There was a panel about theory in HCI at the NordiCHI conference today. I wonder what they discussed. It made me think about questions I’ve been asked about the role of theory in human-centered computing, particularly in the context of teaching the Introduction to Human Centered Computing class (which is a survey of a variety of theories about technology). In that class, I recently said something about my own relationship to theory, and now I’m wondering whether it’s true for others, so here goes.
I find some theories more personally compelling than others. They speak a type of truth to me, one that I find very engaging. They bring out, for want of better words, the researcher in me. What I find very useful about this is that because theory is related to methods and questions, I can use these connections to focus in on particular problems. One of the first theories I ever used was Grounded Theory, it’s in my dissertation. I took the route of building more theory atop of articulation work (and to some degree social worlds) to develop my theory of software recomposition. The theory, modestly, explains some of the reasons that software is hard to produce, its because the process of modular decomposition creates a division of labor full of dependencies that are often underspecified and then change during the course of development. All of these dependencies are discovered at integration, unless they are well managed, and that makes production difficult.
Grounded Theory spoke to me. The works I read seemed to address problems that I found compelling, and using methods that I enjoyed to use. It didn’t help me find the domain, that was a different inspiration, one largely stemming from a sense that HCI had overly focused on the end-user taking the engineer to task and I wondered whether the work worlds of developers were as socially and technologically complex as those of the end-users and if so, whether we had to make inroads there in order to make the world of the end-user better. But it did help me formulate questions, operationalize them empirically, and do analysis.
Focus is the enemy of a new researcher. Being reflective on what your passions are might be one way to do this. I’m very lucky I also know the things I do not like to do. I am glad when others do them because I don’t want to.
Well that leaves all the big questions open like what is a theory in HCI, what should it do, what does it mean that we have multiple theoretical approaches, should we develop our own theories or use those developed by other disciplines. But, it is an answer to what problems should I work on? If you can find research that speaks to you very deeply, that supports the answering of questions you find interesting and using methods that you find enjoyable to practice, that seems useful.