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Thinking about Theory (Warning: Interaction Design Nerdery Ahead)

In conversations and on mailing lists addressing the design of interactive media, I’ve found myself growing uneasy with just how little understanding most people practicing in the field have of how they are influenced by the various theories that undergird are standard practice. I think it can be problematic that so people are working in the context of these theories don’t understand how the theories’ assumptions are coloring their approaches.

What do I mean by theory? Theory is a robust conceptual framework that undergirds a practice. Standard thoughtful practice of design for interactive media is predicated on a cobbled-together set of theories, most of them coming out of the HCI community, which has been heavily influenced by cognitive psychology (think Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things). So you have things like distributed cognition, perception, attention, etc. Cog psych tends to focus on the individual.

Another major influencer is Activity Theory, which I believe gained traction as researchers studied the workplace, and wanted to understand how technology influences groups of people, not just individuals. Since the dawn of the Web, there’s also been significant inroads by the Library and Information Science community (Information retrieval, metadata, etc.).

As experience design leads to people trying to understand more complex situations, we’re seeing folks embrace anthropological and sociological methods… which also have their various theoretical underpinnings, far too numerous to go into here.

I believe that my exposure to and understanding of various theories (not to say I’m an expert in them) has heightened my experience and practice in design for interactive media. But I also know I’m a knowledge wonk who gets off on such things. Still, I think people will perform better when understanding the theoretical constructs in which they operate, so they can appreciate self-imposed arbitrary limits that may not have realized. Pragmatists might take issue, saying that all that matters is practice and results. That might be true if we were designing simpler systems. I think theory gives us tools for making smart heuristic judgments that help manage the complexity inherent in our work.

  1. Well said Peter. Having worked through these theories might not always help a UX or IA person, but having them in your toolbox often directly correlates with the quality of work.

    Not to suggest even related theory, but I also find Economic Theory quite useful too (but mostly the issues related to cog sci as you rightly reference).

    It also helps to have some background in Computer Science (Systems Theory?) since that’s the environment most of our work is embedded into. Having some knowledge about at least the general direction some designs and systems should go make the IA/UX vastly improved.

  2. Peter,

    The same can be said for management. It’s a mess.

    Most of what you see out there in the field of management is nothing more than a piecemeal, well-intentioned, dysfunctional dream spin, rather than an intentional, validated, integrated framework. And we wonder why engagement sits at about 20%.

    As a management consultant, I use the meta model, Requisite Organization, which contains work levels theory whicha allows organizations to build a structure that aligns with their strategy and assess and calibrate talent/cognitive capacity to the levels in the organization. Without this theory, executives and managers have no common language to discuss organizational structure or evaluate talent. Nor can they diagnose the root cause of issues.

    When you add to work levels organization design Requisite’s accountability framework, organizational effectiveness soars because managers have clarity and confidence. Managers are willing to take accountability when it is paired with requisite authority.

    Elliott Jaques’ Requisite model is rooted in the two core values of trust and fairness which are precursors for employee engagement.

    My mantra is I’m OK. You’re OK. Let’s fix the system. Systems drive behavior. Let’s stop trying to fix people and instead shore up our management and leadership systems.


    Michelle Malay Carter

  3. I think in most fields it’s unwise/unsatisfying to apply models when you don’t understand the underlying theory. That’s not to say that good people can’t emulate the activities that need to be applied when understanding people, information, systems, but having the underlying toolbox of theoretical models does allow you to cope with nuance, and where possible – improve those activities based on more than just an opinion.

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