Reflecting on Rogers & Marsden (2013) “Does He Take Sugar? Moving Beyond the Rhetoric of Compassion”
In the cover story for the July / August 2013 edition of ACMs “Interactions” magazine, Yvonne Rogers and Gary Marsden discuss “moving beyond the rhetoric of compassion.” The authors discuss user-centered design practices and argue for a more inclusive and empathic form of technology design process, which aims to give greater agency and dignity to users. This sentiment is to be lauded. There is undoubtedly significant value to society in including compassionate understanding of values and experience as part of the technology design process. However, the reason why I found the article so fascinating is that, while the thrust of the argument is progressive, many of the confusing and troubling assumptions on which HCI as a discipline has been built can be felt seeping through. I don’t mean to suggest that this article is uniquely deserving of criticism, but its publication does provide an opportunity to reflect on some of my long-held concerns about HCI research.
What do HCI researchers do?
The standard response to this question involves pointing out that HCI is an inherently multidisciplinary research field, and hence, there is no definitive answer. We do lots of things, from building interfaces for complex machinery, to exploring the possibilities of digitally augmented dance; from analysis of Big Data, to short story writing, and everything in between. The better question, I feel, is why we do those things? What are we hoping to achieve by studying the interaction of people with technology? What is the benefit of our work to human civilisation?
Rogers and Marsden suggest that it is our responsibility as HCI researchers to invent, imagine, and act as purveyors of new interaction design tools, interfaces and technologies. This commonly held view among HCI researchers positions the goal of HCI as envisioning and designing the future, but very much focuses on the creation of ever more technology to do so. This presents an interesting question; is the end result of HCI research always focused on the creation of technology? If HCI is just about making things, and all the different research processes we undertake are done with that singular goal in mind, then it’s difficult to see why HCI deserves to be a discipline independent of Design.
Furthermore, profit-making organisations will always have a vested interest in the design and development of new technology. If all academic research on HCI stopped tomorrow, we would still see innovative developments in technology. There must be some added benefit that academic HCI research gives to society. In my opinion, (influenced by contributions of phoebe sengers at a CHI2012 panel ) our multidisciplinary experience in designing technology for and with people puts us in a unique position to explore what should and should not be made. Through our experience and scholarship, we are in a position to identify instances of technology, forms of interaction, and design processes that are likely to be psychologically or socially harmful. Rather than joining in and exploring the design of such technology, we would provide a better service to society by having the confidence and integrity to critically evaluate it and, where appropriate, to speak out against it. Thus, I fundamentally disagree with the assumption that HCI researchers should focus purely on designing technology.
Is more technology always the answer?
Rogers and Marsden explain how users can and should be engaged physically, intellectually and emotionally with every phase of the technology design process, from the definition of the problem, right through iterative participatory design processes, to eventual “in the wild” evaluation. Solutions are not forced on communities, rather they are suggested and designed by communities, and facilitated by researchers. However, regardless of how empathic and user centered a design process can become, there is still the assumption that technology is the solution.
Curiously, there doesn’t seem to be space for recognising when it is appropriate for the researcher and community representatives to have a cup of tea and not design anything. For example, we don’t believe that an older person genuinely isn’t interested in playing computer games. Rather, we infer that the technology needs to be designed in a more accessible manner, and explore theories and interfaces that are more acceptable to this user group. This is confusing, since if you are a genuinely user (or “people”) centered rather than technology centered researcher, you must accept that often people and communities don’t need more technology. Yet, all HCI researchers always assume that the solution is a new piece of tech. Indeed, it could be argued that convincing reluctant people to co-design technology with us is an insidious form of marketing – after all people are more likely to buy-in to a product that they have invested time in co-designing. You have to ask the question, are we really people centered? Are we actually interested in helping these people? Or are we just trying to understand these people so that we can more successfully sell them loads of expensive technology? In this case, “accessibility” work can be re-considered as means for technology producers to access heretofore unexploited markets.
Dismissal of expertise
One of the side effects of taking a user centered approach to design is the inherent assumption that the opinions of people who have no training or expertise should be considered equal, if not superior, to the knowledge, experience and scholarship of experts. Rogers and Marsden outline many philosophical and social reasons for why user centered design is a fantastic idea. Essentially, the argument is that participatory user centered design gives people power to influence the design of technologies that will impact upon their lives. However, there are many practical reasons for why designing technology based on the reactions and suggestions of non-experts is a terrible idea. For example, Psych 101 tells us that people are often ill informed, that their attitudes don’t predict their behaviour, and that if the researcher is attractive they will say or do anything to please them.
The trouble with the fetishism of user experience in the design process, is that some people really are experts (see this fantastic piece by Gilbert Cockton on design expertise). Some people spend their entire lives studying a particular problem, focusing not only on lived experience, but also understanding the social, political and economic mechanisms that perpetuate it, the biological and behavioural systems that facilitate it, and its cultural significance. Often I find that, like religion, User Centered Design is advanced as an alternative to science, and that scholarship and expertise are eschewed and overruled by a couple of hours of transcripts recorded at focus groups. Indeed, I have recently seen a paper published at CHI, where semi structured interviews at focus groups were used to generate requirements for technology that, if created, would be unquestionably psychologically damaging to users. In this situation you have to ask questions;
- Do the researchers genuinely not know any better? Are they ignorant of some of the most well established clinical psychological research? I would argue that it is our responsibility as HCI researchers to consider the implications of the technologies that we develop, and, moreover, to be well enough versed in the social sciences to recognise when something that we are doing clearly has the potential to cause harm.
- Or, are those researchers intentionally ignoring long established research in favour of pandering to the “users experience?” In my example, it really does seem that the authors allowed users opinions to overrule clinical research.
The above example raises another, bigger question concerning the application of user centered design to populations that are less able to make well-informed decisions (however you may define that). Specifically, how do you proceed when your users (intentionally or not) want to hurt themselves? What happens when, working with a group of anorexia sufferers, or a group of people ostensibly trying to give up smoking, they design solutions that may exacerbate rather than ameliorate their conditions? At what point does an expert step in to overrule the user centered design work? Does that happen very often? Why are experts only valued at the point where things go disastrously wrong? Crucially, if the researcher / designer / expert overrules most of what people say at focus groups, is that user centered design at all? Or is it a sham to make it look like people have been listened to?
In some ways I feel that user centered design is an ingenious and insidious form of marketing – it is a process that helps us consistently design stuff that is engaging, that works, and that sells. I would not suggest that user centered design should be the centre of everything we do as HCI researchers. Rather, there is an important role for HCI researchers in understanding and criticising technology and its impact upon people socially and psychologically. There should be situations where our research methods tell us that more technology is not the solution. Most importantly, we must be careful to not ascribe more significance to data gathered in user studies than they deserve.