
First, its scope of inquiry is the standard of criticism, that is, the primary criterion by which we judge poetic merit. It is not about accounting for how poets produce poetry, and it is directed at the public appreciation of a poetic work, and not towards creative writing pedagogy or something similar. I say this to stress that Wimsatt & Beardsley are not suggesting that no one ever has a legitimate interest in authors or readers, but rather that they argue that “the text itself” should be the primary criterion of critical judgment.
Another point worth mentioning is the authors’ fear of “relativism,” which they argue is the unwanted consequence of both the Intentional and Affective Fallacies. The relativism argument hinges on the third point, which is another distinction, that between the public and the private. Relying on the distinction in Speech Act Theory between speaker’s meaning and sentence meaning (i.e., what the speaker is trying to express versus what the words actually mean in everyday language, respectively), Wimsatt & Beardsley see the poem as public and objective in the sense that it is an object in the world and both comprises and is open to inspection using public resources, such as language. In contrast, on their theory, authorial intention and reader response are both private and subjective, and because of these, both intention and response are inaccessible and idiosyncratic. I should stress that Wimsatt and Beardsley do acknowledge that historical facts about authors and historical facts about literary reception can contribute to a critical judgment about a poem–they just want to rule out either candidate as the [primary] standard of criticism, because they want to focus critics’ attention on the work itself.
II. Implications for Interaction Design
What makes all of this interesting, of course, is that in HCI and interaction design today, we have a field that is committed to more or less the opposite of Wimsatt & Beardsley’s position.
I’ll begin with HCI’s focus on intention. In HCI research, we generally take papers more seriously than we take designs. At CHI, Papers and Notes are the most prestigious track, getting the most serious and rigorous reviews, while Interactivity and the Video Showcase tracks have much less rigorous standards and less prestige; the latter are also not archived in the same way as the former. Through these papers and notes, in the name of scientific transparency and replicability, researchers articulate their intentions, their own literary biographies, their creative processes, and their reflections on them. Outside of research, we often treat designers as romantic geniuses (witness the cult of Steve Jobs, but also the way we valorize the founders of Google or Facebook and their life stories). And if we are honest, we do a little bit of this inside of the research community as well, though hopefully not so crudely. For example, a recent paper at DIS methodologically recognizes (but also, I would argue, celebrates) the autobiographies of some of the HCI research community’s superstars: Bill Gaver, Greg Abowd, Saul Greenberg, etc. (Neustaedter & Sengers).
As for HCI’s focus on affective response, that is, the “results” of the design, well, I hardly need write this. Mainstream research in user experience, user engagement, and aesthetic interaction predominantly focuses on diverse ways of collecting data to gain access to the private subjective experiences of users–physiological sensors, Likert scales, behavioral tracking, interviews, eye tracking, EEGs, and the list goes on. We model this data and propose how user’s psychological needs, aesthetic preferences, and emotional reactions all contribute to higher level design judgments. On this view, good designs are designs that have been judged by users to be good, and these judgments have been made for diverse reasons that can be explained by cognitive psychology. In short, the very notion of “human-centered design” is predicated on what Wimsatt and Beardsley inclusively label (and reject), “affective response.”
III. The New [HCI] Criticism?
Now I turn to the most speculative and playful part of this post. What would happen if we imagined The New Criticism of Wimsatt & Beardsley and applied it to interaction designs?
Let me start with a quote to clarify some of Wimsatt & Beardsley’s interpretive predispositions.
The poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge. (IF, p. 335).
Applying this as set of guidelines, we would look at a given interaction design as follows:
- As a public artifact (that is, something that has public existence external to the individual subjectivities of designers and users)
- As embodied in a design language, which is also accessible to the public
- As an object of public knowledge and public use
The sort of evidence we might look for to support a critical judgment about an interaction design is on this theory “direct textual evidence,” that is, aspects of the design itself. This presumably would include more or less straightforward objective issues such as user interface, input and output schemes, functionality, etc.
More subtle, and more interesting, is the fact that this would also include issues of publicly available meaning or significance: connotation, style, and a range of “objective” qualities such as material, composition, and presentation.
Material issues include not only what it is made out of (physically and virtually), but also the public knowledge of the existing uses and meanings of these materials and how the design leverages, exploits, furthers, and/or misconstrues these uses and meanings. For example, it might extend to notions of production value or craftsmanship, as judged by public standards of the same.
Compositional issues include part-whole relations and matters of structure and organization. These might include the composition of visual objects, of common behaviors/uses, of inputs and outputs, of visual or logical hierarchy, of the construction of virtual “objects,” etc. All of these would be further judged by their situatedness within a publicly known and understood tradition of such compositions, e.g., whether this is a copycat interface, is truly original, reflects a nuanced improvement, completely changes the operative mental models, and so forth.
Presentational issues include the specific and concrete means by which an object is presented to our attention. This includes issues of style, of ordering, of point of view, and of narration. Style involves “the constancy, or consistency, in the way an individual, or a group, treats the formal elements of … a visual culture” (Barnard, 173). Operating systems, platforms, and software collections (e.g., Adobe software) all have styles, but so do ATMs and GPS systems. These styles often participate in broader stylistic conventions, such as the cool science fictional style of Microsoft Surface. They are also significant: the ascendancy of Facebook over the (then) functionally similar MySpace was partly attributed to Facebook’s cleaner, more professional visual stylings. Video games carry forward many conventions of storytelling, including point of view, narration (i.e., the distinction between what happens in a story and the telling of that story, including what order the events are told in, which ones are focused on, etc.).
The New Critic also sees these issues as coming together (ideally) in what they refer to as an organic unity, which refers the way that the different elements, compositional strategies, presentational strategies, materials, contents, connotations, and even internal ambiguities and tensions all come together in a grand coherence. Such a work achieves the unity in variety that has long been considered a key indicator of the aesthetic work. The functional, stylistic, material, and formal coherence of the Apple ecology seems to exemplify The New Critical “organic unity.” (Though one might add that this unity is not always a good thing, such as when Apple products refuse to work with non-Apple systems and services for no other reason than Apple’s desire to fleece its own customers in aesthetically pleasing ways.)
IV. Reflections, Criticisms, and Limitations
Wimsatt & Beardsley’s account obviously would encourage us to play down designer intentions when it comes to judging interaction designs. The basic argument here is that a poem should be judged as aesthetically successful independently of whatever the poet intended or planned to do. This view is easy enough to motivate: sometimes we are accidentally successful, and sometimes we fail in spite of our intentions. Inasmuch as we judge a work on its success in relation to publicly accessible resources and criteria, Wimsatt & Beardsley’s approach seems almost commonsensical–no one will judge a design good because a designer merely intended it to be good.
And yet surely intention is a more important criterion for evaluating a design than it is for poetry. That is, design seems more fundamentally intentional than art, such as poems. After all, when we are frustrated with a design, we ask, “what were they thinking?!”–surely an appeal to intention. There is a distinction in literary theory that might be useful here, and it is the difference between the actual-historical author and the implied author. The former is (or was) a living person, with thoughts, feelings, intentions, etc. The latter is what a reader can infer of the author based on the text, that is, the author inscribed in the text. Consider the following excerpt:
After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people. (1.4)
Based on patterns in language (e.g., grammatical violations, contractions, use of colloquialisms), the nature of the reasoning, and the bluntness of its presentation, we can infer much about the speaker here, without needing any privileged access to his private consciousness. That is, the implied speaker is present to us in the public language of the text; the historical speaker and his private consciousness can be much more elusive. (The quote, incidentally, is from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)
So it would seem that in judging a design, we should likewise be able to infer much about its design intentions, without reference to the private thoughts of the actual designers. Keyboard shortcuts in Adobe products are intended to improve the performance of power users; the standardization of keyboard shortcuts across programs are intended to improve the learnability of these keyboard shortcuts (and perhaps to build commitment to the brand). We do not need to interview any Adobe designer to find out what was intended, and we certainly don’t need to interview anyone from Adobe before we form judgments about whether such design features are good or not.
Another key difference between poetry and design is that most poetry (and modern Western art in general) has an explicit author/artist attached to the work, but much design does not. Who wrote The Great Gatsby? F. Scott Fitzgerald. Who designed the Adobe Acrobat 10 for Mac Export Wizard? Uh, hmm. In a way, this seems to be an argument in favor of Wimsatt & Beardsley’s position. Conversely, Wimsatt & Beardsley’s position doesn’t seem well equipped to handle insights regarding patterns across a given creative designer’s or artist’s oeuvre. When we say, “a Hitchcock film” or “how Hitchcockian!” we are referring to an individual’s style across works. Jonathan Ives’ name is attached to a whole generation of highly successful–and visually, interactively, and technically coherent–Apple technologies. Or perhaps Wimsatt & Beardsley’s position can be used to explain such patterns or styles: are not those Hitchcockian or Ivesian features publicly accessible, inscribed in a series of objects and articulable as a style? And again, how much access to the private consciousness of Hitchcock or Ives do we need to perceive, appreciate, and/or judge this style?
So perhaps the reasoning expressed in “The Intentional Fallacy” does have prima facie plausibility for judging interaction designs.
How about the applicability to interaction design of Wimsatt & Beardsley’s position on the Affective Fallacy? Maybe I’ve been in HCI too long, but I’m struggling with this one. For one thing, it seems to me that today’s social science is better at sussing out “private” feelings much more capably and usefully than Wimsatt and Beardsley allow. For another, the majority of interaction designs are intended (ahem) for commercial use today and in the near future. A practicing interaction designer is less likely hoping to surrender her- or himself to Tradition (as T.S. Eliot characterizes the true goal of the great poet) but rather is trying to make something that works, that is generally pleasing, that is commercially successful, but not something that is timelessly aesthetic in some noble and abstract and its-OK-if-y’all-realize-my-greatness-after-I-die kind of thing. Interaction designers would probably agree with Woody Allen: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”
At any rate, here is where I am ending up as a result of this thought experiment:
- Wimsatt & Beardsley’s argument in favor of analyzing artifacts as publicly available objects with publicly available purposes, communicative elements, etc., seems reasonable and relevant for interaction designs. Indeed, I personally am inclined to think that the appropriation of literary (and other aesthetic) analytical vocabularies to critically interrogate artifacts could enrich interaction design as a discipline.
- Wimsatt & Beardsley’s argument against authorial intention seems plausible but a little bit troubling as applied to interaction design. The “implied designer” hedge definitely takes much of the sting out of their position.
- Wimsatt & Beardsley’s argument against affective response seems categorically to invalidate pretty much all of user experience research. I can twist my head in pretzels on this one, but I don’t think I’ll make any headway with it. Systematically obtained knowledge about how users actually experience interaction design is too valuable a resource to throw away. (On an interesting historical note, text-centric theories of the middle 20th century–the New Criticism, structuralism, and semiotics in particular–did all eventually give way to “reader response” and “reception theory” perspectives, as one can easily see in the careers of Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes.)
So that was fun. Write a comment and tell me what I got right and wrong….
Barnard, M. (2001). Approaches to Understanding Visual Culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Neustaedter, C. & Sengers, P. (2012). Autobiographical design in HCI research: designing and learning through use-it-yourself. In Proceedings of the Designing Interactive Systems Conference (DIS ’12). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 514-523.
Wimsatt, W.K., and Beardsley, M.C. (1954). The affective fallacy. In D. Lodge, ed., 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader (1972). London: Longman, pp. 345-359.
Wimsatt, W.K., and Beardsley, M.C. (1954). The intentional fallacy. In D. Lodge, ed., 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader (1972). London: Longman, pp. 334-344.