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Criticism and HCI


Authors: Jeffrey Bardzell
Posted: Thu, January 17, 2013 - 9:40:55

The turn toward design and humanistic thinking in the last decade of HCI reflects a practical need: to design interactions used in our everyday lives, from the workplace to the home, from the public to the private, and from Silicon Valley to rural areas all over the world. Designing for everyday life vastly increases the complexity of the design challenges that we face. In her foreword to Bill Moggridge’s Designing Interactions, Gillian Crampton Smith characterizes the challenge as follows:

[A]fter twenty years of drawing on existing expressive languages [e.g., poetry, painting, icons, 3D products, and film], we now need to develop an independent language of interaction with smart systems and devices, a language true to the medium of computation, networks, and telecommunications. In terms of perceptual psychology, we’re starting to understand the functional limits of interaction between people and devices or systems: speed of response, say, or the communicative capacity of a small screen. But at the symbolic level of mood and meaning, of sociability and civility, we haven’t quite achieved the breathtaking innovativeness, the subtlety and intuitive 'rightness,' of Eisenstein’s language of montage (Crampton Smith, 2009, p. xix).

Meeting Crampton Smith’s challenge—to develop an independent language of interaction—is no easy or straightforward thing. Moreover, when I look at the content in major HCI textbooks—content that focuses on traditional social and computer science methodologies—and what they imply about our field, it is not clear to me that we’re positioning ourselves or the next generation of interaction designers to meet this challenge either.

So it is that HCI researchers and professionals have increasingly turned to design, that is, product design, architecture, urban planning, fashion design, etc.—and not just to their professional practices but to their pedagogies. Of design pedagogy, Kari Kuuti writes,

Design education has also not been heavily interested in training students in detailed methods how to do design, but more educating such personalities who can filter and crystallize cultural influences into effective and meaning-laden forms (Kuutti, 2009, p. 3).

Kuutti sets up an opposition in this brief excerpt: methods vs. personalities. By methods, he presumably refers to traditional data collection and data analysis methods used in the social sciences and appropriated in HCI as an input into interaction design via design implications. Such methods typically background the personality of the researcher: it is ideally irrelevant who ran the statistics or asked the questions (otherwise, the work would fail to meet basic standards of scientific replicability). In contrast, Kuutti says that design education foregrounds the personality of the designer; specifically, this is a personality that “can filter and crystallize cultural influences” and can convert that lead into gold, generating from them “effective and meaning-laden [design] forms.”

What Kuutti proposes is at once very easy and very difficult. All of us can filter and crystallize cultural influences, from mixtapes people created in the 1980s to sharing Jezebel links today on Facebook. All of us also use such skills to generate effective and meaning-laden forms, from the ways we decorate our homes to the online personas we construct and perform.

Yet the most successful designers seem to be able to do this cultural filtering and designing on a spectacular scale. Fashion writer Margit Mayer summarizes fashion designer Helmut Lang’s career as follows:

Helmut Lang’s clothes set the tone for the 1990s... Lang’s fashions frequently point to major social changes before their initial tremors can be felt: the nomadic image of globalization, the scars and triumphs of women’s liberation, the fusion of American and European culture, the yearning for simplicity, and the desire for luxury. All of these are evoked for us, sharply and beautifully, in Lang’s clothes (Mayer in Buxbaum, 2005, p. 157).

Given the ongoing and repeated success of someone like Lang, it stretches credulity to believe that he was simply lucky in anticipating the images of globalization and women’s liberation. Lang’s anticipation was based on a skilled interpretive reading of cultural trends. Lang is one of thousands of designers with this ability (though, to be sure, he was in his prime at the top of his profession). Though we cannot easily train design superstars, we can at least offer some explanation of their underlying design thinking, that is, the intellectual strategies designers use to filter cultural influences and convert them into meaningful forms.

Part of the answer is the professional practice of criticism, which is the expert subjective practice of verbally analyzing and interpreting cultural works, ideas, and trends. For diverse reasons (but perhaps chief among them the controversial notion of postmodernism), criticism and critical theory have been much maligned in recent decades, and in the West at least many critical disciplines, such as classics and comparative literature, seem to be in decline.

This decline is unfortunate, because, postmodernism aside, criticism serves a crucial social and cultural purpose, as philosopher Noël Carroll explains:

For me, the primary function of the critic is not to eviscerate artworks. Rather, I hypothesize that the audience typically looks to critics for assistance in discovering the value to be had from the works under review... [T]he critic also occupies a social role. In that social role, the primary function of criticism is to enable readers to find the value that the critic believes that the work possesses. It is the task of criticism to remove any obstacles that might stand in the way of the reader’s apprehension of that value (Carroll, 2008, pp. 13-14; 45).

Carroll is talking about art criticism, but his argument extends also to design criticism: In both, its purpose is to help people perceive and appreciate different forms of value. I consider art and design criticism to be a learnable skill that helps people read works, ideas, and cultural trends in worthwhile and practical ways, which scale from everyday life (e.g., deciding which movie to watch Friday night) to generating game-changing design ideas. Criticism is a fundamental skill of those in traditional design professions, partly because design “crits” are a part of design pedagogy and studio culture. In design, criticism helps both with crystallizing cultural influences and also with evaluating and iterating on design concepts, sketches, and prototypes. 

So it is that I think that the practice of criticism in interaction design is going to be one of the basic building blocks by which we as a field develop a good response to Crampton Smith’s challenge to us: to identify an independent expressive language of interaction and learn how to inscribe it in meaningful designs.

In subsequent posts to this blog, I hope to contribute to the emergence of a community of critical practice in interaction design. I will curate some of the inspiring and useful critical ideas—concepts, quotes, examples—that I find in the vast literature, exploring ways that it can help advance interaction design—or at least provoke us to move outside of our comfort zones. I will also try out some of my developing ideas here and hope that readers will challenge me, in turn, to push me to find and express something of value.


Posted in: on Thu, January 17, 2013 - 9:40:55

Jeffrey Bardzell

Jeffrey Bardzell is an associate professor of human-computer interaction design and new media in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, Bloomington.
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