argued for the legitimacy of our practice.
By legitimizing HCI and its role in
experience, user delight, and user
acceptance—which were only ever
means toward other ends—we have
ceded the space from which we could
argue for the considerations that were
actually at the center of the discipline’s
ambitions. Let me unpack a few of the
First, where we want to speak beyond
usability to broader concerns—privacy,
autonomy, control over data, and so
on, what we might broadly frame as
concerns for human flourishing—we
find that the legitimacy trap rules these
topics as outside HCI’s purview. There is
a case to be made, clearly, that concerns
such as these that extend well beyond
the interface and into the broader
contexts in which digital technologies
are deployed and used, including the
business models that support them (such
as free services provided in exchange for
data that drives advertising), are central
to our concerns with the ways in which
humans engage with computers, and
even with a remit to investigate the basis
of deploying technologies in support of
human goals. However, within the terms
of the legacy “legitimacy agreement”—
that usable tools make for productive
work and for more appealing services—
these are removed from the scope of
Second, where we want to argue that
the consequences of our perspective
reach beyond the limits of design—
where they focus on structural change,
on public policy, or on legislative
arrangements, for example—we
similarly find ourselves limited.
Indeed, the focus on crafting delightful
experiences emphasizes, first of all,
craft and production—the making of
new artifacts. Our legitimacy claim
limits our ability to reach beyond that.
Indeed, the great irony of the notion of
user-centered design is that users (or
people) are not, in fact, at the center of it
at all. Design is. Something can be more
user centered or less user centered, but
the phrase guarantees that design will
always be present. The limits of design
are then the limits of our capacities to
intervene [ 7, 8].
Third, this shapes how we approach
curriculum design and the question of
what sorts of theories, methods, and
topics are appropriate to the education
of HCI practitioners and researchers.
The social sciences become relevant in
more ways than simply as a toolkit of
empirical techniques, and the critical
humanities come into view as offering
crucial resources for understanding the
nature of the relationship between the
human and the technological. Recent
efforts toward queer-inclusive and
trans-inclusive approaches to HCI, for
example, are among the latest ways in
which the concerns of human dignity
and flourishing are expressed within
HCI research and practice—and
demonstrate the limits of the bargain
that we struck with CS more broadly or
with the tech industry.
How, then, do we escape a legitimacy
trap? Sadly, there are no easy paths. But
the key step is surely to seek vigorously
to assert the true goals and values of HCI
as a practice from which we seek our
legitimacy. We may need first to engage
in a broader discussion of just what those
are. This reevaluation of the scope of our
practice involves, ironically enough, a
renewed celebration of the banner under
which we march, asserting that our topic
is the interaction between humans and
computers (rather than solely, say, the
design of user interfaces or the crafting
of user experiences, important as those
topics remain). My proposal here has
been to see human dignity and human
flourishing as central, and to see them
as collective rather than individual—
that is, to assert a moral and political
legitimacy rather than an economic one.
Certainly, when we present HCI as a
crucially important part of any systems
project, we need to ask ourselves: What
claims to legitimacy are we making and
what limits might they place upon us?
Researchers in critical HCI have
traced the intellectual history and
conditions of possibility of foundational
ideas in HCI [ 9], while approaches like
value-sensitive design try to create a
space of alternatives and new forms of
practice that give values a central place
in design processes [ 10]. Here, though,
I offer the notion of legitimacy trap as
a means toward complementary ends:
It turns our attention to the structural
arrangements and moral commitments
by which HCI is incorporated into the
broader contexts in which it operates.
The idea of a legitimacy trap highlights,
then, the limits of a notion of user
experience as a means by which we
might intervene into technological
arrangements or as the extent of our
ambitions. The challenge is not so much
to create new alternatives to extant
design methods, but rather to recover
what has been lost within our practice.
Steve Harrison and Deborah Tatar
brought people together for a lively
series of discussions that led to these
reflections. Lilly Irani played a key
role in pushing me to articulate them.
Hillary Abraham, Gilbert Cockton,
Marina Fedorova, Leah Horgan, Sarah
Ng, Noopur Raval, and Chaeyoon Yoo
have helped me to refine the argument.
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of Management Proc. 2015, 1; https://doi.
2. Kay, A. The early history of Smalltalk.
Proc. of ACM SIGPLAN Conference on the
History of Programming Languages. ACM,
New York, 1993, 69–95.
3. Hertzfeld, A. Revolution in the Valley.
O’Reilly Media, Sebastopol, CA, 2004.
4. Raskin, J. The Humane Interface: New
Directions for Designing Interactive Systems.
Addison-Wesley, New York, NY, 2000.
5. Björgvinsson, E., Ehn, P., and Hillgren, P.-
A. Participatory design and “democratizing
innovation.” Proc. of the Participatory Design
Conference. ACM, New York, 2010, 41–50.
6. I grant that it might be harder to sustain
if we trace our origins to human factors
analysis for military pilots, although one
version of HCI’s origin story is the very
liberation of the techniques of human
factors analysis from such settings.
7. Baumer, E. and Silberman, S. When the
implication is not to design (technology).
Proc. of the ACM Conference on Human
Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New
8. Dourish, P. The allure and the
paucity of design: Cultures of design
and design in culture.
Human-Computer Interaction (2018). DOI:
9. Bardzell, J., Bardzell, S., and Blythe, M.
Critical Theory and Interaction Design. MI T
Press, Cambridge, MA, 2018.
10. Friedman, B. and Hendry, D. Value
Sensitive Design: Shaping Technology with
Moral Imagination. MIT Press, Cambridge,
Paul Dourish is Chancellor’s Professor of
Informatics at UC Irvine. His research links
critical HCI, cultural studies, and science
and technology studies, with an emphasis on
ethnographic studies of digital cultures.
DOI: 10.1145/3358908 © 2019 ACM 1072-5520/19/11 $15.00