HCI Symposium 2011

To be presented at:
Second Interaction Symposium on Culture, Creativity, and Interaction Design, Northumbria University, Newcastle, UK, The BCS Conference on Human-Computer Interaction, 4-5th July 2011

Running in Hermeneutic Circles:
A Visual Phenomenological Methodology

© Dave Wood 2011
Glasgow Caledonian University | Edinburgh College of Art

Extended Abstract
Can the themes of an experience be visualised using a new Visual Phenomenological Methodology to aid interaction designers to design better interactions? Can the creation of such a design methodology cultivate an alignment between HCI with Visual Communication as influences over interaction design research into the aesthetics of interaction? This symposium paper will discuss how a framework for such a methodology can be structured, and explore how the first of its four stages can be rigorously synthesised from phenomenological research methods using Visual Communication techniques.

Visual Communication is a design discipline focused upon communication through manipulating the relationship between text | image. Frascara [1] repositions the understanding of Visual Communication as a proactive facilitator of cognitive, emotional and physical behavioural change in the viewer within a specific socio-cultural context. This is achieved through rhetorical and semiotic frameworks [2] communicating information effectively in new aesthetic forms across a variety of old and new media. Interaction designer Jon Kolko [3] sees such a contextual framework as a way to connect “people, technology, and the emotional qualities of sensory data” together to interpret the effectiveness, scalability, usability and engagement of a tangible and experiential engagement. His use of the term “sensory data” suggests that data is mediated in some way. If data is to be understood as sensory with emotional qualities, then pragmatically an aesthetic is emerging. This is a phenomenological position. Since the development of graphic design as a recognised design field [4] the Visual Communication discipline has explored the ‘cultural phenomena’ in order to connect, to communicate, and to alter behaviour. The literature often discusses ‘phenomena’ but then uses other qualitative methodologies to try and understand it [5] such as Grounded Theory, Ethnography etc. These qualitative methodologies, such as ethnography and anthropology, just study the context of an experience of an observed group. They uncover the group’s socio-cultural norms and proclivities, or un-social or sub-cultural variations and alternatives to the group norm. It is through a phenomenological framework that experience can be understood as directly as possible from the point of view of a person.

The move in HCI led by Harrison [6] to a phenomenological paradigm affords a profitable linkage with Visual Communication to support Interaction Design. This HCI perspective allows for synergy with the strengths of Visual Communication, and can provide an alternative design research methodology within which to study an ‘aesthetics of use’. [7] In a pragmatic philosophical way the meaning of what is experienced is “constructed on the fly, often collaboratively, by people in specific contexts and situations, and therefore that interaction itself is an essential element in meaning construction.” [8] This meaning construction is interpretable and is “irreducibly connected to the viewpoints, interactions, histories, and local resources available to those making sense” [9] of the experience. In applying Visual Communication methods into Visual Phenomenological Methodology using a four stage visual hermeneutic circle, [10] phenomenological techniques of interpretation can be adapted to reveal the structure of an experience, visually captured and interpreted as themes of an experience. Such a methodology is more than ‘hermeneutics using pictures’ as it connects HCI and Visual Communication together in support of Interaction Design. Jeffrey Bardzell [11] positions HCI itself as hermeneutic, urging HCI colleagues to use a hermeneutic circle in their inquiries, as it is “not a trap to avoid, but rather an opportunity to participate in the constructive development of (HCI)”.

A hermeneutic circle is a dialogical interpretative process between the researcher’s pre-understanding (bias) and understanding (objective) [12] of a phenomenon. By beginning with a researcher’s pre-understanding, personal bias can be identified and made explicit to understand the phenomenon in an unfettered way. [13] In the process fresh understanding is made by reciprocally relating the studied experience back to already existing understanding. Then that understanding is related back to the experience to find new insights [14] so that the interpretation externalises the structure of the studied experience reducing all the possible meanings down into an the ‘essence.’ [15] A Visual Phenomenological Methodology, using a four stage visual hermeneutic circle to reveal the ‘essence’ offers a practical design tool to interaction designers during their idea-generation and modelling phases to turn “sensory data” into “inspirational data”. [16] This “inspirational data” is interpreted not from user needs but from user’s aesthetic perception of what they (want to) experience during an interaction, thus aiding the design of better interactions.

Visual stimuli are a valued source for inspiration to designers and Bill Gaver developed a ‘cultural probe’ as part of a research project, to generate “inspirational data”. The probe was a kit of inspirational materials designed to elicit from research participants visual and textual “inspirational responses (…) fragmentary clues about (research participant’s) lives and thoughts.”[17] These probes return un-scientific, un-comprehensive data that a designer outlined and interpreted to understand the set design problem[18] from the perspective of their target audience. Crabtree describes probes as providing useful insights during “an ongoing and difficult process of design”[19] that can inspire the design phase. Lopez and Willis[20] summarise that an interpretative approach can "bring to light hidden features of an experience that would be overlooked in a purely descriptive approach." As Mattelmäki[21] states that when research participants are asked “to verbalise experiences, they become more aware of them.” A Visual Phenomenological Methodology, although related to Gaver’s ‘cultural probe’ or the established method of personas, is discernibly different to its progenitors. It naturally fuses a phenomenological methodology within a visual context, to utilise the inherent qualities of Visual Communication to visualise the revealed internal and external qualities of a multi-dimensional and multi-layered meaning of an experience.[22] This methodology’s proposed framework will be as follows.

The Visual Phenomenological Methodology’s first Pre-understanding stage begins with processing the “sensory data” by the researcher. Each participant’s narrative testimony of a studied experience is identified and sectioned into separate explicit themes of researcher-identified themed moments within each participant’s experience. This pre-understanding bias is challenged through the next stage of Visual Interpretative Reduction. This is so that rigorously fresh understanding can emerge through the hermeneutic circle and un-biased by the design researcher. Every isolated theme becomes a mini narrative that is central to that participants’ internal/external story of what the participant saw/thought/felt/experienced. Each theme can be reduced down into a rich visual that interprets, using image and typography, the main ‘essence’ of the theme. When each interpreted theme is placed in order sequentially, they illustrate an inspirational narrative leading to a revealed meaning of that participant’s experience. The third Imaginative Variation stage in the methodology focuses on establishing the validity of the revealed meaning of the experience by visualising imaginative variations to the composite visual themes. These are then re-examined against the original “sensory data” to reveal a valid core structure for that experience. The final phase of a turn through the hermeneutic circle is a visual synthesis. In its own right the synthesis is a conclusive piece of Visual Communication represented with validity and all the reliability a qualitative model can provide, to show the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of experience as directly experienced.

This paper will discuss the initial results of using an ‘experience probe’ to elicit “sensory data” from a group of research participants to test the first pre-understanding phase of the methodology. This ‘experience probe’ formed part of the Internal | External 2010 research project, and was a phenomenological variant on Gaver’s ‘cultural probe.’ It consisted of a DVD size tin case containing two sealed tasks. These tasks comprised of postcards and an emotional collage. The images and questions involved were only related on an abstract level, and the images were carefully selected to provoke the participant to question their own awareness of their previous experiences using text | image. In doing so the participants externalised their own experience through self-documentation in forms that cannot be captured in any other way. This rich “sensory data” then provided the researcher with narrative testimony of actual experiences that could begin to be sectioned into separate explicit themes visually representing each participant’s experience. This experiment into developing a rigorous and valid Pre-understanding stage is incredibly important to the creation of such a new design research methodology. Further questions are raised that need further discussion as to the nature of the role of the researcher’s explicit bias, and how that can this bias objectively help to structure the visual interpretation of a core experience.

[1] FRASCARA, J. (2004) Communication Design: Principles, Methods and Practice. New York: Allworth Press.
[2] BARNARD, M. (2005) Graphic Design as Communication. Abingdon: Routledge.
[3] KOLKO, J. (2010) Thoughts on Interaction Design. Burlington: Morgan Kaufmann.
[4] HELLER, S. (2006) Better Skills Through Better Research. In: A. BENNETT, ed. Design Studies: Theory and Research in Graphic Design - A Reader. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, p10-13.
[5] KENNEY, K. (2009) Visual Communication Research Designs. New York: Routledge.
[6] HARRISON, S., TATAR, D. and SENGERS, P. (2007). The Three Paradigms of HCI. In Alt.Chi. Session. Proceedings of SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1-18). California: SIGCHI CHI '07.
[7] DUNNE, A. (1999). Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design. London: RCA CRD Research.
[8] HARRISON, S., TATAR, D. and SENGERS, P. (2007). The Three Paradigms of HCI. In Alt.Chi. Session. Proceedings of SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1-18). California: SIGCHI CHI '07, p7
[9] ibid., 2007, p7
[10] Four stages: pre-understanding, interpreted visual reduction, imaginative variation and finally synthesis
[11] BARDZELL, J. (2009) Two Takes on the Hermeneutic Circle. 9th March. Interaction Culture: Musings on interaction design and culture [online]. [Accessed 27 April 2011]. Available from: http://interactionculture.wordpress.com/2009/03/09/two-takes-on-the-hermeneutic-circle/.
[12] EARLE, V. (2010) Phenomenology as Research Method or Substantive Metaphysics? An Overview of Phenomenology’s Uses in Nursing. Nursing Philosophy. 11, pp286–296
[13] MOUSTAKAS, C. (1994) Phenomenological Research Methods. Sage Publications.
[14] PARSONS, K. (2010) Exploring How Heideggerian Philosophy Underpins Phenomenological Research. Nurse Researcher, 17(4), 60-69
[15] van MANEN, M. (1990) Researching Lived Experience: Human Science for an Action Sensitive Pedagogy. Ontario: The Althouse Press. p78
[16] GAVER, W., DUNNE, A. and PACENTI, E. (1999). Design: Cultural Probes. Interactions 6(1), 21-29.
[17] GAVER, W., DUNNE, A. and PACENTI, E. (1999). Design: Cultural Probes. Interactions 6(1), p53
[18] MATTELMÄKI, T. (2006). Design Probes. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Art and Design Helsinki. Helsinki, Finland.
[19] CRABTREE, A., HEMMINGS, T., RODDEN, T., CHEVERST, K., CLARKE, K., DEWSBURY, G., HUGHES, J. and ROUNCEFIELD, M. (2003) Designing with Care: Adapting Cultural Probes to Inform Design in Sensitive Settings. In the proceedings of the International Conference of the Australian Computer-Human Interaction Special Interest Group (OzCHI’03), pp. 4-13.
[20] LOPEZ, K.A., and WILLIS, D.G. (2004) Descriptive Versus Interpretive Phenomenology: Their Contributions To Nursing Knowledge. Qualitative Health Research, 14(5), pp726-735.
[21] MATTELMÄKI, T. (2006). Design Probes. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Art and Design Helsinki. Helsinki, Finland.
[22] van MANEN, M. (1990) Researching Lived Experience: Human Science for an Action Sensitive Pedagogy. Ontario: The Althouse Press. p78