The Materiality of Research Practice

This is a quickie today. Recently (readers might have noticed) I have been reflecting a lot on my research practice. I have been trying to find those moments when I got things right and better recognize when I did not. And I am sharing this reflective process publicly in hopes of helping others find ways to improve their reflections and practices.

Anyway, I came across a wonderful article on the materiality of research practice, which I highly recommend. (Indeed, I recommend it more than finishing this blog post, if you can do only one or the other…)

It is: The Materiality of Research: ‘On the Materiality of Writing in Academia or Remembering Where I Put My Thoughts’ by Ninna Meier

There was a passage in it that really resonated with me:

I actually like review processes or co-authors: they provide a much-needed break and opportunity to distance myself from the text (it’s at their desk, so to speak, and not on mine).

The scary part of this is when it comes back, the text. When this happens, I am often appalled at how unfinished it was when I submitted it and even more appalled that I couldn’t see it at the time (how can this be? I have never understood it). This is perhaps why I don’t trust the ‘current-author me’, because ‘future-author me’ will have read more and understood more and thus be able to write much better thoughts into the text and improve the overall result.

This passage helps explain a deep shift in how I view myself as a peer reviewer. When I was younger, I sought to “protect” the research community from “bad” research. It looks so ugly typed up like that, but there it is.

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Critiquing Scholarly Positions

If I am right that HCI and neighboring fields will increasingly rely on the essay as a means of scholarly contribution and debate in the future, then it follows that the construction, articulation, and criticism of intellectual positions will become increasingly important.

In Humanistic HCI, we talk about the essay, the epistemic roles of positions, and how they should be peer reviewed. We defined a position thus:

[A] position is not merely a proposition; it instead holistically comprises an expert-subjective voice; a theoretical-methodological stance; its own situatedness within a domain; and a pragmatic purpose. (73)

But as I read design research papers in the fragmented and emerging subdomain of research through design (and similar practices, including constructive design, critical design, and so forth), I have been frustrated with how researchers characterize others’ positions, especially ones they disagree with.

The purpose of this post is not to discourage disagreement.

It is, rather, to support disagreement in a scholarly way.

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A Dark Pattern in Humanistic HCI

I have noticed a dark pattern among papers that align themselves with critical or humanistic approaches to HCI. I myself have been guilty of contributing to that pattern (though I am trying to reform). But I still see it all the time as a peer reviewer and also as a Ph.D. supervisor.

And since I spend so much time evangelizing humanistic HCI, I thought it might also be good to point out one of its dark patterns, to encourage critical/humanist HCIers not to do it, and to encourage reviewers to call this out and use it as an argument against accepting the paper.

And of course I want to offer a positive way forward instead.

The dark pattern is:

“I love a critical theory/author; you in HCI should change your practice to use it, too.”

Characteristic features of this dark pattern include the following:

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The “Knowledge as a By-Product of Artistic Practice is Still Not Research” Objection to My “Criterial Knowledge” Post

I spoke to some colleagues about my earlier post, The Criterial Knowledge Argument for Research Through Design, who are themselves experts in research through design [EDIT: the researchers in question are Jodi Forlizzi and John Zimmerman]. While these colleagues were generally sympathetic to the claim that art and design can contribute to knowledge in general and even criterial knowledge in particular, they objected that the sorts of knowledge outcomes I describe in that post can be arrived at not intentionally but rather as a by-product of artistic practice, and therefore cannot be characterized as research.

This is a very reasonable objection. In fact, their objection could be stated even more forcefully: the knowledge outcomes I describe in that post are almost always achieved as a by-product of artistic practice and therefore almost never research as such (at least historically). We don’t view the poet Virgil as a “researcher,” even if his literary depiction of Dido has informed Western people’s cultural understanding of the character and qualities of jealousy for two millennia.

Their objection made me realize that I had left certain things tacit in that post that should have been made explicit. And upon further reflection, I developed some of my ideas about these issues further than I had before. So here are some amendments to the earlier post, addressing their objection:

  1. For a design researcher doing RtD to be able to invoke the Criterial Knowledge Argument for Research through Design in presenting/publishing her own work, she would have to justifiably claim that the processes, methods, and desired inquiry outcomes of the RtD project in question were designed to contribute to criterial knowledge of a given domain, concept, phenomenon, experience, etc., and she would likewise have to demonstrate that she did indeed achieve such knowledge.
  2. If, on the other hand, she was trying to do something entirely different (e.g., in the hope of contributing to “intermediate concepts” that characterize several successful designs) and as a by-product just so happened to contribute to criterial knowledge about X, then the latter knowledge outcome would obviously exist, but it wouldn’t be research (in the same sense that Virgil wasn’t a researcher when he wrote The Aeneid, even if the latter did result in criterial knowledge of jealousy).
  3. Let us consider another example, that of a design researcher theorizing a domain/phenomenon/matter of interest, whose methodology includes a critical examination of other individuals’ research through design projects (and sadly there is not enough of this at present, at least in HCI). If this design researcher is able critically and analytically to discover and to explicate that this corpus of designs do contribute to criterial knowledge of X in such-and-such ways, then that would be research, but it would be design criticism research, and also not research through design.

Centuries of critical interpretation and analysis of works of art as well as the theorization of that critical practice has shown that art works contribute to intellectual virtues in incredibly broad and diverse ways (e.g., criterial knowledge, improvement of our capacities of perception, rendering us more empathic and less egoistic, opening our minds to new ideas and values, and much more). In parallel ways, research through design is likely to achieve many of the same intellectual benefits.

My colleagues’ objection has helped me clarify that it is important to distinguish between those knowledge outcomes intentionally “baked into” a given RtD process as central to, even the point of, the research, and those knowledge outcomes that happen externally to such a research project. I’ve identified two categories of the latter: cognitive by-products of a design practice intended for some other purpose (e.g., to produce a good design), and subsequent critical discoveries, often made by third-parties.

I view it as a happy problem that RtD has such high potential to yield “surplus” knowledge outcomes, but less salutary that our theoretical and reporting vocabulary does not yet allow this community to do them justice.

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The Criterial Knowledge Argument for Research Through Design

NOTE: This post was prompted by a lively discussion on the PhD Design distribution list. Special thanks to Mike Zender for prompting me to flesh this out..

One of the methodological strategies I have been using for the past year and a half for my study of research through design is to construct an inventory of arguments that I find in philosophical aesthetics, literary and film criticism, and art history and criticism that assert that an artwork (literary, visual, cinematic, whatever) does inquiry, that is, it contributes to knowledge.

In this post, I sketch out one such argument, and then I apply it to research through design, and that is what I will call the Criterial Knowledge Argument for Research Through Design.

The Criterial Knowledge Argument for Literature

First, I sketch the argument as it has been developed in philosophy. Here I will sketch out the view of philosopher John Gibson, from his Fiction and the Weave of Life (Oxford UP, 2007)

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Research Through Design: A Humanistic Conception

Note #1: This is adapted from a post I submitted to the PhDDesign distribution list’s thread on “Research through design.”

Note #2: This is a preliminary attempt to formulate the perspective I am developing in my sabbatical monograph, Design As Inquiry. If you like what I’m doing, or if you think I’m nuts and want to argue with me, please contact me!

It is well known that in spite of considerable excitement about research through design (and constructive design, speculative design, etc.), that many questions remain about its status as “research,” including whether/how it conforms to our conceptions of research, how its impacts are to assessed, and how to distinguish good from bad design projects aspiring to one of these contribution types. This has major implications, e.g., for funding, publication, tenure, and indeed whether Design can justifiably award Ph.D. degrees.

One reason for the present difficulties is that it seems difficult to ask how design does “research” without becoming bewitched by scientific research norms or foundationalist attempts to find powerful arguments in Frayling that frankly aren’t there to be found. As someone trained in the humanities, I have been wondering–sort of an elaborate thought experiment–what RtD looks like if we imagine it in relation to a more humanistic conception of inquiry.

​One common argument views design inquiry as a form of “exploration.” I think such a view, unless carefully qualified, understates the rigor and knowledge contributions at stake. ​The novels of Henry James do not merely “​explore” moral life–they systematically interrogate it, situated in a complex world of particulars, of events, of emotional ​resonance​, in a way that rivals Kant’s and Rawls’ moral philosophy​ (Nussbaum, 1990). Warhol’s Brillo Box does not merely explore popular culture–it interrogates the ​very ​theories by which we are able to recognize art as art (Danto, 1981). The Aliens films do not merely explore personhood–they interrogate different formulations of it, working through the consequences of diverse positions, and clarify for us what is at stake in these formulations ​in our increasingly biotechnical world of the proximal future ​(Mulhall, 2002). ​The tragedies of Shakespeare do not merely explore skepticism; they interrogate its arguments, work through its psychological motivations and behavioral consequences, and reveal how disowning knowledge leads to the un-acknowledgment of our human relatedness and mutual obligations (Cavell, 1969). ​Is not the systematic consideration and critique of different positions and their consequences knowledge work?

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HCI as “Core” or “Relation”?

I write this blog post in response to a blog post published a week ago called “A Growing Problem in HCI Research,” written by my colleague Erik Stolterman.

The “growing problem” that Stolterman refers to is the expansion of HCI as a research field to the point that it now “has an empty space in the middle.” He elaborates, “I would argue that a large part of todays HCI research could and maybe should be seen as research in other disciplines.” He then lays out some notions of what constitutes research in HCI versus research contributing to other disciplines:

If research in HCI do not in any sense contribute to our understand of human computer interaction in some general or universal sense, and if it is only an application of what we already know in yet another field, then it may be a contribution to that application field but not to HCI. So, if someone applies HCI theory and knowledge (whatever that is) in another field to explore and examine a phenomena without bringing back some serious insights to HCI theory and knowledge then it is not HCI research.

What this type of expansion leads to is unfortunately in many cases research that do not contribute in a serious way to the core of HCI while also being questionable research in relation to what is the standard in the “other” field. If the research really contributed to those other fields then the research should be evaluated and published in those fields.

So Stolterman appears to be making two related claims:

  1. HCI can and should have a “core,” and any research that calls itself “HCI” should speak to it in some sense.
  2. It is often the case that what is presented in HCI (a) really belongs in another discipline, and (b) is of “questionable” quality in relation to that other discipline.

Now, Stolterman clearly recognizes problems in defining a “core” but leaves a serious attempt to do so out of the scope of that blog post (which is fair enough in a blog post!).

But regardless of what candidates he (or anyone) might put forward as “core HCI,” I have two objections, one ontological (focusing on the question of, “what is HCI, such that it can or should have a core?”) and the other political (i.e., “what does a ‘core HCI’ do, given what we know about the roles of social power in scientific legitimation?”).

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