XXVIII.5 September - October 2021
Page: 38
Digital Citation

HCI taking turns

Verena Fuchsberger, Marta Dziabiola, Azur Mešić, Daniel Nørskov, Ralf Vetter

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The fields of human-computer interaction and interaction design are always changing. Technology is pervading every aspect of human life and body, and intelligence is becoming distributed among humans and nonhumans; individuals, society, and technology are intermingling at what feels like a remarkably quick pace, requiring designers and design researchers alike to constantly anticipate and question these developments. At the same time, scholars are inquiring into and theoretically describing these changes, be it in terms of HCI waves, paradigms, or turns.


As part of a lecture on "HCI Theory and Paradigms," a group of international students in a newly established HCI master's program at the University of Salzburg engaged with such shifts. In this lecture, which was held online due to the Covid-19 pandemic, they discussed the history of HCI and a selection of theories, frameworks, and concepts that were or continue to be important in HCI research and practice. The lecture concluded with a discussion of what has been framed as turns in HCI—a set of shifts that denote changing foci, interests, and epistemologies in the field.

back to top  Insights



Some of those turns have been well summarized by Yvonne Rogers in her book on HCI theories [1]. She describes the turn to design, which started in the early 1990s when design became a central concern in HCI, initially in the form of interface and software design, followed by a focus on design theory. This turn draws attention to how technology becomes something we not only use but also live with. The turn to culture, which borrows from the arts and humanities, with cultural theory being the backbone, addresses questions of how humans understand, think, and interpret what they see, hear, and touch, including a dedication to issues of gender, race, feminism, and so on. The turn to the wild appeared in the mid-2000s. This turn characterizes a shift toward designing and investigating new technologies in situ through experimentation with new technological possibilities, which appear to have the potential to change, or even disrupt, human behavior. Understanding interaction in terms of humans' practical engagement with the social and the physical environments is characterized as the turn to embodiment. It is based on notions from phenomenology and situated action, among others, and inquires into ways that meaning is created by incorporating interactive technology into individual worlds and everyday practices. In her book, published in 2012, Rogers sketched further turns that she considered to be beginning, such as the turn to space that conceptualizes humans' everyday interactions with one another in physical space.

The students were invited to make use of an approach that characterizes many contemporary design research endeavors: detaching from the status quo in order to question it.

Related to the nonhuman turn in science and technology studies [2], another turn described in our community is the material turn, characterized by a growing interest in the materiality of computation, including shifts in "the modes of strategizing bridges across the physical-digital divide" [3]. The somatic turn unveils how values of somaesthetics are increasingly incorporated in the design of technologies [4], bringing along proposals for thoughtful soma design processes [5]. A turn to practice, initially articulated in the social sciences, also emerged in HCI. It denotes an increased practice orientation—or, according to Kari Kuutti and Liam Bannon [6], a new paradigm, the practice paradigm.

Taking inspiration from speculative design, the students were given an exam task to not only recollect turns that have already been discussed in the community but also envision and articulate ones that they think are on the way and that may change HCI in the future. By speculating about forthcoming shifts, the students were invited to make use of an approach that characterizes many contemporary design research endeavors: detaching from the status quo in order to question it. There are a considerable variety of methods available for speculating about the future. Design fiction, as introduced by Bruce Sterling and Julian Bleecker, and Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby's design noir are the two most visible perspectives on this increasingly influential way of making the future tangible, debatable, and designable.

Since the aforementioned lecture, however, was less about future design visions and more about future HCI and design research, the speculations that took place were textual in nature; they were meant to describe future turns the same way that already articulated turns were described: as a concise set of observations, thoughts, arguments, and examples.

In the following, we share those envisioned turns, with two aims in mind. First, these turns might be helpful in reflecting on the community's foci from a point of view that is simultaneously inside and outside the community, that is, from the perspective of first-semester HCI master's students with diverse scientific and professional backgrounds. This perspective comes from scholars who are about to start defining the future of HCI, without being influenced by too many historical commitments. Second, we aim to inspire the discussion about where we are heading as a community. In the remainder of this article, we will engage with the commonalities and the consequences that the envisioned turns might unveil for HCI's present and future.

back to top  Turn (Back) to Nature

The wide-reaching digitalization of everyday life has resulted in a societal longing for a reconnection with nature—that is, being in and interacting with nature without the distraction of pervasive digital artifacts. This tendency is manifested through the rise of concepts such as sustainable tourism, offline community spaces, and off-the-grid living. Combining this tendency with the value-centric and sustainable developments of the turn to culture and tangible approaches of the turn to embodiment, a novel space for inquiry in HCI research emerges: the turn (back) to nature. This turn can be envisioned as a project to explore the use of digital technologies as a means for humans to rediscover nature, thus becoming closer to and more connected with their natural environment and surroundings. An example of this turn is Karey Helms and colleagues' examination of how digital technology in outdoor activities is being recontextualized and reconfigured to serve specific purposes when being "away" from everyday life [7].

In the turn (back) to nature, the term nature refers to humans' natural environment, which can be found in both metropolitan and rural areas—from houseplants to urban parks to forests and nature reserves. Being connected with this nature, then, entails the experience of discovery, understanding, appreciation, and preservation of its qualities. The parenthetical (back) suggests that this turn reconsiders nature for what it is and what it can be—taking into account what nature has been to humans in the past, and speculating how digital technologies can mediate it in the future.

The turn (back) to nature could be occupied with topics such as smart domestic technologies for floral exploration and cultivation; urban nature informatics and data visualization; technology for sustainable and environmentally conscious living; intelligent systems for self-guided nature tourism, enabling people of different abilities to experience natural sites; and the emerging field of human-animal interaction. The overall aim with a turn (back) to nature in HCI would be to explore how humans could achieve an experience of being connected with nature through interacting with digital technologies.

back to top  Turn to the Offline

The Covid-19 pandemic forced many of us to move into home-office and remote-study settings. As a consequence of this reduction in physical social contacts, the importance of digital communication tools, both in work and leisure contexts, has increased, further blurring the borders between online and offline life. This blur has been ongoing since the first wave of digitalization; however, its pace and dynamics have changed with the pandemic. The addition of online aspects to formerly offline acts has gained a new thrust. And, as previously indicated with the turn to nature, the pervasion and dominance of digital technologies in everyday life fuels a countermovement—the need to create and engage in exclusively offline spaces. The interest in such moves is further supported by phenomena like digital detox, which aims at consciously reducing online time.

The turn to the offline can be characterized by a twofold agenda for HCI research. First, there is a focus on the effects that embedded and ubiquitous technologies have on the blend between online and offline worlds. This research area aims at understanding the practices and mechanisms that foster the continuous reduction of offline spaces and the various impacts this has on people. Second, understanding these tendencies requires HCI and design researchers to take responsibility for shaping artifacts and contexts in a way that allows online and offline spaces to coexist. Maintaining exclusively offline spaces might require conscientiously supporting people to disconnect. Research on technology nonuse could inform where and why people search for these offline spaces, thereby inspiring solutions to create them. This might take shape in establishing areas and situations that are completely offline by default or by informed choices. A family dinner table that blocks predefined services on mobile phones within its perimeter or devices that recommend their own deactivation after excessive usage are initial thoughts on what this turn might put forth. Such efforts could lead to a novel approach in HCI that aims at reducing human-computer interactions.

back to top  Turn to Neurodiversity

A turn to neurodiversity falls well within the tradition of HCI research by focusing on the cognitive aspects of humans in technology usage but modernizes it by focusing on the diversity and dimensionality of cognitive processing as promoted by the neurodiversity movement. Rather than averaging, unifying, and generalizing cognition as was done in second-wave HCI research, a turn to neurodiversity takes a broad view of the spectrum of human brain functionalities. The initial focus of neurodiversity was on reframing conditions like autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity syndrome, and dyslexia, among others, from disabilities to alternative modes of cognitive processing. By moving away from an understanding of these conditions as disabilities and focusing on their accompanying limitations, the positives of such conditions become visible. Continuing the line of thought, all humans' cognitive functions can be perceived as being entangled in individual realities.

Advances in neurosciences and improvements in the costs, availability, and resolution of cognitive-function measurement via smaller and more-powerful sensors will provide the foundation to access broader groups of users in their individual cognitive modes. Unraveling this knowledge will ultimately require technology to be flexible and adaptable to multiple, fine-grained modes of cognitive processing, creating a novel form of customizability. The necessary theoretical, methodological, and technological frameworks for a turn to neurodiversity are already beginning to take shape in the HCI community [8]. An example would be a device that mediates the interaction between people with and without autism. By providing feedback about both partners' conversational behavior and needs, this device could foster a nonjudgmental exchange [8].


back to top  Turn to Transhumanism

In August 2020, Neuralink Corporation, founded by Elon Musk, introduced the Link, an implantable device that tracks and stimulates brain activity. Despite being only 23 mm wide and 8 mm thick, the Link's scope of application is quite broad, from giving people with neurological disorders the ability to control mobile gadgets and computers directly with their brains to enabling humans to communicate telepathically via brain-machine interfaces. While this technology raises many concerns, such as the extent to which the procedure of implanting the device in one's brain is safe and the data processed and stored is secure, the possibility of overcoming both the physical and mental limitations of human bodies is no longer that distant.

Genetically and technologically enhanced individuals might exceed "regular" human beings, introducing new modes of social inequality.

A turn to transhumanism explores the idea of augmenting human physical, intellectual, and psychological capacities through cutting-edge technologies and scientific knowledge. The development of artificial intelligence, biotechnologies, and genetic engineering raises the questions of what it means to be human, how the symbiosis of human and technologies should be achieved and moderated, and where the boundaries of mind and body enhancement should lie. The possibility of adjusting one's body, be it a bionic prosthesis or a cosmetic injection, might cause some tension on both personal and group levels: After all, any intervention can be seen as going against nature. At the same time, the normalization of technological human enhancement will become an ongoing and accelerated process, redefining the concepts of natural and artificial. For instance, if having the Link implanted turns into a widespread or even mandatory procedure, this augmentation will no longer be considered unnatural. Furthermore, the dissemination of transhumanist-inspired innovations will entail social change. For instance, genetically and technologically enhanced individuals might exceed "regular" human beings, introducing new modes of social inequality. More than ever, HCI professionals will be accountable for the products and services they create or contribute to as well as responsible for solving the ethical issues imposed by those designs.

back to top  Turn to Autonomy

At a basic level, the way we use most types of technology today is not very different from how we might use household tools. They serve to fulfill a function, just like a hammer is used to drive or pull nails. Computer systems are of course capable of much more than a hammer, but at the end of the day, they only do what we tell them to. The rise of intelligent machines, however, is evident. There are already algorithms capable of composing music, making designs, and preparing contracts. Diagnosis algorithms are delivering more-accurate results than doctors in early research, and self-driving cars seem to be just around the corner. We must also consider the work on quantum computing, which in the future might be able to make complex decisions based on the most minuscule of details. These are just the first steps toward a future where technology takes on a more autonomous role.

At some point, we will be required to take a step back so as not to get in the way of these intelligent systems. And we might find ourselves struggling to let go. For the first time, the decision-making would not be ours. We would no longer be deciding what action is taken, when, and how. In some cases we might even find ourselves completely removed from the decision-making process. Perhaps on an intellectual level we will understand that these systems will be capable of taking a lot more into account than we are and are likely to make better decisions than we do. But on an emotional level we might find it very hard to trust in decisions made for us by someone else, especially if that someone is not human. The biggest barrier for this technological leap will be not of a technical nature but rather one of trust. Do we trust these systems? And, just as importantly, do they trust us? Human-computer interaction will one day need to deal with these questions and will likely take on a much more literal meaning as it studies how to establish effective communication channels between humans and computers.

back to top  Conclusion

The turns that the students articulated represent both utopian and dystopian issues and visions in HCI. If they unfold as envisioned, they may result in desirable realities, but depending on how they are interpreted and manifested, they may also bring about undesirable ways of living. This means that those realizing particular manifestations—including HCI and design researchers and practitioners—have the opportunity to contribute to a desirable future; at the same time, making use of this opportunity implies huge ethical responsibilities. All turns that we presented highlight these various ethical consequences. In other words, we cannot neglect the tremendous responsibilities in our research and practice, regardless of whether they relate to designing novel technologies or researching individual life worlds.

The turns also unveil an intriguing tension. The turns to autonomy and transhumanism depict realities where there is no distinction between the physical and the digital, where humans are part of inherently and inseparably hybrid realities. Here, design's power lies in supporting the coproduction of such realities among humans and nonhumans. In contrast, the turns to nature and offline reveal a human desire to create spaces or times that are neither digital nor hybrid. For this, design would need to help with the escape from (and the reentry into) these realities.

Articulating turns is just one (insufficient) way of consolidating all existing knowledge or speculating about our field of research and practice. They are not detailed enough to fully depict realities or futures. We consider them a vehicle with which to reflect, to fuel a discussion, and to nurture the discourse about directions we deliberately take or ignore as a community. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, designers and design researchers are continuously prompted to anticipate and question developments and changes, which sometimes are unstable and unexpected, even controversial. It is, however, a great opportunity to shape realities for the better, and to take responsibility for what is about to come. We might even want to articulate wishes for turns that we hope will characterize our community in the future (how about a turn to human rights, or a turn to equality?) to spur them into existence.

back to top  References

1. Rogers, Y. HCI theory: Classical, modern, and contemporary. Synthesis Lectures on Human-Centered Informatics 5, 2 (2012), 1–129; http://dx.doi.org/10.2200/S00418ED1V01Y201205HCI014

2. Grusin, R. The Nonhuman Turn. Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2015.

3. Robles, E. and Wiberg, M. Texturing the "material turn" in interaction design. Proc. of the Fourth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction. ACM, New York, 2010, 137–144; http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/1709886.1709911

4. Loke, L. and Schiphorst, T. The somatic turn in human-computer interaction. Interactions 25, 5 (Sep.–Oct. 2018), 54–5863; https://doi.org/10.1145/3236675

5. Höök, K. Designing with the Body: Somaesthetic Interaction Design. MIT Press, 2018.

6. Kuutti, K. and Bannon, L.J. The turn to practice in HCI: Towards a research agenda. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2014, 3543–3552; http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2556288.2557111

7. Helms, K., Ferreira, P., Brown, B., and Lampinen, A. Away and (dis)connection: Reconsidering the use of digital technologies in light of long-term outdoor activities. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 3, GROUP (Dec. 2019), Article 230; https://doi.org/10.1145/3361111

8. Fletcher-Watson, S., De Jaegher, H., van Dijk, J., Frauenberger, C., Magnée, M., and Ye, J. Diversity computing. Interactions 25, 5 (Sep.–Oct. 2018), 28–33; https://doi.org/10.1145/3243461

back to top  Authors

Verena Fuchsberger is a postdoc at the Center for Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Salzburg, Austria. In her research, she focuses on the agencies that humans and computer develop together and explores them in theoretical, empirical, and designerly ways. verena.fuchsberger@sbg.ac.at

Marta Dziabiola is an HCI master's student at the University of Salzburg and Salzburg University of Applied Sciences, Austria. She also holds a master's degree in communication science from the University of Wroclaw, Poland. Her research interests include assistive technologies, participatory design, accessibility, smart cities, and technology-mediated communication. mdziabiola.hcie-m2020@fh-salzburg.ac.at

Azur Mešić has a bachelor of design as well as industry experience in the field of UX. Currently he is studying human-computer interaction in Salzburg and aims to one day contribute meaningfully with his research. mesicazur@gmail.com

Daniel Nørskov is currently studying human-computer interaction at the University of Salzburg and the University of Applied Sciences in Salzburg. His background is in the broader field of user experience design, and he is engaged in exploring the context, use, nonuse, and appropriation of technology. daniel.norskov@stud.sbg.ac.at

Ralf Vetter is enrolled in the joint master's program in human-computer interaction at the University of Salzburg and the Salzburg University of Applied Sciences. He holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and is interested in HCI theory and methodology, as well as the philosophy of science. ralf.vetter@hotmail.com

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