HCI as science

In his paper, Stuart Reeves discusses how human-computer interaction relates to different understandings of ‘science’. He discusses the influence of cognitive psychology on early interface design, before relating it to the notion the scientific design space as the central way of defining and researching human-computer interactions.

Reeves begins by mapping the current issues of HCI as a scientific discipline. One issue is incoherence. He describes HCI as a discipline that branched out from its initial theoretical foundation in cognitive psychology, to include a broad range of theoretical positions from different disciplines. This leads to prescriptions of disciplinary order and standardisations, through certain scientific standards and the establishment of “motor themes”. The other issue is the inadequacy of HCI compared to other disciplines, or from the perspective of the practitioners of other disciplines. Specifically, this refers to the positivist ideal of hard science. While I can certainly see how incoherence and inadequacy can be problematic, I question the importance attached to them for an interdiscipline like HCI, where the will to engage with other disciplines is a necessity. Instead, closer attention could perhaps be given to the limits imposed by the potential lack of overlap between disciplines.


Reeves then argues that these issues stem from HCI’s historical development. He uses the example of the computer mouse as an example of a scientific design space, where cognitive psychology provided a predictive framework to inform the design work of the mouse. Reeves then argues for the continued relevance of the scientific design space, given the current prevalence of exploratory studies without theoretical justification in HCI and its problems with incoherence and inadequacy. He does however point out that ‘the scientific method’ cannot be defied clearly. Following this, he concludes that it is more important to maintain appropriate rigour, which is in line with the scientific discipline pursued.

I agree with the conclusion to not insist on a standardised rigour (scientific or otherwise), given the potential of meaningful contributions from many disciplines to HCI and the potential of meaningful contributions by HCI to many disciplines. At this point, it could be helpful to revisit the initial example of the design of the computer mouse. This was characterised as a neatly defined scientific design space, an argument which makes sense given the somewhat more limited capabilities of computers at the time, in addition it was likely unclear that the mouse would become the dominant form of interacting with a graphic user interface. If one were to revisit this case today, I think a much broader range of questions could be asked, regarding for example the socialisation or habitus of the user (in general or in relation to the computer). Here, a cognitive approach would be of limited use, despite its scientific validity, as it would impose certain limits on what can be investigated in HCI. This then leads to ontological questions, of which Reeves is aware when he points out that rigour must be appropriate for the discipline at hand. To this I would add, given the interdisciplinary nature of HCI, that any combination of disciplines must ensure that their understandings of the world are aligned.


Stuart Reeves. 2015. Human-computer interaction as science. In Proceedings of The Fifth Decennial Aarhus Conference on Critical Alternatives (AA ’15). Aarhus University Press 73-84. DOI=http://dx.doi.org/10.7146/aahcc.v1i1.21296


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Author: Erkki Hedenborg

One response to “HCI as science”

  1. Matt Wood says:

    Awesome Erkki, enjoyed your blogpost very much, and I think your discussion of these issues is excellent. I really like your argument, and probably comes as no surprise that I am also critical of moves to hold the positivist ideals of hard science as gold standard for HCI. Indeed I don’t think this could be done even if one wanted to, HCI is by it’s very nature interdisciplinary (post-disciplinary?) and I’d suggest attempts to ‘un-tame’ HCI (to paraphrase Rodgers) are ultimately ill-fated – I’d question if anyone in HCI has the authority to impose ‘order and rules’ on the field

    I guess this leads to the tricky question of ‘rigour’, a criterion which is probably suitable for the social sciences, but I wonder about the applicability of this concept to more artistic/designerly approaches? Thinking about this I was reminded of the conference Research Through Design, where much of the submissions have a more explicitly ‘designerly’ approach where thinking about ‘rigour’ may not make as much sense, but I would argue has an equal ‘contribution’ to the field

    I was also going to ask about your last point – that “any combination of disciplines must ensure that their understandings of the world are aligned”. I see where you’re coming from here, but I wonder, do understandings of the world need to be aligned? Or is what makes HCI so interesting the potentially conflicting understandings of the world? I may have got the wrong end of the stick here – but maybe something to ponder.

    Anyway, just discussion points really – nice work.

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