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.