Parallels between HCI and Web Science

Yesterday I read the cover story of the latest edition of ACM’s Interactions magazine: Reimagining HCI: Toward a More Human-Centered Perspective. The author describes a refocusing within HCI from evaluation of interfaces through system design and into “general sense-making of our world.” He calls for a refocusing in HCI towards “new forms of living with and through technologies that give primacy to human actors, their values, and their activities.”

Given that my doctorate concerned understanding user experiences towards designing better systems, it’s unsurprising that I found myself nodding in agreement — particularly given my concerns about unintended negative impacts from technology, an issue relevant to HCI and User Experience, but also to Web Science (which after all, encompasses unintended societal impacts of technological changes).

(Quick example: many of us now live in an ‘always-on’ culture, in which we expect one another to be constantly online, and feel guilty when we ourselves are offline. This arose from technological changes: the spread of smartphones, the widespread availability of affordable data contracts, and the rise of social technologies from email to social networks.)

I want to talk about Web Science here. Relatively early on in the article, Bannon remarks upon how issues such as ‘reliability’ are not purely technical, but are “inherently sociotechnical” — a phrase which put me in mind of Wendy Hall’s framing of Web Science as “the theory and practice of social machines.” However, he also remarks:

This panoply of ideas, critiques, art, designs, and reflections at times sits uneasily with a more scientific research agenda. There is something about the kinds of questions being raised that makes us realize this mixing of scientific knowledge, on the one hand, and design expertise, on the other, can create uneasy bedfellows.

Web Science is broader than “scientific knowledge plus design expertise” but the concept of tension arising from multiple domains is not unfamiliar here. Bannon goes on to cite Winograd, who reportedly argues that the challenge for interaction design is combining:

  • practical aspects from engineering
  • human concerns that guide design
  • social science perspectives on our world

Well that sounds familiar. Combining such facets may well be a challenge for interaction design, but it’s a challenge for Web Science, too. HCI is not Web Science; Web Science is not HCI. Nonetheless, it’s no surprise that interdisciplinary efforts to work in sociotechnical areas will share certain challenges.

So what — and how? — can these communities learn from one another?


4 responses to this post.

  1. “many of us now live in an ‘always-on’ culture, in which we expect one another to be constantly online, and feel guilty when we ourselves are offline” – having just come from a week mostly offline, I think it’s really important that we design downtime into our systems. For instance, making it easy for people to designate (and thus make peoples’ expectations clear about) their own downtime…


    • Yeah, I think dealing with this area is a Big Deal for HCI/Web Science/all of us. Any thoughts about how we might support people in designating their own downtime?

      I’ve always been intrigued by danah boyd’s approach to email when she’s on holidays — trashing it all! (But making everyone knows this way in advance.) She calls it email sabbaticals, and it’s a neat way to deal with the issue of returning from hols to a mountain of email… but kinda sad that the issue needs dealing with in the first place, that she has to put so much thought and effort into dealing with it.


  2. […] in terms of content, scope and methods — indeed, the seeds for that paper can be seen in this blog post of mine from last summer. I felt it was an important piece of work to do: there are such strong parallels […]


  3. […] and Web Science, a topic I’ve been musing on for a couple of years (from an initial blog post in 2011, to a WebSci paper last year). Last year’s WebSci paper described the two disciplines […]


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