TiChi Introduction

Fitt's Law
Object-Action Interface
Prescriptive Theories
Fisheye strategy
Conceptual, semantic,
    syntactic, & lexical

Direct Manipulation

Information Processing
Hacker's Action Theory
Attention & Memory
Andersen's ACT-R
Knowledge & Mental
Social & Cultural

Theories in Computer human interaction
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Social and Cultural Theories
Kendra Knudtzon
October 2002


Social and cultural theories strive to explain how people relate to each other and/or the surrounding environment. As people increasingly use technology to communicate with one another, either as individuals, groups, or communities; social and cultural theories become more relevant for HCI. Technology needs to be designed in a way that supports this cooperative behavior. Sociability becomes as important as usability when designing interfaces for collaborative/communicative technologies. Social and cultural theories can help define new areas and give new perspectives to HCI research.

Social and cultural theories are very broad topic to discuss in a paper of this scope, so instead of specific details, this paper attempts to give a general picture of the type of research that is important to the HCI community. Many of these topics warrant full descriptions (or books) to understand the impact, so in addition to the general overview, the reader is encouraged to investigate the theories further by looking at the links and references.

Scope, Application, and Limitations

Social and cultural theories have broad scope in HCI research. These theories affect HCI research and are affected by HCI research. In addition, while individual behavior (cognition) is fairly well understood, group or cooperative behavior (social/cultural) is an active area of research: there is still much to be understood. Social and cultural research is still at a defining stage, as such; it may be difficult to apply the preliminary theories of this research to HCI. The CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) community is a new field that tries to merge these areas (HCI and social and cultural models); Olson & Olson report that they are still at the stage of “building illustrative point systems, or examples of what can be done to support work with computers.” Evaluation, characterizing relationships, and finding models or theories that guide system design are still primarily unexplored areas of research (Olson & Olson 1997). Another limitation is that there is dispute about social theories and computer related socialability: there is fear that online communities, email, or usage of the Internet destroys personal social relationships. Technology greatly affects the social patterns of people, and thus traditional theories of sociology might not be relevent when these new factors (like the technology) are introduced. The way that social theories is understood can also affect technology; and so the two interact in a complex way, which leads to very qualitative research, often with unclear or disputed models or theories of interaction.


There are many social and cultural theories that relate to HCI, but this relationship is not straight-forward. Social and cultural research is not "neat" scientific research: there are too many factors that complicate the research. Much of the research in this area is qualitative, and thus the theories tend to be more descriptive. Social and cultural theories can be useful in HCI research, but the interaction goes both ways. This section outlines some of the areas of active research in these domains, some of these domains center around one encompassing theory, but others pull descriptive theories from several areas and try to start understanding the areas of research that might produce new theories.

Social informatics studies social aspects of computerization, including use, design, and consequences of technology. “The social context of information technology development and use plays a significant role in influencing the ways that people use information and technologies, and thus influences their consequences for work, organizations, and other social relationships”(Kling). This field studies the aspects of technology and system design that are relevant to people’s lives. It’s a new field that is still formulating theories about how social aspects relate to computing in general, trying to predict under what conditions systems might fail, or trying to understand and describe technical areas with complex or ambigious outcomes.

Similarly, social networks analysts try to describe fundamental patterns of social structure and how social networks can affect the behavior of people using them (Wellman).
More information at:
http://www.slis.indiana.edu/SI/ and http://www.slis.indiana.edu/si/si2001.html

The CSCW community, another growing field, looks at how technologies affect human behavior. Because the understanding of groups and organizations is just emerging (and is more limited than understanding of individual behavior), this community is looking at groups/organizations and cooperative technologies and thinking about the human contexts, analyzing individual, group/team, organization, and industry perspectives. The CSCW community also focuses on the socio-technical gap (the difference between what social aspects are necessary for a system and the ability to support those aspects in the technology.) The theory of situated action, which says that a description of an activity should include details of how it is situated in its physical, social, cultural, and historical environment, challenges theories of cognitive psychology, is influential in CSCW research (Olson & Olson).
More information at:
Or in Olson and Olson: “Research on computer supported cooperative work”

Online Community research is a good example of how social theories and reseach interacts, influences, and is influenced by HCI research. According to Preece, an online community consists of:

  • People, who interact socially as they strive to satisfy their own needs or perform special roles, such as leading or moderating.
  • A shared purpose, such as an interest, need, information exchange, or service that provides a reason for the community.
  • Policies, in the form of tacit assumptions, rituals, protocols, rules, and laws that guide people's interactions.
  • Computer systems, to support and mediate social interaction and facilitate a sense of togetherness. (Preece 2000)

The study of online communities looks at how HCI design affects community development. Preece encourages looking at sociability and usability separately to allow designers to focus on specific issues separately. In addition, her book (chapter 9) offers guidelines for sociability and usability. The following diagram (Preece 2000) demonstrates the sociability and usability needs that should be addressed when developing communities.

According to Whittaker, core attributes of an online community are: (Whittaker 1997)

  • members have some shared goal, interest, need, or activity that provides the primary reason for belonging to the community
  • members engage in repeated active participation and there are often intense interactions, strong emotional ties and shared activities occurring between participants
  • members have access to shared resources and there are policies for determining access to those resources
  • reciprocity of information, support and services between members
  • shared context (social conventions, language, protocols).

A community is a process; it develops and continuously evolves. Researchers studying online communities look at what makes successful communities. Guidelines (like Preece's) try to help designers creating new communities. Online community research is currently building theories focusing on attributes of online communities that can be used to predict which will flourish and which will die out. In addition, this field is looking at long-term research issues, such as studying theories from sociology about physical communities and testing if these theories scale-up to online communities.
More information at:

Activity theory looks at the relationships between a human and objects in the world. “It offers a set of perspectives on human activity and a set of concepts for describing that activity”(Nardi). Russian psychologists started this theory in the 1920s and 1930s, with Leontjev’s model of activity as the most influential. A key idea of this theory is that “human mind comes to exist, develops, and can only be understood within the context of meaningful, goal-oriented, and socially determined interactions between human beings and their material environment” (Bannan in http://carbon.cudenver.edu/~mryder/itc/act_dff.html) This theory helps to look at HCI in terms of activity, action, and operation, and to recognize that a full understanding of a user’s situation is necessary for useful design and evaluation.
More information at:

Distributed cognition studies cognition, from a cognitive, social, and organizational perspective. Researchers in cognitive systems assume that when you have more than one person participating in a system, the cognitive properties are different than the individuals’ properties, and that information from the group is redundant and variable. There are complex interactions between people within a system, and distributed cognition theories look at these interdependencies and try to understand the nature of communication and communication breakdowns in a system. “Application of distributed cognition uses domain knowledge to warrant judgments about cognitive processes and aid in sifting through massive amounts of data” (Halverson 1994). These applications can lead to discoveries about group processes, and these discoveries can influence HCI system design.
More information at:

Cultural theories examine people within in a culture and try to understand or predict how or why they act or react a certain way. In one study, Marcus and Gould looked at several dimensions of culture and applied them to global web interface design. Cultural anthropologist Geert Hofsteade outlined five dimensions of culture that Marcus and Gould used as a basis for understanding global web design. The dimensions of culture were power-distance, collectivism vs. individualism, femininity vs. masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, and long vs. short-term orientation. These dimensions can act as models or theories for understanding the user when developing HCI systems.
More information at:


Given the numerous communities of research and diverse theories presented here, it is suggested that the reader look at specific references for more detailed descriptions and examples.

One very good example is given in Aaron Marcus's paper (http://www.tri.sbc.com/hfweb/marcus/hfweb00_marcus.html) when he talks about power-distance which he defines as the "extent to which less powerful members expect and accept unequal power distribution within a culture." Then he shows the following two websites:

These websites demonstrate how cultural differences affect the design of websites and the presentation of information. Both of these websites are university websites, but the different structures are reflective of the way a culture views the roles of the university and the people within that culture. Design guidelines in HCI can seriously be affected by these types of issues: a designer might need to be aware how a piece of software or website will be perceived in another culture in order to make sure the right message is conveyed.

Applicability to HCI

Social and cultural theories are beginning to play a larger role in HCI research. The very structure and process of how people communicate is changing with widespread use of the Internet and email. This phenomenon is one aspect of social study in HCI.

Social and cultural theories relating to HCI are taken from many disciplines, including sociology or other social sciences, anthropology, computer networks, information systems, and information sciences. HCI has typically had its roots in cognitive science theories, while social and cultural theory study is a growing new area of active research for the HCI community. Social and cultural theories like these presented offer another perspective in which to view HCI research.

The theories presented here challenge or expand the current focus of HCI research. Rather than focusing on an individual or theories from cognitive psychology, social and cultural theories give a new perspective to HCI research, encouraging designers and developers to focus on cooperative behavior and social aspects.

Influence: Social and cultural theories are beginning to have a large influence on HCI research; as technology continues to connect people, our interfaces need to reflect these collaborations/conversations. This is a growing area of study, and as more predictive and explanatory theories arise, influence on further research will continue to flourish.


Halverson, Christine, "Distributed Cognition as a Theoretical Framework for HCI," 1994 http://cogsci.ucsd.edu/cogsci/publications/9403.pdf

Kling, Rob. "What is Social Informatics and Why Does it Matter?" D-Lib Magazine, January 1999. http://www.dlib.org/dlib/january99/kling/01kling.html

Marcus, Aaron and Emilie West Gould. “Cultural Dimensions and Global Web User-Interface Design: What? So What? Now what?” also published as "Crosscurrents: cultural dimensions and global Web user-interface design" in ACM Interactions, July 2000. http://www.tri.sbc.com/hfweb/marcus/hfweb00_marcus.html

Nardi, Bonnie. "Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interactions." ACM Interactions, October 1995. http://www.acm.org/interactions/vol2no4/depts/book.htm

Olson, Gary M. and Olson, Judith S., "Research on computer supported cooperative work," In Helander, M. G., Landauer, T. K., and Prabhu, P. V. (Editors), Handbook of Human-Computer Interaction: Second Edition, Elsevier, Amsterdam (1997), 1433-1456.

Preece, Jenny. Online Communites: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability. Chichester, UK: Wiley, 2000. http://www.ifsm.umbc.edu/onlinecommunities/index.asp

Rogers, Yvonne. "A Brief Introduction to Distributed Cognition," August 1997. http://www.cogs.susx.ac.uk/users/yvonner/dcog.html

Ryder, Martin. "What is Activity Theory?" December 2001. http://carbon.cudenver.edu/~mryder/itc/act_dff.html

Wellman, Barry. "An Electronic Group is Virtually a Social Network," September 1996.

Whittaker, Steve, Isaacs, Ellen, and O'Day, Vicki. "Widening the Net: Workshop Report on the Theory and Practice of Physical and Network Communities," SIGCHI Bulletin, July 1997. http://www.acm.org/sigchi/bulletin/1997.3/whittaker.html