HCI Theories, Part 2: Modern Theories Unpacked

Published on Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Last updated Wednesday, October 25, 2023
5 min read

In the realm of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), understanding theory isn't just an academic exercise—it's essential for creating intuitive, effective, and humane systems. Over the years, HCI theory has undergone a metamorphosis, borrowing and adapting frameworks from diverse disciplines like ethnography, psychology, sociology, and even philosophy. This interdisciplinary approach enriches our understanding of how humans interact with computers, other people, and the world around them. Far from being static, HCI theory is continually evolving, embracing new paradigms that challenge conventional wisdom and inspire innovation. This article delves into a selection of alternative cognitive and social approaches that inform contemporary HCI theory.

Alternative Cognitive Approaches

External Cognition

External cognition is all about reducing the mental effort you need to engage with a system. By designing interactions that simplify complex tasks, we allow users to focus more on what matters. Essentially, mental effort is offloaded onto the system and its design.

Example: Consider a smartphone's voice assistant, like Siri or Google Assistant. Rather than manually searching for information or setting reminders, users can simply ask the voice assistant to do it for them, thus offloading the cognitive effort onto the system.

Distributed Cognition

Interactions aren't confined to just one user and one system. Often, we're talking about multiple people and systems working together to achieve goals. Distributed cognition allows for a broader approach to understanding these interactions, providing a more holistic view that encompasses human-to-human and human-to-computer interaction.

Example: Air traffic control is a prime example where multiple people (pilots, controllers) and systems (radars, communication channels) have to work seamlessly together to manage the flow of air traffic.

Ecological Psychology

Not all actions come from internal thought processes. Sometimes, the external world nudges us into making specific choices. Here, the focus is on how the design of systems and objects can either facilitate or impede these actions. It's a relationship between the properties of people and the objects they interact with.

Example: Crosswalk buttons that emit sound when it's safe to walk are designed to facilitate action for both sighted and visually impaired individuals.

Social Approaches

Situated Action

Situated action looks at how people genuinely interact with their environment, rather than trying to fit them into predefined models of behavior. This perspective is heavily influenced by ethnographic research and pays particular attention to the contexts and situations that users encounter.

Example: Think of how Uber adapts to different cities' regulations and cultural norms, adjusting its services to fit each unique environment.

Ethnomethodology and Ethnography

Going beyond mere observation, ethnomethodology digs into the nitty-gritty of decision-making. The idea is that people have more agency over their actions than we often give them credit for. By diving deep into a user’s work practices through ethnographic research, we can glean key insights that inform more effective designs.

Example: Understanding how nurses organize their workflows in a busy emergency room can inform the design of more effective healthcare software.

CSCW Theories

CSCW, or Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, addresses how individuals interact in group settings. This array of theories helps us understand both the efficiencies and the pitfalls of collective effort. In the realm of HCI, these theories can guide us toward designing more effective collaborative systems.

Example: Collaboration platforms like Slack take into account how different teams work together, providing various channels, threads, and direct messaging options to facilitate group work.

Other Imported Approaches

Activity Theory

Activity Theory focuses on understanding work activities within the larger scope of cultural and historical contexts. It sheds light on why certain tasks may be easier or more challenging based on cultural norms and historical developments.

Example: Understanding that the Japanese work culture traditionally values group harmony can guide the design of business software tailored to Japanese enterprises.

Grounded Theory

Where most theories look for a solution within a set framework, Grounded Theory takes a different approach. It starts with the data, questioning and analyzing it iteratively to arrive at new theories and solutions. This method can lead to truly user-centered designs.

Example: An e-commerce website that continually tweaks its recommendation algorithms based on user behavior to provide more accurate product suggestions.

Hybrid Theories

Hybrid Theory is more of an interdisciplinary approach than a stand-alone theory. It aims to find common ground among various fields of research, offering a more generalized yet comprehensive set of theories. While they may not always translate directly into practice, they enrich our understanding and can inform more robust, integrated solutions.

Example: Wearable fitness trackers that incorporate insights from healthcare, psychology, and user experience design to create a holistic product that encourages healthy behavior.


Navigating through the labyrinth of HCI theories can be daunting, especially for those who may not have a background in scientific or psychological methodologies. It's not uncommon to find oneself revisiting a particular theory multiple times to grasp its core tenets fully. Nonetheless, the allure of these theories often lies in their real-world applicability—especially those rooted in ethnographic research. By observing people in their natural habitats, whether a bustling office or a quiet home, we can gather actionable insights that inform our designs and decision-making processes. While theories don't offer one-size-fits-all solutions, they serve as invaluable scaffolds that structure our thinking and guide us toward creating systems that align with users' needs, capabilities, and social contexts. It is this harmonious marriage of theory and practice that continues to propel the field of HCI into new, uncharted territories.

Further Reading