Paradigms in HCI


Methods of evaluation have also been contentious in the HCI community. The influx of graphic designers in the 1990s led to questions concerning rigor and what should be considered “good” research at HCI conferences (Gaver 2012). HCI researchers Saul Greenberg and Bill Buxton argue that scientific evaluation does not necessarily imply science, and equating evaluation with rigor can lead to the incorrect belief that designs, at no matter what stage of development, must be formally evaluated to be considered part of a rigorous design process. Furthermore, they observe that laboratory-based usability evaluation does not take into account cultural uptake and appropriation of innovations over time (Greenberg and Buxton 2008).


In an analysis of paradigmatic debates in the HCI community, Harrison, Tatar and Sengers identified three waves they called “human factors,” “cognitive science/information processing” and “phenomenologically situated paradigms” (Harrison, Tatar and Sengers 2006). A paradigm is a framework of theories, methods, and standards that guides and coordinates the activities of researchers in a field. A paradigm shift occurs when peripheral findings that do not fit the existing body of knowledge accumulate to become the center of enquiry (Kuhn 1970). Paradigm shifts are characterized by periods of intense debate until the paradigm with greater explanatory power takes hold. Harrison, Tatar and Sengers characterize the human factors paradigm as “an a-theoretic and pragmatic approach to identifying problems in industrial systems and ergonomics” (Harrison, Tatar and Sengers 2006). The aim of research in this paradigm is to engineer a better ergonomic fit between man and machine to reduce errors and improve performance. The cognitive science/information processing paradigm “abstracts the problem to the form of a model, and the more general the better” (Harrison, Tatar and Sengers 2006). The research using this paradigm models human cognition in terms of computational components such as memory, processing load, and multitasking. The aim of this research is to produce a comprehensive general theory that can predict decisions and produce an optimal interface. The phenomenologically situated paradigm is “concerned with supporting action and meaning making in real world contexts, seeking out essential structures of experience through systematic reflection” (Harrison, Tatar and Sengers 2006). While the second paradigm sees theory as primary, the third paradigm focuses on what happens practically at the scene of action (Harrison, Tatar and Sengers 2006). There is no single, correct set of methods or approaches, and multiple theoretical lenses guide diverse design and evaluation methods. Related theories include situated cognition, where knowledge is situated in social, cultural and physical affordances of the external environment (Johnson 1987), and embodied cognition, where knowledge involves the entire body, including affective, central nervous, and sensorimotor systems (Kirsh 2013). Although the third wave of HCI was identified by debates between different research cultures, it did not overthrow the previous waves, as would have been the case in a field-wide paradigm shift. Instead, the paradigms are able to co-exist by making explicit their epistemological commitments. This approach is facilitated by side comparison of the characteristics of each paradigm and a list of commitments for establishing conventions of rigor in each. Peers with different epistemological bases can review contributions to knowledge in the field based on these claims.


Although such an approach has proven workable in HCI, including the benefit of educating the broad research community about epistemological considerations, it can be tedious to repeat the research stance in every paper. The field of interaction design distinguishes itself from HCI by explicitly stating that it is founded on design, rather than scientific or artistic paradigms: “Unlike the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) community, interaction design fully recognizes itself as a design discipline in that its ultimate objective is to create new (artifacts) and change existing interactive systems for the better” (Fallman 2003). Interaction design distinguishes itself from science or engineering by a focus on how things might be rather than how they currently are. The design process involves holistic considerations of relationships between artifacts, user experience, and social, cultural, and business contexts of use. Attention is given to physical, sensual, cognitive, emotional, and aesthetic issues and extends to more fuzzy concepts such as fun and play. Interaction design addresses specific human needs, drawing on diverse methods as required, which makes it difficult to reconcile with scientific paradigms that require replication and generalization (Faste and Faste 2012).

Sonic interaction design is a further specialization of the field of interaction design. It focuses on sound in the loop between users and products, services and environments. The user-centered focus includes consideration of function, emotion, experience, and cultural factors. Sonic interaction design is distinct in its use of creative methods from theatre and film that include bodystorming, vocal sketching, dramatic performance, video prototyping with sonic overlays, film Foley, and sound dramas (Rocchesso and Serafin 2009; Ferranti and Spitz 2017). These full bodied expressive techniques demonstrate embodied and situated approaches to design.