Should the critical-interpretavist researchers of CHI leave the design subcommunity?

In this month’s Interactions magazine, there is an article I feel ambivalent about. It is Gaver and Höök’s “In Search of the Elusive CHI Design Paper“. I am ambivalent because there is much that I agree with and support, but at the same time some of its language–and practices it seems to support that I have seen and experienced–marginalizes research that I believe in and that I believe contributes to design.

The Article’s Argument

Gaver and Höök’s primary purpose is to address the problem that that not a lot of design papers are submitted to or get through the Design subcommittee of ACM SIGCHI. I think the authors’ desire to get more design papers (which I understand in the sense of reflecting the practices of design as a well established discipline) in CHI is one I share with the authors, so I have no objection to the primary purpose of this short article.

The authors further argue (1) that what is submitted to the design subcommittee reflects an over-broad understanding of design and (2) that design subcommittee submissions suffer from inappropriate reviewing standards applied to design.

Here is a key passage about (1):

We worry that Design is becoming something of a catch-all category at CHI. In many ways, it’s a good thing we provide a home for submissions that don’t fit easily into other categories, particularly papers that are risky, transdisciplinary, or unconventional. But all too often we encountered submissions that seemed better suited to one of the other subcommittees at CHI: Understanding Users, for example, or Interaction Techniques, Devices and Modalities. Why do these get sent to Design?

Of course, design has always been a difficult discipline to define. After all, we talk about interaction design, but also user interface design, or the design of computer architectures, or the design of data structures. For that matter, it is not unusual to hear that everybody is a designer—though we tend to agree with Bill Buxton’s rejoinder that if everybody who chooses their own clothes is a designer, then anybody who can count change is a mathematician.

Scoping design so broadly doesn’t seem useful to us. Instead, we think of design as involving certain skills and practices, including, for instance, planning and making finished artifacts, creative processes for reframing problems and developing design spaces, engagement with settings, material explorations, and an attention to aesthetics that seeks not just to make things beautiful but also to convey cultural identity, guide expectations, and shape a dynamic gestalt. Design in this sense may be pursued by individuals, teams, or collaborative groups; design work is increasingly distributed, outsourced, or left open for completion by end users. Nonetheless there is a family resemblance to design practices that Nigel Cross characterized as a way of thinking, involving synthetic, proactive approaches to understanding and shaping the world through artifacts. These are the sorts of practices developed through specialist courses and educational institutions, and though they can be pursued independently, it is important that they speak to those communities: Not everybody who makes something is a designer, and not all studies with relevance to design are design research.

[Full disclosure: As its authors note, the Interactions article reflects a discussion held in one of the design subcommittee’s groups; I was at that meeting where this was discussed.]

Though I see their point about the risks of an overly broad understanding of design, I have reservations about blaming the problem of too few design papers at CHI on such definition. That seems to suggest that the “real design papers” [sic] are being crowded out by, I guess, “fake design papers” (?). At the most superficial level, if it’s the case that papers are submitted that are out of scope of the design subcommittee, then it should be a straightforward matter for the subcommittee to refuse to consider them–either by rejecting them or by passing them to a more appropriate committee–a suggestion the authors also make. So out-of-scope submissions is not the real problem, and so I’m not sure why it was so important excommunicate them, if the goal is to publish more “real design papers.”

For Gaver and Höök, “The more important question to us, however, is why we don’t see more ‘real design papers'” submitted in the first place.

At this point, the authors turn to point (2), offering an interesting and insightful account (which is partly an outcome of the discussion at the PC meeting) of why “real design papers” get shot down by reviewers–they are expected to meet dubiously applicable criteria:

CHI design papers should—according to folk wisdom—be framed in terms of an overarching design approach (ideally new and with a catchy name), motivated by a set of specific research questions, accompanied by an extensive literature review, and analyzed in a lengthy discussion to produce generalizable lessons, ideally in theoretical terms.

But so far, what Gaver and Höök have offered is an argument to shift the standards of reviewing of “real design papers,” and I agree that stakeholders in the design subcommunity within CHI should take up such a project in earnest. Playing devil’s advocate, I can also see a counterargument that says, if you want to be a part of CHI you need to meet CHI’s standards and be legible to CHI. And a counterargument to that would be that if CHI wants to be influenced by design, it needs to make room for, understand, and respect epistemologies, methods, and discursive genres from design. (Personally, I think a reasonable outcome is somewhere in the middle, and it not only will, but should be negotiated in an ongoing way over time.)

But anyway, the authors have not made a clear argument about how to get “real design papers” submitted in the first place. The article ended with a To Be Continued, so hopefully they will get to that.

What About Us “Fake Designers”?

I wonder, however, whether the authors have considered the political effects of the framing of their article in terms of “real” and implicitly “fake” design, because it seems to me that the authors are excluding or at least marginalizing certain types of contributions that have been an important part of the design subcommittee in recent years.

Why do I say that? Gaver and Höök’s strategy of asserting that “design” is over-broadly defined in HCI–they use the pejorative term “catch-all” and add the reductio ad absurdum Buxton quip–asserts strong and explicit boundaries between “real design” and everything else. Their actual and repeated use of the term “real design” furthers this agenda. They even go so far as to define “real design papers”:

what we mean by real design papers is ones that focus on one or several of the practices listed earlier—the making of artifacts, creative processes, material explorations, or aesthetic crafting. Insofar as such concerns are the heart of design, it makes sense that they should be the topic of design papers as well. [emphasis in original]

Further, the language of the article (e.g., “it’s a good thing we provide a home for submissions that don’t fit easily into other categories, particularly papers that are risky, transdisciplinary, or unconventional”) reinforces a normative understanding of what is core and what is peripheral. And decisions about exemplary papers, including which papers are offered up as good examples to the community in the CFP, also seem to reflect this understanding.

My conclusion reading this is that I am a “fake designer” and that my contributions to the design subcommittee have been welcome but also not part of its core. And, dear readers, many of you are fake designers, too.

I asked in that discussion whether the committee was proposing a divorce between design and the critical-interpretativist thread of research, which I identify as a part of, and which has long been aligned with design in CHI. I never got an explicit answer in the meeting, but I think there is an implicit answer in this article as written (as well as in choices made about what papers best exemplify the design community).

So unless one views design theory as a material, the construction of an essay as a creative and material exploration, and the construction of interpretative understandings of design contributions as a form of aesthetic crafting; and unless one considers design criticism as a means of exploring and developing design spaces that “make things beautiful [and] also to convey cultural identity, guide expectations, and shape a dynamic gestalt”–then the work in the critical-interpretativist tradition at CHI is not “real design.” I don’t think Nigel Cross would see it as real design, and I am not sure whether those in the room where this discussion unfolded did either (the agenda-setting and visionary contributions of some of them to that very tradition notwithstanding).

What Should CHI Design’s Borders Do?

Borders perform two types of work. First, they assert and maintain difference–ensuring that elements from both sides don’t intermingle with each other. Second, they do almost the opposite: they allow elements from each side to cross into the other, in a controlled and structured way.

I am not opposed to some notion of borders to help clarify and support distinctive contributions of design to CHI.

But I also believe those borders are presently ill-defined for historic and epistemological reasons: the whole CHI community is still working out how it relates to design, what that relation means, who wants to be a part of it, and how.

And I don’t think the design subcommunity should unilaterally define that relationship.

Further, if the design subcommunity is not seeing the papers it wants, I would think the best strategy would be to invite the kinds of contributions it wants by welcoming, collaborating with, and helping to cooperatively shape those of us who want to engage design. That was my experience 10 years ago in the design subcommunity of CHI.

More recently, I am witnessing and experiencing something different, where the design subcommunity seems to be denigrating research it doesn’t consider to be “real design.” I am far from alone in feeling this way. I don’t believe this is intentional in many cases, but it is making me–and many critical-interpretavist colleagues I have spoken to–ask: where should our work go, if we want it to be read as making a more serious contribution than “fake design”?

Should the critical-interpretavist researchers of CHI leave the design subcommunity?

Conclusion / Recommendation

My own view is that there must be a way to promote “real design papers” in a way that nonetheless includes and welcomes fellow travelers on the borders–shaping their work and pulling them into the project. So I hope as a community we can attract more design papers into CHI, but I hope we can do it in a way that doesn’t marginalize and alienate those who have given much to design research.

Whatever the outcome to that, I hope that everyone who has a stake in design at CHI has a chance to participate in shaping the borders around design at CHI, as well as who gets to cross them, and with what kinds of welcome once they are there.


  1. Paul Dourish

    Many years ago, at a CHI PC meeting, I was sitting with a group of other ethnographic researchers, and we grumbled (as one does on these occasions) on how there weren’t enough ethnographic papers at CHI, because they were all being pushed out by those damn cognitive scientists and their experimental studies. Later, as I went to grab another coffee, I walked past a group of those damn cognitive scientists, to overhear them grumbling about how there weren’t enough experimental studies at CHI because they’d been pushed out by all those damn ethnographers.

    The lesson I took from this is that there is no “core” and “periphery” at CHI. Everything is peripheral. And that’s just fine.

    Now, sadly, this doesn’t stop the belly-aching, or the feelings of marginalization, and even occasionally of institutional response — for instance, CSCW recently instituted a singular special-interest committee for reviewing systems papers, because that category was perceived to be somehow uniquely under pressure and “different” (though “difference” is a two-way street). Nonetheless, I find myself always resistant to the notion that there is somehow a “core” to pretty much any of our communities or subcommunities — it’s a quaint and nostalgic notion, and like most nostalgia, paints a picture of a past that never was.

    That this debate should arise prompted by little more than the NAME of a subcommittee (and yes, it’s a name, and not a topic) seems even more problematic. One has to recognize that conferences are events shaped more by pragmatics than idealism. In the case of the Design committee and Design papers, there are two pragmatics that matter.

    The first is that at some point, someone identified an area of work, and had to assign it a label. “Design” came to hand. There are lots of things that travel under that banner in HCI, and that’s why the committee was there. But this is what analytic philosophers would call an extensional definition and not an intensional one — that is, “Design” is a label intended to capture the range of papers that get submitted in that area, but it isn’t meant to mean that all the papers submitted in that area should define what CHI means by “Design”. It is a label, not an ideal type. It’s a convenience; a compromise.

    The second form of pragmatic is one that we’re all familiar with, when we submit our papers. We submit our papers to people we think will “get” them. We go where the people are. (Kia might call this “social navigation”!) If Bill, and Kia, and Jeff, all got up from the Design subcommittee and went to the newly established and somewhat mysterious Committee X, or the Committee with No Remit, I’d submit my papers there instead, because I feel that Bill and Kia and Jeff will “get” what I’m trying to do. In other words, the papers don’t come to the Design committee because people are asserting, “This, THIS is design”. They are coming to the Design committee because people see, “Hey, Bill Gaver’s on the committee here. He’s going to see what I’m trying to do.”

    This debate seems to be based on a somewhat naive idealism that rather misses the point of what a practical, social organization a conference is. Maybe if all the ethnographies hadn’t been pushed out by experimental studies, people would understand this better.

  2. Kristina Höök

    Yeah yeah Paul, there is some gatekeeping – as always – but there is also crap research trying to adjust to some formulaic idea of what is a good result. and this is what we are arguing against.

    Tiny clarification: the confessions section of interactions is limited to a certain numbers of words. We therefore had to divide our “rant” into two halves. I had a look at our second half that will be published in the next interactions-piece, and there we write as follows (sorry spoiler-alert!):

    “Thus ‘something to do with design’ also includes design histories, critical reflections on design, service, infrastructure and activist design, as well as the whole burgeoning world of open sourced, crowd-funded, hacker-spaced, cooperatively produced, data-fuelled and user-finished designs. Moreover, we love surprises, so keep sending us the experimental, avant garde, transdisciplinary submissions that don’t fit elsewhere. Overall, what we really want are papers with a contribution to design clearly at the heart of the work and which will clearly benefit from evaluations by ACs and reviewers from the design community.”

    I hope this is clearly enough showing that we aimed to include cultural-interpretivist design papers? We were really trying to critique something else – a problem with papers that really belong somewhere else or papers that are disappointing in that the design is excellent, but then there is a crap user study slapped on as this is what people think CHI expects. Or vice-versa, a pretty crap design with an excellent user study. I am sorry if our message did not come through properly!


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