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Applying theories in HCI

March 3, 2014 Leave a comment

I’ve been teaching Virginia Tech’s CS 5724 “Models, Theories, and Frameworks of Human Computer Interaction” class for many years now, using the Carroll book of the same name and, more recently, the Morgan and Claypool book HCI book series.

This semester I’m teaching a special topics course focusing on how theories are applied in HCI, seeking to include a focus on the ways that researchers and practitioners use theories.  As described in the Carroll book, after a period of great hope and cooperation regarding theoreticians and practitioners in the 1980s, there’s been a well-documented theory-practice gap within HCI.  This course seeks to understand that gap, focusing on how HCI researchers (especially Ph.D. students in the course!) can connect theory to practice in beneficial ways…or demonstrate why doing so is dangerous!

Our class started by examining a pair of monographs from the Morgan and Claypool series, Rogers’ HCI Theory and my own Making Claims as works that examine the evolution and application of theory in HCI practice.  We looked at some examples of recent Ph.D. dissertations that had theory as a dominant role: Joon-Suk Lee’s on Micro-Coordination and Christa Chewar’s on Critical Parameters.  Many of the examples from these works leveraged theories outside of HCI in the design of technologies and approaches, which may prove to be how an applied theory of HCI emerges.  A diverse collection of senior graduate students taking the class will be presenting their own views on how theory has influenced their approach to HCI, so I’m hopeful that I’ll post (or link to) their interesting writings throughout the spring semester.

And one final note: I thought the question of “What is theory?” would be easily answered, but instead it seems to be one that we have returned to often.  In keeping with the Rogers monograph, we’re casting a wide net in terms of what we consider to be a theory, including not only the traditional definition of theory as a substantiated explanation of a phenomenon, but also models as simplifying behavior (e.g., GOMS, and Norman’s cognitive models), frameworks of concepts or questions (e.g., Fogg’s persuasion framework), and paradigms of accepted practices (e.g., WIMP and GUI).  We’re even lumping in atheoretical approaches that are rooted in understanding practice as important in understanding the role of theory.  The resulting wide net certainly means that we won’t figure everything out this semester, but we are hopeful that we will begin to appreciate how the field of HCI is evolving and how (or whether) theory will play a major role in its evolution.

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