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