The roles of theory in interaction design

"Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design (Acting with Technology)" (Victor Kaptelinin, Bonnie A. Nardi)

Reading Kaptelinin and Nardi's book, I was interested in the chapter entitled "Do we need theory in interaction design?" because it describes why developing and using theory is needed.

The authors essentially summarizes the evolution of theories in the field of human-computer interaction (HCI), starting form the "cognitive years" to what they call "postcognitive" paradigm that appeared consecutively to Lucy Suchman's book Plans and Situated Actions. HCI indeed started as a coupling of cognitive psychology and computer sciences models that envisioned human cognition as an information-processing system. With Suchman's work (and the use of the ethnomethodology paradigm), the investigation of new lines of research as been favored with the inclusion of social/organizational factors, CSCW and the importance of context/artifacts in cognition. However, the problem of the ethnomethodological approach was that it succeeded in bringing detailed/rich/precise depictions of practices and interactions but it lead to no generalizable accounts (the essence of a Theory).

As a matter of fact, a theory is helpful for 4 reasons:

1. Theory forms community through shared concepts 2. Theory also helps us make strategic choices about how to proceed 3. To move forward, to know where to invest our energies (...) otherwise we will always be going to the square one of detailed renderings of particular cases. As interesting as the cases might be, we have now way of assessing whether they are typical, whether they are important exceptions to which we should pay particular attention, or if they are corner cases we do not have time for at the moment 4. Theoretical frameworks will facilitate productive cooperation between social scientists and software designers. Not only can such approaches help formulate generalizations related to the social aspects of the use of technology and make them more accessible to designers, they can support reflection on how to bring social scientists and software designers close together.

The criteria needed for such a theory are that it should: (a) be rich enough to capture the most important aspects of the actual use of technology (which is not met by classic cognitive psychology since it does not account for some important phenomenon), and (b) be descriptive and generalizable enough to be a practical tool for interaction design. A possible way to meet these criteria is to take theories that model phenomenon as complex systems. At this point, I would have been interested in having more development about the second criteria ("be descriptive and generalizable enough to be a practical tool for interaction design") because it's often the case that designers complain about this. And still, I have to admit that I have a hard time figuring out how a theory (or even a guideline) can meet this criteria.

Then the authors proposed that Activity Theory is the perfect candidate for that matter, and the rest of the book is describing to what extent this holds true. A final chapter however discusses other "postcognitive theories": Distributed Cognition, Actor-Network Theory and Phenomenology.

Why do I blog this? because those questions are crux issues in my research work. Coming from a cognitive science background, it took me a while to understand how inadequate cognitive psychology or experimental psychology were to address human-computer interaction problems. That lead me to take other paths (such as more bottom-up approach like ethnography) but I tried to not forget what cognitive sciences could bring to the table.

And maybe the problem here is the one of the granularity of theories. There are sub-domains in cognitive sciences that can be of interest for HCI. For example, psycholinguistics offer interesting insights about how people interact with each other, how each others' intents are mutually inferred (I quote this example because that's what I addressed in my PhD research). Thus, of course the information processing model is somewhat passé but cognitive sciences is a HUGE field that have sub-aread of interest.