Saturday, 27 November 2010

The HCI Perspective

Without a formal externalised, repeatable process a critique of aesthetics is not possible from a functionalist HCI perspective. HCI’s theoretical root has ‘deep philosophical incompatibilities’ (Bardzell, 2009, p2357) with understanding aesthetics. The existing paradigms that HCI traditionally has worked within have raised empirical, scientific, objective knowledge as the normative (Bertelsen & Pold, 2004) (Udsen & Jurgenson, 2005). This functionalist position of examining and analysing the effect of computer systems upon human cognitive processing (Tractinsky, 2000), hasn’t been open to anything less than systematic observation. Through this scientific functionalist approach, HCI research has lead to generalisations that translate into efficient and optimised fits between computers and humans. With its focus upon functionality and usability, traditionally HCI has seen anything to do with aesthetics as ‘inversely proportional’ to usability (Ahmed et al., 2009) with warnings as to negative, detrimental affects upon efficient functionality (Tractinsky, 2004). It must be stressed that this is a traditional HCI position. As sections of the HCI research community (Harrison, 2007) are using a Phenomenological Matrix to understand experience, especially aesthetic experience, this strengthens my research perspective.
Traditional HCI, influenced by the engineering and psychology roots, has had a dismissive attitude towards aesthetics and the visual aspects of design because the emotional aspects of its influence are not revealed through the hard science of its research methods. Over the last decade, developing on Norman’s work on emotional design (2005), some HCI researchers led by Harrison, have observed the HCI paradigm developing from a position of ‘objective knowledge’ into a position from where knowledge arises from ‘situated viewpoints’ (Harrison et al., 2007). Harrison describes the three paradigms of HCI.

The first paradigm took its inspiration from HCI’s roots in industrial engineering and ergonomics, and located itself firmly within an objective and functional view of design. The second HCI paradigm focused upon a “central metaphor of mind and computer as symmetric, coupled information processors”. This intellectual position came from the influence on HCI from Cognitive Psychology. Both these first two paradigms are not mutually exclusive but overlap, and can be mapped onto Petersen’s five elements of interaction (Petersen et al., 2004). The first four interaction styles are: system, tool, dialogue and media. The system style positions the user as part of the computer system; the tool style positions the user as being in control of the system, the dialogue style positions both the user and machine as equal partners in communication, and a media style places the interactive system as a mediator between human-human communication.

The first paradigm of coupling man and machine can be seen in what Petersen defines as a System Perspective and also a Tool Perspective. Within a System Perspective the user is seen as being part of the system - as part of the machine, whereas the Tool Perspective shifted the user to an operable status, as a user of the machine. The second paradigm can be mapped to their Dialogue Partner Perspective where the user is in equal partnership with the machine, or the Media Perspective where the machine is the communication mediator between humans (Petersen et al., 2007).
Petersen’s fifth element of interaction and Harrison’s 3rd paradigm both share a phenomenological perspective that up to recently has been marginalised and subordinated under objective functionalism. In the third paradigm of HCI the focus is upon the emergent experience of humans as embodied actuators within a physical and social world.

With Harrison’s argument for the third paradigm and Petersen’s exploration of aesthetics from a Pragmatist perspective there is now an opportunity to reposition Visual Communication as an influence upon Interaction Design. This repositioning is not superficial in a desire to place the emphasis solely upon the visual design of the surface. The aesthetics of interaction, within which Visual Communication can still inform and influence, places the aesthetic not on the control of the appearance but upon an interaction that reveals itself to be aesthetic in its experience.
It is within this phenomenological space that the rhetorical voice of Visual Communication can connect and consociate with Interaction Design. It has been important to look to HCI research to locate connections with the functionalist to strengthen Visual Communication’s repositioning. To do this Petersen’s five interaction styles have been mapped to the first two paradigms of HCI, and the fifth style linking to aesthetics. Harrison’s third HCI paradigm has been crucial to this positioning, as Harrison’s phenomenological thesis is bringing HCI closer in dialogue to my position. Petersen’s work on Pragmatist Aesthetics, influenced by Dewey and Shusterman, presents a framework to form a bridge to Visual Communication via Interaction Design, using phenomenological research methodology.

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