Sense-making Process in HCI

One of the most apparent themes emerges from Kari Kuutti’s writing about activity theory[1] is sense-making. In fact, the field of HCI has struggled a lot in various sense-making processes, from the very beginning when this field was forming. Questions are asked: What does HCI mean when standing in between human and computer? How can HCI make sense of human and computer? What theories and methodologies should be applied? What are the possible outcomes and contributions of HCI research? Activity theory tries to answer these questions by providing a list of terms and their relationship in a framework, and then realizes this framework under a specific environment to get a better understanding of how human achieves a goal by mediating different tools and leveraging the relationships among elements inside the environment.

Therefore, “a specific environment” becomes the key phrase here. To be specific also means to be situated, to admit the uniqueness of a setting that embeds a goal or task or problem. This characteristic of activity theory echoes with other theories developed around late 1980s and early 1990s, such as distributed cognition, situated action, ethnomethodology, etc. The inclusion of external environment as an influential factor for understanding human cognition marks a significant change of sense-making approach in HCI. Human actor was no longer seen as an isolated system with comparable structure of computer. Instead, because external environment has been taken into consideration, the effect it can possibly bring to human is also introduced to the sense-making process.

I am deeply moved by this idea: Meaning can only be constructed under a concrete situation. It is dangerous for both researchers and practitioners in HCI, especially theorists, to simply grab a theory and try to derive meanings from it, as theory looks much more reliable and stable than the changing environment and human mind. Nevertheless, meanings don’t come from theory. They originate from the application of theory under a particular context. While theory offers means, context defines the environment. Meaning is the ends we can reach by beginning from a question and passing one or several proper theories in a particular context. The sense-making process has been simplified here. Real-world issues can only be more complex.

Why should we treat sense-making process so carefully? A short answer is that technologies have never been so massively exposed to our lives. Thus, it is certain that the changes technology can bring to us will affect the way we make sense of ourselves and how we understand the world. That’s why we need to understand the effect of technology situatedly. I’m happy to see researchers in HCI has digested this view and so many topics come into being because of this idea. Examples are social computing, ubiquitous computing, ICTD, etc. However, I still remain open about how HCI will improve or adjust its sense-making approach in the future, as change is happening all the time.


[1] Kari Kuutti. 1995. Activity Theory as a Potential Framework for Human-Computer Interaction Research. Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction (Nov. 1995), 9-22.The MIT Press.

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