We are both design researchers, working within the field of human-computer interaction (HCI). Design research is a fairly young discipline, the formalization of which is generally traced back to a series of essays published in Design Studies under the theme ‘Design as a Discipline’ [1, 3, 9]. The aim of these essays was to position ‘designerly ways of knowing’ as a distinct way of generating knowledge about the world. There is much debate around what design research is and does, but in our interpretation of it, we build on the idea that the making and deploying of new artefacts in the everyday world, in order to purposely inquire and ask questions, forms a distinct way of gaining knowledge about the world.
Encountering theories of practice in different ways, we have both drawn on it in our design research. We published separate articles in a special issue on ‘practice-oriented approaches to sustainable HCI’  that can be said to be the first comprehensive introduction to theories of practice within HCI. In 2016, we found ourselves working in the same group at the Department of Industrial Design of Eindhoven University of Technology, where we aim to continue pursuing the relations between theories of practice and HCI. In this blog post, we reflect, from our own experiences, on how theories of practice have shaped methodologies in design research. We thereby engage with propositions 1, 4, 5 and 7.
I first encountered theories of practice at the onset of my PhD research in 2008. The project formed part of a large EU consortium focused on developing methodologies for designing technologies to reduce domestic energy demand. Surrounded by approaches focused on reducing demand by motivating people to change their behaviour, theories of practice, as they reached me through my participation in an experimental field study on bathing , immediately appealed to me for the more nuanced and radical perspective on change in everyday life that they offered.
I soon found out, however, that ‘applying’ practice theory in sustainable design wasn’t easy or straightforward. Reflecting on my PhD work  in light of Proposition 1, I would argue that more than established methods in design research, it was established practices in the discipline that posed major challenges for working with practice theory. During my research, I gradually realised that theories of practice offer a perspective that is fundamentally different from mainstream, but largely implicit, theoretical perspectives informing design research. It was only during my 3-month visit to the Lancaster Sociology Department that I slowly began to understand that taking practices as a central unit of analysis involved more than talking about people’s behaviour in terms of elements. The ‘elements-trap’ continues to loom as long as theoretic perspectives remain implicit in designs’ academic teaching and research practices. I can therefore fully subscribe to Proposition 2, and would like to add from my own experience that applying, describing and specifically teaching ‘practices-oriented design’ – i.e. design methods that take practices as units of analysis and design – requires the hard work of repeated and elaborate questioning of existing practices in the design research discipline. In that light, I really appreciate the theoretical theatre of Seyfang et al. in making the links between types of questions (concerning sustainable consumption) and theoretic perspectives accessible in a very creative manner. I hope to develop something similar for design students in the near future.
Putting aside the issue of implicit theoretic perspectives, established methods in design research do offer opportunities for working with practice theory. The idea of revealing underlying, hidden aspects of the phenomenon of study by somehow disrupting, or interfering in normal practice (Proposition 4) mentioned by a range of contributors to this blog (Mylan and Southerton, Royston, Browne, Hui, Schäfer, Maller and Strengers) is an approach widely applied in design research. The discipline offers a range of creative methods for this, such as the cultural probes referred to by Maller and Strengers, that could supplement the practice methodologies ‘toolbox’ (see  for more detail).
Moreover, still in line with Proposition 1, the idea of designerly research methodologies of making and deploying new artefacts as a way of generating knowledge offers opportunities to other disciplines struggling with questions that concern not only what currently is, but also what might be in the future (Royston, Schäfer, Hui). To this end, I’m working with Nicola Spurling to develop the Making Everyday Futures workshop that introduces researchers from diverse backgrounds to methods of making new artefacts as a way of researching how future everyday life is and might be created. Ron will elaborate on this idea of ‘designing to know’ below.
Finally, the issue of studying large scale phenomena (Proposition 5) reverberates in debates in design research, where critiques of studies drawing on theories of practice point out their limited engagement with practices of design (e.g. ). Similar to Royston, the focus in my work has shifted from domestic practices to understanding relations between changes in these practices and design activity. Such a shift implicates design (research) practices as loci of change, rather than, or at least in addition to domestic ones (as also advocated by Browne).
Compared to policies (as discussed by Royston), technologies may be more easily identifiable in everyday life, but the relation between design activity and effects over space and time are equally difficult to trace. Agreeing with Sarah that such an endeavour requires a creative and tailored set of methods, which for me includes participation in design research and education, I’ve also experienced that this work supports the development of new theoretic concepts. For example, the specific capability of computational artefacts, such as automatic thermostats, washing machines, alarms, and blinds to ‘act’ in practice triggered me to play with the idea of considering such artefacts as co-performers of practices. This can be seen as a case where new questions – concerning cross-practice relations and the impacts of automation on everyday life – generate demand for new concepts, and are thus shaping the practice theory conceptual framework (Proposition 7).
I came to theories of practice through my earlier work in everyday design. Everyday design refers to the notion that design occurs on an everyday basis through use, or design-in-use, i.e. the transformations that arise through encounters with artefacts or systems . In essence, this research argues that everyone is a designer. One example of this process is the constant knowing and unknowing adjustments people make to furniture, household items, and other objects to create a room that fits the patterns of our everyday life. Another unique and more elaborate example of such incremental design is the recruitment of everyday objects like a bowl, walls, chalkboard, and a refrigerator door to create an ensemble of things and environment for family messaging . The concept of everyday design emerged from our studies of various everyday practices such as family life , repair , sustainability , and expert amateurs . Of consequence for HCI and interaction design research, digital artefacts rarely contribute to this process. The implication of this work for interaction design is that there is an ongoing shaping of the use, meaning, context and value of digital artefacts that is arguably lost when the role of everyday designers is not accounted for in the artefact and design process.
What led to theories of practice from this earlier work was the need to further develop and advance the theoretical capacity of the concept of everyday design. Adopting a practice-orientation offered both a critique and an alternative to current approaches in interaction design. Central to interaction design and human-computer interaction (HCI) is the notion of the “user”. What a practice-orientation makes clear is that the “user” is not a stable term or entity, but is rather elusive, implying that the notion may not be productive for designers at all. As a consequence, other aspects related to the idea of a user come into question such as use, context, and the nature of the artefact and system.
Critical assessments of the concept of the user is certainly not new to HCI and many have argued for the evolution of the user from a cognitive to a social construct, leading to a rise in importance of matters of context and participation (e.g. ). A practice-orientation, however, builds wholeheartedly on the move toward the social, yet also offers a radical departure from the fundamental notion of the user. Because theories of practice situate practice at the centre of interaction design, rather than the user, practice becomes the object of action, inquiry, and concern, thus allowing for conceptualisation of the impact of everyday design on interaction design.
In short, we have both experienced how practice theories offer a perspective to design research that renders its mainstream focus on users and interactions meaningless. This has methodological implications, but also practical ones where it remains a challenge to position practice-oriented studies in relation to the mainstream HCI literatures. We have also both found that methods to study use in context can be used in practice-oriented approaches, and can even offer new insights to other disciplines, in particular to researchers interested how practices might change in the future. Finally, we can confirm that indeed new questions arising from our research practice demand changes and addition to the practice theory conceptual framework, in particular regarding the role of materials in them.
Assistant Professor, Department of Industrial Design, Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands
Professor, School of Interactive Arts and Technology, Simon Fraser University, Canada & Department of Industrial Design, Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands
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