The Interpretation of HCI

HCI as an encounter

Human Computer Interaction (HCI) turns out to be a Pandora’s Box of cross-disciplinary (Reeves, 2015) viewpoints, ideas, approaches, methods and theories, with a very wide range of potential research topics. The features of ambiguity (Gaver et al, 2003) and flexibility in how people interpret their computer technology encounters (Sengers and Gaver, 2006) have caught my imagination. The suggestion that there should not necessarily be “a single correct way to interpret a computer system” (Gaver et al, 2003) is fascinating to me since it is in contrast with my initial assumptions that there could always be a single or best way.

Interpretation in the display of information

In making available weather data summaries for a local community newsletter a few years ago, I was restricted to textual presentation at that time. I was surprised by how different people reacted to the presentation of numbers versus written prose, even when the contained facts were identical. I had not realised the effect of different learning styles, thinking there was instead a best way. Miller (2001) suggests individual “learning preferences and styles” have a “significant impact on how students learn”.

Interpretation in the use of computer technology

It appears to make sense that individual preferences and styles also have a role in encounters between people and computer technology. How computer technology that includes this idea of flexibility of interpretation is encountered (found, chosen, seen, used and changed by people), might not suit everyone, and this will depend upon the context, their cultural expectations, their experiences, their knowledge and their preferences. Designing for multiple interpretations will require greater effort, and thinking about learning styles might be a way to consider these opportunities in some king of existing framework. The consideration of multiple interpretations will also be of help in designing systems that want to avoid ambiguity, and that could be another area to investigate.

The issue of interpretation has become a more noticeable issue as the machines have moved from the computer room, to the workplace desk, to our homes, to our mobile devices, to our apparel, and onto objects with behaviours (Levillain and Zibetti, 2017) and in the future components of our bodies and minds.

There is a large volume of prior work around learning styles in the educational field such as the use of online and other e-learning systems (and of course about what learning styles computer science students exhibit), but much less about how learning styles of people in the wider world affect their relationship with machines. Some notable exceptions are using cognitive styles as a way of modelling user preferences (Brown et al, 2006) and considering learning style when evaluating web pages (Papaeconomou et al, 2008).

It seems the learning styles of individuals ought to influence their interaction with computer technology, and this is an area I would like to consider further.


Brown, Elizabeth; Brailsford, Tim; Fisher, Tony; Moore, Adam; Ashman, Helen. (2006) Reappraising cognitive styles in adaptive web applications. WWW ’06 Proceedings of the 15th international conference on World Wide Web. Pages 327-335.

Gaver, William W.; Beaver, Jacob; Benford, Steve. (2003) Ambiguity as a resource for design. CHI ’03 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems
ACM, New York, pages 233-240.

Levillain, Florent; Zibetti, Elisabetta. (2017) Behavioral objects: the rise of the evocative machines. Journal of Human-Robot Interaction archive. Volume 6 Issue 1, May 2017. Pages 4-24.

Miller, Pamela. (2001) Learning Styles: The Multimedia of the Mind. Research Report.

Papaeconomou, Chariste; Zijlema, Annemarie F.; Ingwersen, Peter. (2008) Searchers’ relevance judgments and criteria in evaluating web pages in a learning style perspective. IIiX ’08 Proceedings of the second international symposium on Information interaction in context. ACM, New York, pages 123-132.

Reeves, Stuart. Human-computer interaction as science. (2015) In Proceedings of The Fifth Decennial Aarhus Conference on Critical Alternatives, AA ’15, pages 73-84. Aarhus University Press, August 2015

Sengers, Phoebe; Gaver, Bill. (2006) Staying open to interpretation: engaging multiple meanings in design and evaluation. DIS ’06 Proceedings of the 6th conference on Designing Interactive systems. ACM, New York, pages 99-108.


Author’s own. Exhibit in Farmiloe Building. (2014) Clerkenwell Design Festival. London. Designer unknown.

Edited 23 and 24 Oct 2018 to add photo credit.

Edited 30 Oct to include publication year in text references.

Author: Colin Watson