Theoretical analysis and theory creation

Alan Dix

at time of publication: Lancaster University

Chapter in Research Methods for Human-Computer Interaction, P. Cairns and A. Cox (eds). Cambridge University Press

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Chapter Overview

"the initial impetus for research is the search for theory"
                                                            (Fawcett and Downs, 1986)

A chapter on theory as a research technique is strange as, in a way, what is academic research about if it is not about theory – without theory we may be engaged in product development, or data gathering, but not research.  This said, there is of course also a spiritus mundi against theory: in abstracting away from the particular, theory is seen as at best simplistic and at worst reductionist and dangerous.  And of course in popular language a theory is an unsubstantiated guess, almost the opposite of the scientific understanding of theory!

A theoretical approach is also not so much a method or technique that is applied to research, but an attitude and a desire to make sense of and to understand, in some ordered way, the phenomena around us.  This approach can influence design and research methodology; indeed those most avowedly atheoretical in their methods are often most theoretical in their methodology!

Theories, that is systematic and structured bodies of knowledge, are the raw material for both research and practical design, but are also the outcomes of research and often the results of more informal reflection on experience.  As we shall discuss shortly, theory is the language of generalisation, the way we move from one particular to another with confidence.

And theories are more basic still.  A tiny baby watches her moving fingers, hits out at a ball and sees it move, gradually making sense of the relation between feelings and effects; the building, testing, and use of theory are as essential a part of our lives as feeding and breathing.
In HCI, developing, understanding and applying theory is particularly important.  Technology and its use move so rapidly that today’s empirical results are outdated tomorrow.  To be proactive rather than merely reactive and to produce research results that are useful beyond the end of the current project or PhD requires deeper knowledge and informed analysis.

In this chapter we will first spend some time examining what theory is about: why it is important, what it is and is not, and at different kinds of theory.  We will then look at different ways of using theory in HCI practice and research and ways of producing new theories. These techniques will be demonstrated by a number of real examples in research and commercial practice. Finally we will look at some of the strengths and weaknesses of theoretical approaches and the way they relate to other techniques.



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Figure 1. Uses of multiple classification (from Dix, 2002)
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Figure 2. Network of influences of number of items shown on screen
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Figure 3. The three rules of Appropriate Intelligence (Dix et al., 2000)
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Figure 4. Validation from two sides
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Alan Dix 6/4/2016