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Caught Kari Kuutti in Toronto who was talking about what he termed ‘the practice perspective’ in HCI as opposed to ‘the interaction perspective’. He identifies a general turn towards practice in HCI and aligns it with a long-established tradition in the social sciences. He proposes the interaction perspective is predominantly concerned with individuals and their interactions with a system (situated action, distributed cognition, and ecological psychology would appear to bear this analysis out with Activity Theory perhaps as an outlier), it is about performing an act upon a system and the results of that action, it is technology-centred and cares about speed of response, cross compatibility and throughput, it is momentary – actions are fleeting and have transient effects. Both laboratory and field settings afford study.

The practice perspective in contrast is social; it cares about group actions, learning and development. Actions are repeated again and again and have increasingly fixed effects. Technology is not privileged and HCI research pays attention to behaviour not mediated by technological systems. Interactions can only be studied when they occur, even through they acquire duration and history. Finally, and importantly for my own research, artefacts are seen as inseparable from how they are used and the settings within which they accrue meanings. Kuttii pointed out that this turn to practice in HCI is informed by the last 30 years of thinking in in anthropology and sociology. He said ‘in social science practice is where things fall together in an interesting way and can therefore be studied’. This implies a role for the designer in HCI as someone able to arrange a set of conditions where this ‘falling together’ might be more likely to happen. In social science the researcher frames the enquiry in a certain way so as to perceive this synthesis of situations or behaviours which is then viewed through various theoretical lenses.

Kuttii points out that HCI should learn from social science how to be more reflexively conscious but should at the same time capitalise on its strengths, which he sees as consisting of: an understanding of materiality, an interest in how people appropriate technology for diverse uses, concern with real world problems and real world settings (Yvonne Rogers identifies this as a ‘turn to the wild’), an emphasis on context and how digital ecologies shape experience. He ended the talk with the claim that HCI, while ready to engage more fully with a practice perspective, must wait for people to ‘weave technology into their lives’ and that we are in the very early days of integrated digital systems.

The implications for my own research and how it could be understood in the context of a practice-based PhD are slowly coming into view. If the design researcher is at once observer of a set of conditions and creator of a context within which those conditions ‘fall together’ then there is some kind of synthesis between researcher, participants, artefacts and the new knowledge generated. Since my work is all about revealing invisible structures through encounters with artefacts (more specifically by allowing people to create those artefacts) a turn to practice HCI could frame an emerging research paradigm. The missing element from Kuuttii’s argument for me is the sense that design research is about eliciting creative responses from participants in a holistic real-word setting rather than identifying new objects for study.

2 thoughts on “Practice and Design

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