Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A note on a lost and found book: C. West Churchman "The Design of Inquiring Systems"

One of the books that has had the most influence on me is "The Design of Inquiring Systems:  Basic Concepts of Systems and Organizations" by C. West Churchman. The book was published in 1971. I probably got my copy in the early 80s. The reason why I read the book at that time was not primarily because I wanted to, but because my teacher at that time, Kristo Ivanov, who would later become my PhD adviser was a big fan of Churchman.

My copy of the book has long been missing. I do not even remember when I last saw it, but it is many years ago. I have over the years tried to get a new copy, but the book is out of print and used copies are very expensive. But, just a few days ago, I was re-arranging some books in my office and suddenly the book was there! It looks great! It looks like a book that is used a lot. It is full of notes and comments (see image).

Thinking back on the time when I read the book and also met Churchman and heard him talk about his ideas, I am quite sure that I did not really understand what the book was about. Actually, now, even without reading it, just by looking at the List of Content I am quite sure I understand the book much better than ever before.

The basic idea of the book is grand and overwhelming. Churchman  takes on the task of defining the nature of inquiring systems, that is, systems that has as its purpose to create and establish knowledge. He does that by building a typology of inquiring systems based on the ideas of famous philosophers. For instance, he discusses the Leibnizian inquiring system, Lockean inquiring system, Hegel inquiring system etc. What an excellent but extraordinary difficult idea. Then in the second part of the book he discusses or speculates (which is his own term) on systems design. What are the possible issues, questions, limitations and requirements for any design of an inquiring system if we really tried to do it well.

The book was so difficult at the time when I read it. At the same time I loved to read it. I am not sure I really understood it at all. Right now, I am so looking forward to read it again, now that my old copy has magically surfaced.

Friday, October 26, 2012

CHI reviewing: Some reflections

Reviewing for a quality conference such as CHI is an excellent way to find out what is going on in the field. What is even more beneficial is that I have to read things I would never otherwise read.  I promised to review 8 papers this year since I felt bad being on several submitted papers. (We should all pay our dues by reviewing at least as many papers as we submit.)

Anyway, I have now reviewed all of them (well, working on the last one). One interesting aspect that I saw in many of the papers is a mismatch between the way theory is said to be used and how it is actually used.

The typical mistake looks like this. The authors start with an introduction, usually quite good. Then comes the "theory" part, also in many cases surprisingly good. Several papers have impressed me by taking on quite ambitious theoretical perspectives in relation to their research. In some cases I read excellent reviews of existing theory with quite interesting reflections on how it relates to the topic in question. But then the problems start. In almost all the papers, after the theory has been introduced, it disappears. It is seldom possible to find any trace of the theory in the study or experiment that is usually the core of the paper. The analysis and interpretation of the results and findings are not at all done based on or informed by the theory. Another problem is that the authors do not return to the theory at the end of the paper. The findings does not lead to any revisiting of the theory or to any reflections of the use of the theory, for instance, in relation to how well it worked or what the theory failed to support.

I find it ok if researchers use a theory as a tool, that is how I see theories myself. They are tools that can help us to describe and analyze something. So, it is fine if the research does not necessary lead to any final or revolutionary reflections on the theory used, or to any form theoretical development (even though if that is the case the paper usually becomes quite boring). However, it is definitely not necessary to introduce a theory or a conceptual framework in a paper if it is not used in the actual research process. If it is not used, why do we have to read about it?

This means that many papers start out with grand plans on a fairly advanced theoretical level while it ends on a low practical level that in no way correspond to the claims and issues introduced in the beginning. It would be wonderful to read a paper once that had the opposite structure, that is, that started out with a simple and practical problem but ended in an advanced discussion about theoretical implications and developments. Maybe they are our there. Maybe I just did not get any to review this year.

[In a paper by me and Mikael Wiberg we discuss the idea of teory driven research as an opportunity for improvement in HCI research, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07370020903586696]

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Book Note: "Observing the user experience" by Goodman, Kuniavsky, and Moed

There are many books that in one way or another describe how to do interaction design (broadly defined). In most cases I do not find these book very interesting for one simple reason. The reason is that they are neither inspiring when it comes to theory, or practical when it comes to guidance. Books like these, mainly labeled as textbooks, are what I see as "in-between" books, that is, they present ideas and theory in a way that is far from grounded and foundational, and they present guidance that is not based on real insights and knowledge about practice.

I just got a copy of the second edition of "Observing the user experience--a practitioner's guide to user research" by Elizabeth Goodman, Mike Kuniavsky and Andrea Moed (Morgan Kaufmann, 2012). To me, this is a book that is not in-between. It is "a practitioner's guide" written in a language and at a level that is very useful. Each aspect of user research is presented in a simple and clear way with concrete and practical guidelines on how to do it. I find the book excellent for anyone who is new to the field and who not just want to know how important user research is but how to actually do it. The authors stay away from making large claims and from relating the practical guidance to more or less developed theoretical frameworks.

However, I think it is important that anyone who uses a book like this complements it other readings that in a solid intellectual way examines the broader aspects of practice and its relationship to theoretical traditions and paradigms.

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