For many years, telling someone in everyday settings that you worked on user interface design or human-computer interaction would produce puzzled looks and require a good deal more explanation. With the rise of design and interaction associated with the proliferation of interactive devices, these terms became much more familiar to people outside the discipline. Lately, though, there has been a second shift. Lately, if you tell someone that you work on interactive systems, or that you find new ways to make interaction effective and enjoyable, it is likely to evoke a skeptical or mistrustful response. In light of a series of scandals—over user data management, over online profiling, over online tracking, over targeted manipulation, over digital addiction, and more—user experience professionals and researchers have found themselves facing new questions about our work and its consequences.
These have been questions inside the discipline too, of course. In 2016, I attended a workshop convened by Steve Harrison and Deborah Tatar at Virginia Tech, organized around the intriguing question, “What comes after HCI?” The discussions were thought-provoking and engaging, although I, at least, felt some confusion over quite what prompted the question and how some of my colleagues were framing their discussions, particularly as they seemed concerned primarily with reformist projects in HCI education. It was not until quite late in the workshop that I finally began to understand the framing for the workshop, when one of the organizers lamented exactly those same questions about the contemporary context of HCI. What would it mean, we explored, to be able to undertake HCI in a way that made questions of ethics and values central?
In the discussions that followed, I slowly realized that a concept I had picked up at a conference a few years before could be usefully applied. Although the context in which it had arisen was quite different, there seemed to be an important connection with the concept of legitimacy trap.
Kurt Sandholtz  introduces the notion of legitimacy trap through an analysis of the history of human resource management (HR) as a topic in business thinking and organizational studies. Although the notion of HR as a management domain arose in the first half of the 20th century, it struggled to gain a foothold in organizations for many years. In the U.S., the major shift came with the introduction of civil rights and anti-discrimination legislation in the 1960s and 1970s. With this came an increased concern to ensure that recruitment and advancement processes in organizations were fair and non-discriminatory. Here was a place where HR professionals could contribute. By fulfilling a compliance role, HR could become part of organizational life. However, Sandholtz argues, this was not the end of the road. In the 1980s, some in HR began to argue that human resource management should not simply be part of the corporate bureaucracy, but that it also has a strategic role to play in management. Again, though, HR advocates have found it difficult to convince organizations of this position. Indeed, the authors argue, if anything it is now more difficult to argue for this new role for HR precisely because of HR’s earlier success in establishing its relevance; the push to redefine the role meets resistance because the existing framework is continually reinforced both by HR practitioners themselves and other actors. HR’s claims to legitimacy as a part of organizational life were based around compliance; this claim to legitimacy is now, though, an obstacle toward progress or redefinition. This is what Sandholtz terms a legitimacy trap.
I would argue that HCI faces a legitimacy trap of its own. HCI staked its own legitimacy in the corporate domain on the value of usability. In the early days, when most interactive systems were used in corporate settings, this was an argument about effectiveness and efficiency—that, to do their work effectively, people needed systems that were designed around their needs and crafted so as to make their work processes easier. More recently, as interactive systems have become consumer objects, these same arguments for usability have been marshalled in support of the idea that usable systems are more enjoyable and more likely to be successful in the marketplace, and that HCI can contribute to the development of compelling, even delightful, user experiences. The significance of usability has been HCI’s fundamental claim to legitimacy as both a corporate and an academic activity. As in the case of HR, this claim to legitimacy has been tremendously effective; indeed, the very currency of the term user experience itself signals how broadly the importance of its topics is recognized. However, this is also a trap and a constraint on HCI’s effectiveness, both in terms of our scope and our methods.
For instance, suppose we believe—as I and others might argue—that the central charge to HCI is to nurture and sustain human dignity and flourishing. Note that this is not to say that HCI’s claim to legitimacy ought to be to nurture and sustain human dignity and flourishing, but rather that it always has been. While this might sound unfamiliar in contemporary HCI discussions, it is entirely consonant with the history of HCI as a discipline. If one chooses to trace HCI’s origins to, say, Engelbart’s NLS work at SRI or the Smalltalk work of the Learning Research Group at Xerox PARC, one will find in their contemporary writings much that speaks to questions of creative expression, user control, and intellectual amplification, all of which reflect exactly these values . If one chooses to trace HCI’s origins to subsequent work on the Macintosh at Apple and the early commercial spread of the graphical user interface, one will also find genuine expressions among the creators of that project to understand it in this way: designed to unleash creative expression and to place the computer in service of human needs, rather than the other way around [3,4]. If one traces it to the Scandinavian participatory design movement in the 1970s, one similarly will find it rooted in efforts to resist the human as a cog in the machinery of industrial automation [5,6]. This reading of HCI in terms of human dignity and flourishing, then, is not a perverse reading—an HCI whose legitimacy lies in these sites is still an HCI that gives us scroll bars, dialog boxes, and multitouch displays. It is, therefore, quite actionable—engagement, openness, simplicity, flexibility, and expressiveness are clearly all midlevel goals that work toward that larger charge.
The significance of usability has been HCI’s fundamental claim to legitimacy as both a corporate and an academic activity.
First, where we want to speak beyond usability to broader concerns—privacy, autonomy, control over data, and so on, what we might broadly frame as concerns for human flourishing—we find that the legitimacy trap rules these topics as outside HCI’s purview. There is a case to be made, clearly, that concerns such as these that extend well beyond the interface and into the broader contexts in which digital technologies are deployed and used, including the business models that support them (such as free services provided in exchange for data that drives advertising), are central to our concerns with the ways in which humans engage with computers, and even with a remit to investigate the basis of deploying technologies in support of human goals. However, within the terms of the legacy “legitimacy agreement”—that usable tools make for productive work and for more appealing services—these are removed from the scope of HCI’s interests.
Second, where we want to argue that the consequences of our perspective reach beyond the limits of design—where they focus on structural change, on public policy, or on legislative arrangements, for example—we similarly find ourselves limited. Indeed, the focus on crafting delightful experiences emphasizes, first of all, craft and production—the making of new artifacts. Our legitimacy claim limits our ability to reach beyond that. Indeed, the great irony of the notion of user-centered design is that users (or people) are not, in fact, at the center of it at all. Design is. Something can be more user centered or less user centered, but the phrase guarantees that design will always be present. The limits of design are then the limits of our capacities to intervene [7,8].
Third, this shapes how we approach curriculum design and the question of what sorts of theories, methods, and topics are appropriate to the education of HCI practitioners and researchers. The social sciences become relevant in more ways than simply as a toolkit of empirical techniques, and the critical humanities come into view as offering crucial resources for understanding the nature of the relationship between the human and the technological. Recent efforts toward queer-inclusive and trans-inclusive approaches to HCI, for example, are among the latest ways in which the concerns of human dignity and flourishing are expressed within HCI research and practice—and demonstrate the limits of the bargain that we struck with CS more broadly or with the tech industry.
How, then, do we escape a legitimacy trap? Sadly, there are no easy paths. But the key step is surely to seek vigorously to assert the true goals and values of HCI as a practice from which we seek our legitimacy. We may need first to engage in a broader discussion of just what those are. This reevaluation of the scope of our practice involves, ironically enough, a renewed celebration of the banner under which we march, asserting that our topic is the interaction between humans and computers (rather than solely, say, the design of user interfaces or the crafting of user experiences, important as those topics remain). My proposal here has been to see human dignity and human flourishing as central, and to see them as collective rather than individual—that is, to assert a moral and political legitimacy rather than an economic one. Certainly, when we present HCI as a crucially important part of any systems project, we need to ask ourselves: What claims to legitimacy are we making and what limits might they place upon us?
Researchers in critical HCI have traced the intellectual history and conditions of possibility of foundational ideas in HCI , while approaches like value-sensitive design try to create a space of alternatives and new forms of practice that give values a central place in design processes . Here, though, I offer the notion of legitimacy trap as a means toward complementary ends: It turns our attention to the structural arrangements and moral commitments by which HCI is incorporated into the broader contexts in which it operates. The idea of a legitimacy trap highlights, then, the limits of a notion of user experience as a means by which we might intervene into technological arrangements or as the extent of our ambitions. The challenge is not so much to create new alternatives to extant design methods, but rather to recover what has been lost within our practice.
Steve Harrison and Deborah Tatar brought people together for a lively series of discussions that led to these reflections. Lilly Irani played a key role in pushing me to articulate them. Hillary Abraham, Gilbert Cockton, Marina Fedorova, Leah Horgan, Sarah Ng, Noopur Raval, and Chaeyoon Yoo have helped me to refine the argument.
1. Sandholtz, K. Legitimacy traps. Academy of Management Proc. 2015, 1; https://doi.org/10.5465/ambpp.2015.15813abstract
6. I grant that it might be harder to sustain if we trace our origins to human factors analysis for military pilots, although one version of HCI’s origin story is the very liberation of the techniques of human factors analysis from such settings.
8. Dourish, P. The allure and the paucity of design: Cultures of design and design in culture. Human-Computer Interaction (2018). DOI:10.1080/07370024.2018.1469410
Paul Dourish is Chancellor’s Professor of Informatics at UC Irvine. His research links critical HCI, cultural studies, and science and technology studies, with an emphasis on ethnographic studies of digital cultures. email@example.com
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