a controlled experiment, they substituted
the notion of a social situation, which
needed to be described and understood as
a system of interdependent elements [ 4].
Individual human behavior is
determined by a complex set of factors
and is rarely a consequence of a simple
THE RELEVANCE OF
THE HAWTHORNE STUDIES
FOR HCI RESEARCH
Those who cannot remember the past
are condemned to repeat it. —George
The story of the Hawthorne studies
is in many ways similar to the story
about the development of the HCI
field. Liam Bannon, for example,
observed that the HCI discipline has
moved from early studies of human
factors and experimental evaluation
of interfaces toward the general
sense-making of our world:
The area of concern [of HCI] is much
broader than the simple “fit” between
people and technolog y to improve
productivity (as in the classic human
factors mold); it encompasses a much more
challenging territory that includes the
goals and activities of people, their values,
and the tools and environments that help
shape their everyday lives [ 8].
In other words, HCI is much more
than efficient user data input or output.
Solutions to HCI problems do not
reside in simple ergonomic corrections
to user interfaces. Hawthorne
investigators drew similar conclusions
about working conditions, namely that
simple ergonomic corrections, such as
changing the light intensity, are not
sufficient to improve productivity and
are certainly not the most significant
factors that influence productivity.
Another reason the Hawthorne
studies are relevant for HCI research
is methodological. Investigators
made a shift from controlled
experiments toward approaching a
complex social situation as a system
of interdependent elements. In many
ways this shift is what we experience
today in HCI and interaction design
communities. Bannon, for example,
argued that the introduction of the
computer supported cooperative
work (CSCW) field presented “a shift
from a psychological to a sociological
perspective on human work and
activity, emphasizing field observation
methods rather than lab studies” [ 8].
The Hawthorne studies provide an
illustration of why such approaches
are needed when studying complex
human and social phenomena.
Furthermore, the studies showed
the value of careful observation and
honest reporting of research failures
and successes. As noted by Jonathan
Arnowitz and Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson, “[t]he great value of the
Hawthorne experience is in learning
to observe and keep on observing,
especially when an initial causal
relationship doesn’t quite account
for the observed interaction” [ 2].
In many situations Hawthorne
researchers were confused, and they
admitted it. But they continued to
carefully observe and document all of
their findings. The original elaborate
report of the studies, Management
and the Worker [ 4], is a model of
honest reporting of research. It
describes, in a chronological order,
the things investigators did, the
judgments they made, the leads they
followed, and the conclusions they
drew. Roethlisberger and Dickson
selected this method to “picture the
trails and tribulations of a research
investigator at his work and thus
allow future investigators to see
and profit from the mistakes which
were made” [ 4]. This approach
makes Management and the Worker,
even after 75 years, a relevant and
surprisingly insightful book, useful
for anyone who wants to understand
the difficulty of studying realistic
complex human issues in realistic
situations. I would recommend it as
standard reading for HCI researchers.
The Hawthorne studies also
demonstrated the value of doing
research in practice, over a long period,
and with real users and realistic tasks.
A related issue is the fact that the
Hawthorne studies produced useful
results primarily because of the interest
and support of Hawthorne Works.
While researchers from the academy
were involved, the main initiative did
not come from the academic side or
from funding agencies (the National
Research Council of the National
Academy of Sciences withdrew
after the initial “failure” of the
illumination test). I think this may
be an important lesson for the HCI
community. It suggests that lasting and
robust research contributions related to
real-world human issues may be those
based on inquiry from within industry
rather than those initiated by academia
and commissioned by funding bodies.
Lastly, the Hawthorne studies
illustrated that the value of research
is not necessarily derivation of
conclusive results. The legacy of these
studies is a realization that treating
the workers as an “appendage to ‘the
machine’” with the goal of improving
the human-machine “fit” is a flawed
conceptual framework [ 5]. This legacy
may stimulate us to look differently
at some HCI contributions. Similar
to the Hawthorne studies, the lasting
impact of some HCI research may
be not the results of laboratory
experiments, but rather an expansion
of the concepts of HCI beyond
notions of human-computer “fit” and
the identification of new concepts
that can help us to understand human
activities mediated by computing.
1. Macefield, R. Usability studies and the
Hawthorne Effect. Journal of Usability
Studies 2, 3 (2007), 145–154.
2. Arnowitz, J. and Dykstra-Erickson, E.
Observation and interaction design:
Lessons from the past. Interactions 14, 6
(Nov. 2007), 64–ff.
3. Brown, A.L. Design experiments:
Theoretical and methodological challenges
in creating complex interventions in
classroom settings. The Journal of the
Learning Sciences 2, 2 (1992), 141–178.
4. Roethlisberger, F.J. and Dickson, W.J.
Management and the Worker. Harvard
University Press, 1939.
5. Sonnenfeld, J. A. Shedding light on the
Hawthorne Studies. J. Occupational
Behavior 6, 2 (1985), 111–130.
7. Porter, L. W., Lawler, E.E., and Hackman,
J. R. Behaviour in Organizations.
McGraw-Hill, New York, 1975.
8. Bannon, L. Reimagining HCI: Toward
a more human-centered perspective.
Interactions 18, 4 (2011), 50–57.
Željko Obrenović is a senior technical
consultant with the Software Improvement
Group in Amsterdam. Before joining SIG he
worked as a researcher and best practices
consultant at Backbase, an assistant professor
at the Technical University in Eindhoven,
and a researcher at C WI. In his work he aims
at bridging design research and practice.
DOI: 10.1145/2674966 © 2014 ACM 1072-5520/14/11 $15.00