and universal features that will sell as
many products as possible.
When discussing the Stephen Hawking
case, we were critical because what
he experienced is a luxury for the
very few. While we’re interested in
the insights one can get out of doing
such a project, it is also important that
insights, designs, and solutions get
spread to greater numbers of people
in similar use settings with similar
Unfortunately, we have seen a
number of cases in literature over
recent years that are either too
flamboyant or too do-gooding, both
being equally problematic. Susanne
Bødker [ 1] discusses how unusual
or well-meaning communities are
often chosen over less extraordinary
or less politically correct ones, even
if the research outcome could be
the same. Similarly, we see cases in
HCI literature that seem to intrigue
us because they are remarkable,
not because of the research value.
For example, in the child-computer
interaction field, children with high-functioning autism are involved
more often than children with other
disabilities. This phenomenon cannot
be explained by the prevalence of
autism in society alone, but also by
the availability of research funding,
and perhaps because such children are
less difficult to work with and easier to
identify with than other groups.
This skewed focus is problematic
when technologies are introduced into
the real world, which often consists of
mixed groups of people and situations.
To avoid false generalizations, we need
methods to move between one kind of
particular and another, methods that
we do not encounter in the literature,
as far as we know.
Many of our classic HCI usability
methods cannot be made to work
because they presuppose generalization.
Dan Olsen [ 2] argues that usability
evaluation has three assumptions: a
standardized task, a relatively small
problem scale, and walk-up-and-use,
which we argue rarely hold in research
for the particular. Doing research for
the particular needs to put an end to
Long-term collaboration often
results in a dependency between the
users and researchers, for example,
means that theories, methods,
technologies, and applications are
created in the context of particular
people, undertaking particular
endeavors, with particular agency.
In this case, the goal is not to
abstract the findings to such a
general level that we lose track of
how they are useful in this situation.
The particular people that we have
studied, and worked with, should
understand the findings and see how
they apply to and benefit them.
A famous example of a particular
approach is that of the late
Stephen Hawking, who lived with
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
A team of engineers at Intel designed
technology for Hawking, with great
success. There were many benefits
of having the luxury of an entire
team designing for one particular
person. Not only was Hawking
literally given a voice but there were
also significant contributions to
interactive device design and text-to-speech software systems. In an
ideal world, everyone would benefit
from such a personalized approach.
One could see Hawking as a Formula
One driver. As with Formula One
cars, most people would probably not
be able to “drive” Hawking’s setup
without continuous support from a
team of technicians. And certainly
Intel would not expend this amount
of effort on any other individual,
meaning that the Hawking approach
is not available to everybody. While
we’re interested in the kinds of
insights you get from such a project
with the very particular, we are
critical of the way that these insights
may not have spread to other people
in similar use settings, with similar
problems, with the same level of
commitment. Though the technology
has been open sourced, we ask
ourselves: Where are the HCI papers
that design and study technology for
other people with ALS?
There are several benefits to taking
a very particular approach in HCI. It
can enable us to capture the richer and
more complex nuances of a particular
situation or user, hence also directly
challenging the assumptions we make
as researchers. Accordingly, it makes
you a better researcher when you have
to rethink your assumptions and adapt
your methods. It’s also harder and
more challenging when you cannot
simply use your standard method
and setup, and need to develop new
methods for the research at hand.
We worry that the craving for
generalization does not always
increase validity or impact, but instead
may at times abstract reality into a
form where results can no longer be
fed back to actual design questions in
the real world—which is exactly one
of the benefits of doing research for the
particular. Accordingly, rather than
insisting on generalization at all times,
we suggest a cumulation of particulars.
These particulars stand on their own.
Reducing them to their generalizable
aspects, as is common in the natural
sciences, would eliminate what makes
them particular in the first place.
One benefit of such an approach
is that it allows researchers to do
impactful work, hence also making
a big difference in one person’s life.
Another is the possibility of studying
local and situated practices and the
appropriation of the technology, where
the users feel ownership and use the
technology to achieve their goals in
new ways. With this approach, we can
learn from the unusual and unexpected
ways in which people use technology.
The possibility of doing such
research may ultimately be what sets
academic research apart from the
work in large technology companies.
Academic research may address
alternatives and explore exceptions,
whereas research for technology
companies needs to lead to general
Taking a very particular approach can
enable us to capture the richer and more
complex nuances of a particular situation
or user, hence also directly challenging
the assumptions we make as researchers.