Interactionism as a Framework for Understanding User Interaction
Interactionism is a social scientific tradition that relies on the assumption that the “real” world is actively constructed by people: It therefore views the mind primarily as a tool for solving the “pragmatic concerns” of everyday life.
Thus, the basis of all social life can be found in all the small interactions we conduct every day. Meaning can only be located in the experiential consequences it produces. William James introduced a distinction between practical knowledge ,built on a trial-and-errors basis (knowledge of), and “textbook” knowledge, made up of the abstract concepts we learn through our immersion within culture (knowledge about).
As we can see, this focus on interaction emphasise the importance of tacit, practical knowledge and distinguishes it from what it calls textbook knowledge. What is pretty interesting in this approach is the fact that it views the mind as going through a continuously developing thinking process:
- Defines objects and their context
- Identifies a sensible course of action (or mode of conduct)
- Imagines the consequences of this choice
- Select course of action
So how can we apply this to software design? A first point could be this distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge: If we take a user’s interaction with a particular system as a sort of social interaction, it then becomes important to try and focus on how we can shape and pre-empt this tacit form of knowledge to help (for instance) users to navigate more easily.
Second, what can we (as designers) do to have an influence on the series of steps presented above? Maybe by influencing the way users define the objects we present to them through an interface, by referring to our understanding of what constitutes their tacit knowledge: Interactionists’ emphasis on experience seem to suggest that this could be achieved through inquiring into the previous experiences of our users.
Finally, the notion of learning seems to have a particularly important place in Interactionism: does this mean that more attention should be given to a system’s learnability?
I have only scraped the surface of how Interactionism could be applied to software design, and I guess the subject would need a lot more work! What seems interesting is the similarities of the suggestions presented above and current UX practice. I hope this is not due to bias from my part, but shows the natural evolution of software design towards social theory!