A Paradigm Shift?

Human Computer Interaction (HCI) is a discipline at the intersection of many fields, incorporating ideas from disciplines including computer science, psychology and design to name a few. This can make defining what counts as ‘good’ HCI research difficult as each field has its own ways of doing research and doesn’t always accept other methods as being equally applicable.[1]

Traditionally HCI research has largely been grounded in the ‘scientific method’ with hypotheses to be proven, controlled experiments and quantitative statistical analysis, however as more qualitative methods are being used in HCI research a debate has arisen about what should and should not be considered HCI research.[2]

Of course one might ask why defining the field matters – if interesting research is being conducted does it really need to fit this or that label. However, as Antti Oulasvirta and Kasper Hornbæk point out, not being able to say what the discipline is about makes it difficult to “communicate results to others, assess research, co-ordinate efforts, or compete”, all things which are important when it comes to conducting and publishing research.[3]

Kari Kuutti and Liam J Bannon offer a take on the question of what constitutes HCI research in their 2014 paper, ‘The Turn to Practice in HCI: Towards a Research Agenda’.[2] They outline two paradigms in HCI research, one that fits more traditional HCI research which they  term the interaction paradigm and one that is emergent in the field of HCI (but is well established in the social sciences) which they term the practice paradigm. The interaction paradigm applies to studies that work with a more traditional scientific experimental model. Studies within this paradigm tend to be lab based with a narrow, specific, focus and look at one moment in time with little wider context. In contrast, studies in the practice paradigm are situated and informed by the time and place in which they take place, they are usually field based and can cover a broader scope and time period. Kuutti and Bannon note that there is growing use of the practice paradigm in HCI research and it certainly seems that both paradigms should have validity when it comes to producing ‘good’ HCI research.

A question that comes out of this though is why is there a paradigm shift in the field? One answer is that as technologies change, leaving the ‘computer room’ and entering into everyday life, the artificiality of lab based studies increases and that fieldwork is better placed to examine how people use technology today. In many ways HCI research has always shifted as new technologies emerge, Kuutti and Bannon identify “waves” of HCI research (they end with the ‘3rd Wave’ which they believe came around the start of the 21st Century due to the increase of mobile and internet technologies). They note that with each new “wave” of research more elements of the practice paradigm have come in which leads me to argue that perhaps we are now in a ‘4th Wave’ of HCI research – given the improvements in wireless and mobile technologies made in the last decade or so. As technology becomes more pervasive perhaps an increase in use of the practice paradigm is needed in HCI research to help us fully understand how people use technology and how they integrate this into their day to day lives.



[1] Lazar, J., Feng, J.H., and Hochheiser, H., (2017) Research Methods in Human-Computer Interaction 2nd Ed. Cambridge, MA: Morgan Kaufmann

[2] Kuuti, K., and Bannon, L.J., (2013) ‘The Turn to Practice in HCI: Towards a Research Agenda CHI 2014 10.1145/2556288.2557111 

[3] Oulasvirta, A., and Hornbæk, K., (2016) ‘HCI Research as Problem-Solving’ CHI 2016 10.1145/2858036.2858283 

Author: Hattie Rowling

One response to “A Paradigm Shift?”

  1. Matt Wood says:

    A very well articulated blogpost Hattie, taking the reader neatly through different stages of HCI research, appropriately indicating different perspectives and theories, which leads nicely into Huutti and Bannon’s work. I particularly like your example of stepping away from the computer room and into everyday life – & your observation about a 4th wave of HCI was well reasoned – although this has been articulated before in relation to DC-type research. In this way, your blogpost was quite descriptive, and it would have been nice to see a little more critical reflection around some of the issues. ‘Practice-based’ research is now a dominant form of HCI research – what are the implications of this? How does the (apparent) 4th wave of HCI need to be configured to examine the complexity of our interactions with technology? Are ‘waves’ the best way of thinking about this? Some unpacking of the issues might lead to a more complex argument. Anyway, nicely argued and well evidenced & nicely constructed, well done.

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