Research Through Design: A Humanistic Conception

Note #1: This is adapted from a post I submitted to the PhDDesign distribution list’s thread on “Research through design.”

Note #2: This is a preliminary attempt to formulate the perspective I am developing in my sabbatical monograph, Design As Inquiry. If you like what I’m doing, or if you think I’m nuts and want to argue with me, please contact me!

It is well known that in spite of considerable excitement about research through design (and constructive design, speculative design, etc.), that many questions remain about its status as “research,” including whether/how it conforms to our conceptions of research, how its impacts are to assessed, and how to distinguish good from bad design projects aspiring to one of these contribution types. This has major implications, e.g., for funding, publication, tenure, and indeed whether Design can justifiably award Ph.D. degrees.

One reason for the present difficulties is that it seems difficult to ask how design does “research” without becoming bewitched by scientific research norms or foundationalist attempts to find powerful arguments in Frayling that frankly aren’t there to be found. As someone trained in the humanities, I have been wondering–sort of an elaborate thought experiment–what RtD looks like if we imagine it in relation to a more humanistic conception of inquiry.

​One common argument views design inquiry as a form of “exploration.” I think such a view, unless carefully qualified, understates the rigor and knowledge contributions at stake. ​The novels of Henry James do not merely “​explore” moral life–they systematically interrogate it, situated in a complex world of particulars, of events, of emotional ​resonance​, in a way that rivals Kant’s and Rawls’ moral philosophy​ (Nussbaum, 1990). Warhol’s Brillo Box does not merely explore popular culture–it interrogates the ​very ​theories by which we are able to recognize art as art (Danto, 1981). The Aliens films do not merely explore personhood–they interrogate different formulations of it, working through the consequences of diverse positions, and clarify for us what is at stake in these formulations ​in our increasingly biotechnical world of the proximal future ​(Mulhall, 2002). ​The tragedies of Shakespeare do not merely explore skepticism; they interrogate its arguments, work through its psychological motivations and behavioral consequences, and reveal how disowning knowledge leads to the un-acknowledgment of our human relatedness and mutual obligations (Cavell, 1969). ​Is not the systematic consideration and critique of different positions and their consequences knowledge work?

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HCI as “Core” or “Relation”?

I write this blog post in response to a blog post published a week ago called “A Growing Problem in HCI Research,” written by my colleague Erik Stolterman.

The “growing problem” that Stolterman refers to is the expansion of HCI as a research field to the point that it now “has an empty space in the middle.” He elaborates, “I would argue that a large part of todays HCI research could and maybe should be seen as research in other disciplines.” He then lays out some notions of what constitutes research in HCI versus research contributing to other disciplines:

If research in HCI do not in any sense contribute to our understand of human computer interaction in some general or universal sense, and if it is only an application of what we already know in yet another field, then it may be a contribution to that application field but not to HCI. So, if someone applies HCI theory and knowledge (whatever that is) in another field to explore and examine a phenomena without bringing back some serious insights to HCI theory and knowledge then it is not HCI research.

What this type of expansion leads to is unfortunately in many cases research that do not contribute in a serious way to the core of HCI while also being questionable research in relation to what is the standard in the “other” field. If the research really contributed to those other fields then the research should be evaluated and published in those fields.

So Stolterman appears to be making two related claims:

  1. HCI can and should have a “core,” and any research that calls itself “HCI” should speak to it in some sense.
  2. It is often the case that what is presented in HCI (a) really belongs in another discipline, and (b) is of “questionable” quality in relation to that other discipline.

Now, Stolterman clearly recognizes problems in defining a “core” but leaves a serious attempt to do so out of the scope of that blog post (which is fair enough in a blog post!).

But regardless of what candidates he (or anyone) might put forward as “core HCI,” I have two objections, one ontological (focusing on the question of, “what is HCI, such that it can or should have a core?”) and the other political (i.e., “what does a ‘core HCI’ do, given what we know about the roles of social power in scientific legitimation?”).

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An Erotics of Research

This is going to be short, more like a provocation than a serious post. This quote really stirred me.

What [philosopher Arthur Danto’s book] The Transfiguration [of the Commonplace] really attempts to do is to display a certain train of ideas, a certain set of discoveries and the questions opened up by them. It is a beautiful authorship because it makes you feel the longing of the author, and his resolution to remain in or savor that longing rather than, say, to try to satisfy it immediately.

–Crispin Sartwell, “Danto as Writer” in The Library of Living Philosophers Vol. XXXIII: The Philosophy of Arthur C. Danto, Open Court, 2013, p.713

What if this were a research norm of our community: to make “beautiful authorship because it makes you feel the longing of the author”?

Surely longing is a key epistemic feature of (at the very least) the design subcommunity within HCI, whether it’s for social justice, democratic participation, aesthetics, a methodology worthy of our ethical commitments, gender equality, a sustainable future, the pleasures of inquiry, or, as in my case, pretty shinies. That is, what we long for is not locked in our private personal world and somehow logically separated from our professional work. What I know of my colleagues personally is that their research is profoundly motivated by their ethical and aesthetic perspectives, and more fundamentally, what they long for.

Yet norms of academic writing encourage us to obfuscate this role. I can see that happening in two basic ways.

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A Visual Representation of Dewey’s Notion of Experience

Dewey’s notion of aesthetic experience is both reasonably easy to learn and use, and it has been very influential in user experience design practice and theory.

Because I teach it at least once a year, and because I always seem to be drawing the same basic picture of it, I decided to make a more permanent version of how I visualize the theory.

This is not especially profound–I’ve not attempted any kind of philosophical gloss of it. It’s just a thing I made for students and I thought others in the HCI and interaction design communities might appreciate having it around. You can download it here (PDF, 450 KB): Bardzell_DeweyanAestheticExperience_VisualAid

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Roger Ebert and the Social Value of Criticism

On Friday, April 5, 2013, I saw something I would never expect to see: the passing of a critic reported as front page news in the New York Times. The critic in question was, of course, Roger Ebert, the celebrity film critic who passed away presumably (the obituaries aren’t clear on this) due to complications relating to his thyroid cancer.

The purpose of my post is not to lionize Roger Ebert. Anyway, I’m hardly in any position to do so. I may have seen an episode or two of At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert in the 1980s, and I don’t recall ever reading any film criticism that he has written, except for maybe by accident at Rotten Tomatoes. About the only thing that sticks in my mind about Ebert’s critical writing is the controversy he stirred up with his half-baked claim that video games can’t be art, though to his credit he did subsequently engage the objections raised, finally concluding, “I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place.”[1]

No, my purpose is to reflect on the social value of criticism on the occasion of one of the world’s most famous critics’ death.

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The “Intentional Fallacy” and the “Affective Fallacy” of Interaction Design?

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.

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The Logic of Foucault’s “Author Function”

Periodically I post something on my course blog, Interaction Culture Class, that might be of broader interest than just the class. In such situations, I repost them on my personal blog. This is one such example, and its original post can be found here.

Currently, our class is reading a philosophical genealogy of theories of authorship, as we seek to explicate the nature of the creative agency in interaction design. The piece is a book chapter called “Authors” by philosopher Peter Lamarque, as part of his The Philosophy of Literature (Cambridge). One of my students asked me to explain Foucault’s notion of the author-function, and this post is my attempt at an answer.

Underlying Lamarque’s summary of Foucault’s idea here is a heavy reliance on a logical distinction between intensional and extensional reference. (Note that intensional here has nothing to do with the word intentional, as in author intention). Lamarque is saying that Foucault’s author-function can be described as having intensional but not extensional reference. Let me begin by explaining these two terms (see also: the Wikipedia article on the distinction between sense and reference).

Now, words (and other signifiers) can refer to concepts in the mind or things in the world.

  • Intensional reference is when we refer to a concept in the mind.
  • Extensional reference is when we refer to a thing in the world.

Oftentimes, we can refer simultaneously both intensionally and extensionally. When I say, “[Name] is a student in Interaction Culture” there is a concept of both the class and of being a student in the class, and an assignment of an individual, [Name], to that role. This is intensional reference. But there is also the physical person out there in the world, [Name] herself, and that is extensional reference.

Now imagine this: “the present king of France.” You can understand the sense of this phrase, if you know what the present means, what a king is, and what France is. However, France is not presently a monarchy and therefore has no king. Therefore, “the present king of France” refers intensionally (we can form a concept of the king in our mind) but not extensionally (there is no person in the world who is the present king of France). We can say that “Louis XIV was a king of France,” and this sentence has both intensional and extensional reference.

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