Criticality Need Not Be Negative in HCI

One comment I hear from the HCI and design communities–from students and senior researchers alike–is the assumption that criticality is negative, that the role of a critique is to “destroy” something, or that critics just dump on the hard work of others. I want to push back against this idea, and I will explain why in this post. But first I want to acknowledge some (good) reasons why people hold this belief.

One reason is that “to criticize” in ordinary language has negative connotations: for example, we say that a spouse criticizes his or her partner, or an employee makes critical comments about another, and we understand that to be negative.

Another is that, for diverse reasons having to do with intellectual history, traumas associated with nazism, segregation, and colonialism, as well as emancipatory movements such as women’s suffrage and civil rights, among others, much of critique in the middle and later parts of the twentieth century were overtly political in nature. Informed by Freudian psychoanalysis, Nietzschean skepticism, Marxist political critique, feminist critique, and postcolonial critique, among others, this strand of academic criticism was also “negative,” a “hermeneutics of suspicion” as Paul Ricoeur put it. It rose to a position of dominance in many humanities departments and became–it would appear–almost synonymous with academic criticism.

Yet another is that scientific peer reviewing to which we are all subject to in the HCI community takes a stance of strong skepticism. It does so for perfectly legitimate epistemological reasons, cohering with Popperian notions of falsification. Yet scientific peer reviewing is–I have always maintained–a species of criticism, and more than most others it does, and is supposed to, have a central element of tearing down (i.e., attempts at falsification).

Finally, in HCI and design, much of the work that is widely viewed as “critical” is also negative in similar ways. Papers that have critiqued problematic assumptions of existing IT research threads (Dreyfus’ attacks on AI is a classic example, and in HCI we have many papers written by critical researchers such as Paul Dourish, Susanne Bødker, Liam Bannon, Phoebe Sengers and others) exemplify a form of critique that is experienced by their targets as negative (see, e.g., Picard’s response to one such paper). But it doesn’t end there. Dunne and Raby’s critical design is often characterized as dystopian, and they frame that work in line with the hermeneutics of suspicion (specifically a 20th century formulation of Marxism, as we argue here). Further, concepts such as “agon” also have high currency in design circles. I do not mean to attack any of this work–such critical works have had the benefit of opening up new research agendas in HCI and design as an important outcome. But I do want at least to acknowledge that much of it can be understood in some important senses as negative, in the political/adversarial sense and/or in the sense of exposing “bad” intellectual assumptions and challenging their consequences.

In summary, there are plenty of good reasons why many in HCI and design might see criticism as inherently negative. Even so, this is only a partial view, and HCI would benefit from a fuller one.

So, as someone who graduated with a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, let me begin my own response to this by stating that I did not pursue literature because I wanted to write papers about how my favorite authors’ finest ideas rested on faulty logic and bad assumptions, or that their work supported the agendas of colonialists, sexists, racists, and capitalists. All of that matters, of course, but I would argue that it matters insofar as it contributes to (rather than as the outcome of) my broader efforts after meaning and reflective engagement with the work.

In short, I pursued literature because I loved it. (“Literature is what we love,” writes Italo Calvino.) Why did I love it? I felt that literature opened my eyes, raised my moral consciousness, expanded my imagination–broadened my horizons, to use Hans Georg Gadamer’s language. I still do feel that way. And the point of criticism was to support and enrich such experiences. In other words, I did not want “dominate” works of art with the deconstructionist’s or semiotician’s or new historicist’s vocabulary; I wanted to use such vocabularies to enrich and intensify my experiences with those works.

Perhaps you suspect that maybe I hold an idiosyncratic view of criticism, and that the rest of the world practices criticism in a more confrontational form. But actually I think what I am saying is fairly orthodox. Here are some sample definitions concerning criticism.

Philosopher of art Noël Carroll (2008):

For me, the primary function of the critic is not to eviscerate artworks. Rather, I hypothesize that the audience typically looks to critics for assistance in discovering the value to be had from the works under review…. [T]he critic also occupies a social role. In that social role, the primary function of criticism is to enable readers to find the value that the critic believes that the work possesses.

Philosopher of art Morris Weitz (1956):

Criticism is a form of studied discourse about works of art. It is a use of language primarily designed to facilitate and enrich the understanding of art. Involved in its practice are highly developed sets of vocabularies, various sorts of procedures and arguments, broad assumptions, and a vast diversity of specific goals and purposes.

Literary critic Harold Bloom (2004):

[My book] Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? arises out of a personal need, reflecting a quest for sagacity that might solace and clarify the traumas of aging, of recovery from grave illness, and of grief for the loss of beloved friends. […] I have only three criteria for what I go on reading and teaching: aesthetic splendor, intellectual power, wisdom.

Cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall (1996):

I come back to [cultural] theory and politics, the politics of theory. Not theory as the will to truth, but theory as a set of contested, localized, conjunctural knowledges, which have to be debated in a dialogical way. But also as a practice which always thinks about its intervention in a world in which it would make some difference, in which would have some effect. Finally, a practice which understands the need for intellectual modesty.

Philosopher Aristotle (335 BCE),

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.

I have, over the years, collected hundreds of definitions like this–enough to convince me that this view is a more representative view of criticism than the confrontational view, which (I believe) this formulation subsumes.

So, without in any way de-legitimizing more confrontational forms of critique, my point is to stress that they are but one strand of critique, and of only recent dominance. And while they should continue, I think HCI would also benefit from more critical interpretations in this other, more facilitative sense: helping readers to get better at engaging with and reflecting on experiences with technologies, which includes, but cannot be limited to, sophisticated understandings of how they participate in structures of power and domination and/or rest on flawed assumptions.

I am, of course, advocating once again for an aesthetics of skillful sympathy and of scholarly appreciation, which I have argued for on this blog before, in public talks, and in published works going all the back to my dissertation. (It’s a bit of a theme for me.) I have also tried in my work to practice what I preach, that is, by practicing interaction design criticism in a way that is marked by sympathy and appreciation, with no intent to pull the rug out from under anyone, but rather to facilitate reflective engagement with the designed systems in question: judge for yourself whether I was successful.

Part of what’s at stake in all of this is that the “negative” style of critique often positions criticism a separate and distinct from the ordinary business of HCI–understanding users, and designing and evaluating systems. Many in HCI have come to believe that “those who make” and “those who critique” live in different worlds and are somehow opposed to each other. I think, in contrast, that those who make are critics, and those who critique are makers.

We can enrich the critical efficacy of designing and broaden the ways that critique is embodied if can broaden our current practices of design criticism–not only as a question of theory and method but also–more importantly–one of attitude. Doing so could give criticism and criticality a wider range of possible contributions to HCI. And one obvious way to do that is to turn to the theoretically and methodologically mature traditions of criticism in art and literature, which use criticism to access and enrich meaningful experiences with human works. In our era, those works should and must include digital systems and computationally mediated experiences. And deep and thoughtful engagement with them must (and does) shape how systems designers go about their work.


  1. subhrajit das

    Hi Jeff,
    Thanks for writing your thoughts on the essence of criticism in the field of HCI. As an UX professional, I am constantly improving my skills to provide and receive meaningful design criticism. The greatest challenge to me while receiving critique is separating myself with my work so that I can evaluate the feedback objectively. My experience at IU has helped me in delivering criticism with the balance of candor and sympathy. I have seen professionals without formal design education lacking in this skill. My advice to them is to follow the “sandwich framework” by Marty, that is, genuine praise followed by constructive criticism. What would be your advice to professionals get better at design critiques?

    IU HCI’13

  2. Michael Moreau

    Is it bad that this makes me think of Ratatouille?

  3. Carl DiSalvo

    Thanks for a good post.

    FWIW – I think the theories of agonistic pluralism aren’t inherently negative but rather strive towards recognizing possibility, as a drive towards potentials of otherness. But perhaps some see the concepts and practices of contest and adversary as negative — I see them as part of the affective vibrancy of democracy and life more generally.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s