Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Phenomenological Perspective

The exploration of designing interactions within a matrix of the user’s embodied and situated personal understanding is a HCI paradigm shift “to recognizing a plurality of perspectives (…) taking into account but not adjudicating the varying and perhaps conflicting perspectives of users.” (Harrison, 2007, pp7-8). The move to a phenomenological paradigm within HCI allows for a profitable linkage with Visual Communication to support Interaction Design.

Phenomenology is both a philosophical movement and a research methodology. The former provides a theoretical framework that connects Dourish’s embodied interactions, Suchman’s situated actions, McCullough’s digital ground to a pragmatic understanding (Dewey, 1980)(Shusterman, 1992) of the aesthetics of experience. In phenomenological research there are two forms, descriptive (eidetic) and interpretive (hermeneutic). Descriptive phenomenology follows the philosophy of Edward Husserl, and hermeneutic phenomenology the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (Lopez, 2004, p727). Heidegger uses the term Dasein to describe existence in respect to our own understanding of being in the world. Our “Being grows out of the average understanding of Being in which we are always involved” (1993, p49). This is ontological as to understand Being is “itself a determination of Being” (p54). This existential understanding is a “constitution-of-Being of the being that exists”(p55) in the world, and phenomenology is a concept of method through which to study the phenomena of Being, an expressed maxim of “To the things themselves!” (p72). Phenomenology investigates the Being of Beings, on studying the ‘how’ and ‘what’ meaning of a phenomena, making known the structures of Being. This investigation is hermeneutic, and it is in hermeneutic phenomenology that proposes that all understanding is interpretive (Johnson, 2000, p143). This ontological investigation of bringing out the Being of Beings helps thematise that structure.

Phenomenological reduction of these themes of Being within a specific phenomena (e.g. an aesthetic experience) begins with the apprehension of Being, to the understanding of the uncovered themes of Being, returning back through interpreting these themes of the studied experience, to the apprehension of the Being. This is a Hermeneutic Circle of interpretation, reducing the uncovered themes of the studied phenomena to “uncover commonalities and differences” (Benner, 1994, p104) seen through the eyes of the individual, to illuminate “that would have been overlooked in a purely descriptive approach” (Lopez, 2004, p734).

This hermeneutic process is contextual to a situated, cultural and historical “meaning of being in the world” (Earle, 2010, p288) (Johnson, 2000, p144) and the interpretation is conditional on the temporality of Being (Heidegger, 1982, p17) between the apprehension of Being and the understanding of the uncovered themes of Being within a studied situation. This systematic movement within a hermeneutic circle of interpretation affords the interpreter to check for “incongruities, puzzles, and unifying repeated concerns” (Benner, 1994, p113), and leads the interpreter through a cycle of “understanding, interpretation, and critique” (p120) to “uncover naturally occurring concerns and meanings” (p112) to understand the phenomena as directly as possible - as directly as experienced. Other qualitative methods attempt to examine the peripheral limitations or delimitations that surround it. In a phenomenological study the researcher enters the research open to understand the phenomena fully through the eyes of the participant. This is to understand their behaviour within that specific experience of the phenomena.

The framework for such a phenomenological research methodology is taken from two recognised academics Moustakas (1994) and van Manen (1990). Moustakas has proposed an actual staged framework for a methodology that researchers have used. This framework can be adapted for both eidetic and hermeneutic research, but to adapt it for an interpretive phenomenological study van Manen’s guidance needs to be followed. This framework, influenced primarily from nursing literature, will be discussed later in the paper and provides an established research methodology in which to explore the aesthetic experience. In doing so Visual Communication can be repositioned away from being seen as the end “artifice” and brought back to the earlier conceptualising design stages. The methodology as used to date is a written study, where each stage of writing and rewriting within a hermeneutic circle reduces the themes to a composite synthesis of meaning. van Manen advocates the writing process and offers five ways to approach writing up of the findings: thematically, analytically, exemplificatively, exegetically, or existentially (p173). He also offers a proviso to choosing the best approach that opens the methodology up beyond a purely textual outcome. Whilst he suggests the researcher can choose a combination of the above, decided by the nature of the studied phenomena, he also practically (or pragmatically) opens this up potentially beyond the textual. He calls on the researcher to be “creative in finding approaches and procedures uniquely suited” (p163) to both a particular project and the individual researcher. This is another a profitable linkage that Visual Communication can use to support Interaction Design through connecting to HCI. A purely textual representation of a phenomenological study of an experience is only partially useful for inspiring an interaction designer understand a particular experience. Visual data is a valuable source for both understanding and inspiration, and according to Benner (1994) the “use of interpretive phenomenology for interpreting visual sources of data is not yet well developed, but visual data are central to many lines of inquiry amenable to interpretive phenomenology, particularly social practices, embodied skills, and the study of lived experience.” (p120). This was sixteen years ago and through a literature search this remains under-developed. I propose within this paper how a Visual Communication Phenomenological Methodology can be developed and using a practical pilot project how it can be visually conducted.

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