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2010. Vol.1, No.5, 317-328
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2010.15041
User Psychology: Re-assessing the Boundaries of a Discipline
Pertti Saariluoma1, Antti Oulasvirta2
1Cognitive Science, University of Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä, Finland;
2Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT,
Aalto University and University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland.
Received June 3rd, 2010; revised June 18th, 2010; accepted June 21st, 2010.
Currently, efforts of psychologists to improve interactive technology have fragmented and the systemization of
scientific knowledge stalled. There is no home for integrative psychological research on computer use. In this
programmatic paper, we reassess three meta-scientific issues defining this discipline. As the first step, we pro-
pose to extend the subject of study from the analysis of human mind in the interaction to the broader view of
human as an intentional user of interactive technology. Hence, the discipline is most aptly called user psycholo-
gy. Secondly, problem-solving epistemology is advocated as an alternative to the notion from natural sciences
that progress in science involves increased truth likeness of theories. We hold that implications to design is only
one outcome of psychological work—user psychologists should help solving the problems of other stakeholders
of technology as well. Thirdly, to help integrating fragments of research, analyses should be re-organized around
explanatory frameworks that can span multiple technical application areas. An explanatory framework combines
a problem domain, relevant knowledge, and the logic of scientific inference. To conclude, we argue that tech-
nology has become so pervasive an aspect of modern life that its relationship with human mind deserves the sta-
tus of a basic research question and its own discipline. Psychology of the computer user should not be the
handmaiden of technologists but define itself by its own terms.
Keywords: Psychology HTI User
User psychology denotes the investigation of human use of
technology by means of psychological methods, concepts, and
theories. User psychologists study human action and its psy-
chological preconditions in the setting of technology use, with
an aim to contribute to pragmatic efforts in improving technol-
ogy. Central in user psychological work is identification and
analysis of use-related phenomena in terms of psychological
theories. Deep understanding of the mental life of computer
users can be useful for many stakeholders of interactive tech-
nology, including design, engineering, legislation, education,
and decision-maki ng , among other areas. In constructive pro-
jects, user psychology can help transforming intuition-based
practices to evidence-based practices and thereby improve
technology. This paper is about user psychology—what it has
been and, more importantly, what it should be.
The goal of the paper is to solve an important dilemma char-
acterizing the status quo. On the one hand the mode of psycho-
logical inquiry laid down for us in the eighties has been criti-
cized numerous times as too delimited and incompatible. On the
other hand, there nevertheless are active and seemingly fruitful
areas of psychological inquiry in human-computer interaction
(HCI), but these areas apparently do not fit in any existing me-
ta-scientific characterization of a discipline that includes psy-
chology. We believe it is the time to revisit the foundations of
the discipline and to reconsider what it entails. A careful ap-
proach would be to update the meta-science only minimally, to
the extent that these divergent areas could be subsumed. A
more future-oriented way would be to update the meta-science
so that its capacity to generate new perspectives and organize
research was increased.
The basic idea of searching for and exploiting psychological
knowledge in the development of technology has existed for a
long time and exhibited different forms. Before systematic lines
of inquiry can be said to have started, many pioneers were in-
spired by psychological concepts: Alan Turing and Douglas
Engelbart by the concept of intelligence, J.R. Licklider by
problem-solving, and Vannevar Bush by memory. Much of the
early human factors research was also psychologically oriented
(Welford, 1968). The end of the seventies and the beginning of
the eighties saw systematic lines of inquiry being established to
examine the use of computers. Researchers (James, 1973;
Sackman, 1970; Schackel, 1959; Shneiderman, 1976; Weinberg,
1971) began to scientifically investigate human cognition in
computer use and especially in the domain of programming.
These studies were closely connected with the research in skills
and expertise (Chase & Simon, 1973; de Groot, 1965, 1966).
One illustrative finding was that programmers become better
programmers by becoming better in remembering and “chunk-
ing” the parts of code that are not visible on the display
(McKeithen, Reitman, Rueter, & Hirtle, 1981).
Although not the first to discuss the use of psychological
knowledge in the study of computer use, Moran (1981) was the
first to propose a wider description than behaviorally and cog-
nitively oriented human factors and ergonomics. The term user
psychology was suggested by Moran (1981) in an introduction
to a special issue of ACM Computing Surveys entitled The
Psychology of the Computer User. He called that special issue
“the debut of user psychology.” The selling point was that de-
sign processes would be based on solid psychological prince-
ples instead of “folk psychology” (Moran, 1981). However,
P. SAARILUOMA & A. OUL ASVIR TA
Moran’s original formulation has been cited relatively seldom.
It has not been systematically elaborated afterwards and has
remained something of a curiosity. Moreover, in the subsequent
book The Psychology of Human Computer Interaction (Card,
Moran & Newell, 1983) the concept of user psychology was
considerably narrowed (Clemmensen, 2006)—perhaps because
the book presented the first model of the computer user, pro-
posing a prediction-oriented simulative approach as the ideal of
the new discipline. Although Card et al. did not rule out other
sciences, their focus on cognition was found too limited a view
to interaction. More controversial was their endorsement of a
“hard science” approach, proclaiming that quantitative predict-
tion should be the goal of research (Carroll & Campbell, 1986;
Newell & Card, 1986).
As we know, not everyone felt satisfied with the original
cognitive scientific description of the discipline, and the eighties
and the nineties witnessed several “divorces” from the main-
stream. Alternative agendas started to emerge that either de-
fined them in terms of how they differ from the “cognitivist”
orientation or were interpreted that way by others (Bødker,
1989; Carroll & Campbell, 1986; Carroll, 1991; Ellis & Nutt,
1980; Grudin, 1990; Heath & Luff, 2000; Helander, 1997;
Kuutti, 1996; McCarthy & Wright, 2004; Picar d, 1997; Such-
man, 1987; Winograd & Flores, 1986).
Psychology of programming was deemed problematic due to
its inability to derive applicable and specific enough knowledge
for developers (Carroll 1991, 1997), and during the decade that
followed, several important applications of psychological
science emerged to address needs of practitioners: user-cen-
tered design (Norman & Draper, 1986), cognitive task analysis
(Annett & Duncan 1967, Diaper & Stanton 2004, Kirwan &
Ainsworth, 1992; Schraagen & Chipman, 2000), ethnography
in human factors research (Blomberg, Burrell & Guest 2002)
and scenario-based design (Carroll, 2000; Rosson & Caroll,
2002). Testing methods were derived for the purposes of de-
signers, engineers, and information systems scientists (Nielsen,
1993). Usability engineers were perhaps less able to exploit
psychological knowledge with the same rigor as the cognitive
modeling camp and turned out to become a testing-centered
practice seeking standardized procedures. These applications of
psychology to both design and engineering have become
somewhat detached from contemporary psychology; main-
stream psychology is referred to quite rarely.
If the first two divorces were motivated by pragmatic needs
(of designers and engineers) and theoretical disputes, the third
“divorce” has been due to the landslide development of int era c-
tive technologies during the past two decades. Or instead of
divorce, one could describe this development as “fragmentation
across topics, theories, methods, and people” (Olson & Olson,
2003). Good examples of recent areas that are “psychologically
loaded” include ubiquitous computing (Weiser, 1991), affective
computing (Picard, 1997), ambient displays and tangible inter-
action (Ishii & Ullmer, 1997), attentive interfaces (Vertegaal,
2003), and mixed-initiative interfaces (Horvitz, 1999). Many of
these and other emerging areas clearly touch psychological
themes and needed to entice psychologists. However, research
has been technologically rather than psychologically defined,
and most work has been rather experimental. These circum-
stances are unfortunate, because they have led to a myopia
which has hindered grounding the work to relevant bodies of
knowledge in mother disciplines and countered the accumula-
tion of findings and elaboration of theories.
We believe that enough criticism has been voiced and it is
time to face the facts and address the problem. It is time to turn
attention to the most elementary demarcations that define a
discipline. The problems of the above type cannot be solved by
conducting new studies; for this, foundational work is re-
quired—the analysis and critique of suppositions behind the
paradigms (Saariluoma, 1997). To be constructive, we need to
propose several “updates” to the meta-science of this discipline.
Ultimately, in order to avoid being a slave to engineering, psy-
chologists must start defining their work according to psycho-
logical themes rather than in respect to technological bounda-
ries. This means re-thinking how we answer such questions as
“what is the subject of psychological research in this area”,
“what are psychological theories about”, “what kind of theory
is useful,” and “what is the role of psychological research in
constructive efforts like design.” In this paper, we address these
question by considering the broadest possible terms of any
discipline: subject of inquiry (the user in action), the purpose of
scientific work (problem solving), and the mode of scientific
Our agenda is threefold. Firstly, we propose to extend the
subject of study from the interaction loop to the human as an
intentional actor, human in the role of using a computer for
something. Hence, we propose readopting the term user psy-
chology. From this perspective, user psychology becomes in
part analogous to other applied psychology disciplines that also
study the human in specific activities, such as traffic psycholo-
gy, aviation psychology, counseling psychology, or political
psychology. However, it is evident that some revisions to the
previous notions of user psychology must be introduced. We
believe that areas defined around the terms “interaction” or
“cognition” or “factors” are too narrow. It is important to em-
brace a deeper view of humans as actors rather than as factors
(Bannon, 1991). Although we propose redefining the subject of
inquiry, we refrain from proposing an ideal method, as history
has shown such attempts to be problematic and restricting
Secondly, we propose a problem-solving epistemology (Lau-
dan, 1977; Saariluo ma, 1997, 2005), the core idea of which is
that progress in science is tantamount to increased ability to
solve problems (Laudan, 1977). In the setting of user psychol-
ogy, these problems can be empirical, conceptual, or construc-
tive by nature. Here, scientific advancement is marked not by
getting closer to “truth” but by increased problem-solving abil-
ity. This epistemology is different from the traditional episte-
mology coming from natural sciences, but it fits excellently to
the practical nature of contemporary thinking manifested well
for example in the CHI conference’s (CHI Conference, 2009)
requirement for authors to explicate their paper’s “contribution”
(to the body of knowledge) and “benefit” (for practitioners).
The problem-oriented view also points out that results of user
psychology should not serve exclusively designers and engi-
neers, but any and all stakeholders of interactive technology
from citizens to customers to decision-makers. We echo many
before us in the ideal of applicability of work; it is important to
take the pragmatic origins and ambitions of HCI seriously.
Despite the apparent lack of systematic theories, HCI as a dis-
cipline has been a moderate success both in the industry and in
P. SAARILUOMA & A. OUL ASVIR TA
the academia, but it could and should do even better. User psy-
chology should not get “off the hook” as happened with soft-
ware psychology (Carroll, 1997). But neither is we proposing a
“light weight” version of psychology for practitioners to exploit,
as that has been problematic as well.
Our third proposition is put forward in order to help reor ga-
nizing fragments of research currently splintered across tech-
nology-defined boundaries. We believe that good research
should not be like a black box that reports results from mea-
surements, but rather entail an in-built interest for systematic
development of understanding. The way to shed light on recur-
ring practical problems is to explain things, not only describe or
measure them. This way, user psychology could help research
already at the outset to set its goals more ambitiously and the-
reby overcome the problem of locality of results. The essence
of our proposition is to build a bridge between scientific prob-
lems and useful solutions via psychological knowledge. What
we call an explanatory framework combines a problem, rele-
vant knowledge, and the logic of scientific inference. How
these three components go together determine the applicability,
specificity, and therefore the problem-solving capacity of a
theory. The goal of restructuring an area around a general ex-
planatory framework is systemization of psychological know-
ledge in this area and for other areas that are analogous. Impor-
tantly, we do not propose that the boundaries of these frame-
works should be defined by boundaries within general psy-
chology. Instead, user psychological areas should be defined by
boundaries inherent in the phenomenon we are addressing:
human use of interactive computing. In the history and present
of HCI, many good examples of explanatory frameworks can
be found, from mental models to motor control. However, that
kind of integrative “basic research” has almost stalled during
the last decade. Our proposal is that we raise explanation to a
center stage in the new user psychology.
The main ambition of the paper is to explicate and re-assess
the boundaries that define our discipline, with the purpose of
re-directing psychologists to contribute to the broader bodies of
knowledge that surpass individual application domains. We are
proposing this programmatic agenda not for engineers or de-
signers but for psychologists already working with technology-
related issues. Researchers trained in psychology and already
working with technology have both the theoretical competence
and substance competence to formulate research questions in a
manner that the solutions sought for them would have practical
importance. The user psychology we are proposing will thus be
an applied discipline from two perspectives: Firstly, because it
is in intellectual debt to psychology and, secondly, because its
main purpose is not search for truth but problem-solving. How-
ever, technology has become so pervasive an aspect of modern
life that its relationship with the human mind is regarded now
as a key conceptual problem of the information age. The prob-
lem of user psychology therefore deserves the status of a basic
research question within psychology. We see it necessary that
psychologists start taking computer use more seriously and
eventually help developers to transcend testing-based practices
and address the issue in psychology’s own terms and rigor.
User—The Subject of Inquiry
The motif of a human agent working with a technological ar-
tifact is at the center of disciplines involved with the use of
technology, such as CSCW and Workplace Studies, CMC, HCI,
Human Factors, Ergonomics, and Information Systems. It is
partly due to conceptualizations of the user that the preceding
versions of user psychology have been found problematic and
inadequate. Some approaches have not been necessarily contra-
dictory or complementary, but have made tacit assumptions that
have limited generality. Therefore, as banal as it may sound, the
term user deserves attention. This, after all, is the subject of
inquiry in use r psychology. For proposing a synthesis, let us
examine and learn from three major conceptions of the user in
con temporary research.
First, the cognitivist school of HCI grounded their analytical
work to Alan Turing’s model of human mind that was later
expanded by Newell and Simon (1972) into a model of human
mentality. The point was to investigate users as information
processing systems characterized by successive information
manipulation operations (Anderson, 2002; Card, Moran, &
Newell, 1983; Laird, Newell, & Rosenbloom, 1987; Meyer &
Kieras, 1997; Gray, 2007). The most popular implementations
have been based on production systems where information
processing is a series of situationally triggered information
manipulations guided by rules of the form: if P (attern) then
Action). In spite of the undeniable contributions of these models,
some have remarked that they have little to say about emotional
interaction, experience, motives, meaning, personality, or cul-
ture. Another counter-argument is that these models are mecha-
nistic in their assumption that mental processes can be reduced
to causal sequences (Dreyfus, 1992). These are not newly dis-
covered limitations but were familiar already in the 1930s to
Wittgenstein (1958) in his critical analysis of the Turing ma-
chine. For user psychology, the main problem is however
whether a causalist computational language really has sufficient
power of explaining intentional action (Searle, 1983). However,
although there are counterarguments and limitations in the
modeling approach, the core point of these models remain true:
that internal mental events and properties of human mind can
explain (some) observed behavior of the user.
Second, early activity theorists in HCI (Bannon & Bødker,
1991; Bødker, 1989; Kapteli nin, 1996; Kuutti, 1996; Nardi,
1996), whose rhetoric in many cases built on claimed inadequ-
acies of the cognitive theories, drew from the Marxist pragmat-
ic philosophy. The core idea of Marxist philosophy was that
humans are what they do, praxi s shapes them and is itself
shaped by the institutions within which they function
(Bernstein, 1971). Leontyev (1981), one of the founding fathers
of activity theory, writes: “the human psyche’s properties are
determined by man’s real relations with the world, which de-
pend on the objective, historical conditions of his life” (p. 268).
In present-day activity theorists’ interpretation of interaction,
the main unit of analysis is activity (Kuutti, 1996). Activities
are driven by needs—not necessarily an individual’s but an
organiz ation’s—where a certain goal state is to be achieved.
Activities themselves consist of actions of individuals that can
be mediated by instruments or tools. Ergo, the core of being a
user means utilizing a technological artifact in an activity in
pursuit of a goal and satisfaction of a need. Technology is in a
mediating role in human pursuits (Kuutti & Kaptelinin, 1997).
While this formulation is acceptable, the most evident problem
in the interpretations of contemporary activity theorists in HCI
P. SAARILUOMA & A. OUL ASVIR TA
lies in their reluctance to systematically include mental aspects
in their explanations of human action, although both Vygotsky
(1980) and Leontyev (1981) were keenly interested in brain
functions, consciousness, and cognitive capabilities (Roth &
Lee, 2007). This stance closes out of discussion much of the
psychological work realized and advancements achieved in
psychology after the first half of the 20th century. The intuitive
externalism—that is, the tendency to emphasize external di-
mensions of human action in constructing theory languages—
has lead activity theorists to emphasize collaborative aspects of
interaction, which of course is fruitful, but has largely disre-
garded known social psychological work on the same topics.
Because of this, as activity theory is presently explicated, it
does not provide a sufficiently elaborated model of user for
modern user psychology. Its connection to modern empirical
tradition of psychology remains shallow and it does not en-
courage efforts to integrate findings across disciplines. One
consequence of intuitive externalism is, as Nardi (1996) ob-
served, that the tradition is more descriptive than explanatory.
Third, phenomenology (Grossman, 1984) has provided an
alternative, first-person view, to the study of user. In pheno-
menological accounts of human-computer interaction, the cen-
tral feature of human action and experience is intentionali-
ty—being directed towards something. The philosophical roots
of phenomenology involve authors such as Husserl (1913/1982),
Heidegger (1927/1962), Gadamer (1960), Merleau-Ponty (1962)
and Schütz (1932). Encyclopedia of Phenomenology (1997)
distinguishes seven types of phenomenology, of which the most
cited type within HCI has been Martin Heidegger’s (1927，1962).
Heidegger held that our activities are always “in the world” and
we must not study these activities by bracketing the world, but
by looking to the contextual relations that our activities and
meanings have in the world. However, the concept of world
does never in phenomenology refer to the naïve material world
but it entails all our experiences and meanings. Phenomenolo-
gists take meaning and experiences of meanings central in their
analyses of human-computer interaction. Dourish (2001) has
opened up these notions for HCI by the terms intentionality,
ontology, and intersubjectivity. Intentionality means the direct-
ness of actions and the intended effects of those actions, ontol-
ogy concerns the ways in which we come to understand the
computational world, and intersubjectivity reflects sharing of
the world with other individuals. Importantly, these are not
creations of the mind, but achieved in interaction with the ma-
terial, social, cultural, and historical conditions of the world.
Being a user boils down to one’s experiences and meanings of
“being in the world” achieved by using one’s body to interact
through technological artifacts. This characterization highlights
the constructive relationship between the user’s felt experience
and intentions on the one hand and the material-soci al-cul-
t ural-historical conditions on the other. This approach brings
about many sophisticated conceptual distinctions which are
more or less absent both in cognitive and activity research. We
agree with the claim that interaction is to be understood in
terms of how people act through technology, not on it (Dourish
2001). Similarly to Winograd and Flores (1986), Dourish (2001)
expands, for example, on Heidegger’s idea of a tool being ei-
ther “ready-to-hand” or “present-at -hand.” The experience of
objects depends on our actions and intentions—one and the
same computer is seen as a different object by programmers,
information systems scientists and secretaries, because their
stances differ as a consequence of their work. If one admits that
psychology is the study of mental processes and human beha-
vior, there is no a priori reason to rule out phenomenological
analyses from interaction discussions. Simulative cognitive
science does not really capture experience by its concepts and
consequently it remains silent on this phenomenon. Activity
theorists do not refer to subjective or internalist conceptualiza-
tions and therefore they also have had little to say about felt
experience. Phenomenologists are right in that experience exists
and they have done an important service to the community by
taking it under scrutiny. Methodologically and theoretically,
however, phenomenologically oriented work has remained far
from the main body of psychology. Phenomenologically
oriented researchers have done relatively little experimental
work; instead, they have made conceptual analyses and prof-
fered folk psychological considerations on interaction (Svanaes,
2001). There is, of course, no apriori obstacle for experimenta-
tion as mode of inquiry among others. Moreover, among many
other findings on experience, psychology has demonstrated that
experience is not an island but rises as a consequence of other
mental processes. Freud was already able to argue that con-
scious experience is generated by the unconscious. To under-
stand consciousness we have to understand unconscious
processes and include in our explanations emotional, social, and
cognitive processes also at the neural level.
In sum, all three traditions reviewed entail important but dif-
ferent contributive elements for understanding the user, and
they also have their limits. Knowledgeable of these, it is possi-
ble to begin to sketching a new way by taking contributive
elements and unifying them into a new picture of a conception
of a user. We propose viewing interaction first and foremost
from an intentionalist perspective, distinguishing intentionality
as the primary characteristic of the user. Interaction is action
and the user’s intentions are the source of personal significance
and the guiding principle of that action. Thus, with phenome-
nologists we share the idea that human intentions are vital in
explaining human actions. While material objects are subject to
laws of natural sciences, human actions are intentional and
goa l-driven. The locus of scientific explanations of human ac-
tion is in the future, what the human being intended to achieve
(von Wright, 1972). I use my cell phone to call my friends in
order to meet them and to socialize with them. Notions like
usability, errors, and task performance can only be understood
against this background. However, we should accompany phe-
nomenological theorists only this far.
In fact, we believe we must give up the first person perspec-
tive and, instead, we should look at intentions from the third-
person perspective, in order to save the objectivity of science
and possibility to penetrate into subconscious mechanism as
well as brain-based explanations. This perspective of looking
consciousness from the outside has traditionally been called
heterophenomenological (Dennett, 1991). In practice, it means
that we can apply such methods as interviews and protocol
analysis to study conscious experience (de Groot, 1965; Erics-
son & Simon 1984). Cognitive and other areas of psychology
have a lot to add to the notion of intentional agent. Let us as-
sume that a person with an intention to write LISP code forgets
something as the complexity of the required representation
increases (Anderson, Farrell, & Sauers, 1984). The explanation
P. SAARILUOMA & A. OUL ASVIR TA
of a failure of this kind is seldom in intention, but it must rather
be searched from operations and capacities of the contributing
psychological mechanisms, without which complicated actions,
such as finding a link on a web page, or finding a menu item,
In a sense, there is nothing new in the intentionalist concep-
tualization, as we habitually talk about users’ goals and needs
in HCI. Nonetheless, the nature of these guiding principles has
not received the importance as it should have. For example,
“user needs”—such as “need to drive screws fast, faster than by
hand,” in the context of screwdriver design (Ulrich & Eppinger,
2003)—do not often describe psychological needs at all but a
s ought-for performance of an artefact. Thus, the very nature of
intention in interaction should be subjected to deeper scrutiny.
Essentially, intrasubjective processes should contribute to ex-
planations of intentional action. The positive side of this take is
that the intentionalist view can help us to escape the criticism
that psychologists too easily view interaction mechanistically
and as a closed system, or through “boxologies” that reduce
personal meaning into operations in information processing.
We propose raising intentionality explicitly to the subject of
We believe that also in practical attempts at improving tech-
nology, intentional action is the natural phenomenon to be ana-
lyzed, understood, and designed for. The reason for this is log-
ical: All technology is designed to support people in their at-
tempts to reach their life goals, which are set in their actions.
We rely on computers when we drive cars, when we use mobile
phones or elevators, when communicating via computers or
when using Internet services. If one takes serious the idea of the
user as intentional actor, the conclusion is that user psychology
cannot be defined in terms of the technical quality of the com-
puter in question; that is, whether the computer is a computer in
the Turing sense. Any interactive computer even embedded
computers in cars and digital wrist watches that are computa-
tionally si mple are in the domain of user psychology. Looked at
from this perspective, the psychology of the human user should
be one of the key topics of the sciences of the artificial (Simon,
A Problem-Solving Epistemology
“In appraising the merits of theories, it is more important to
ask whether they constitute adequate solutions to significant
problems than it is to ask whether they are ‘true,’ ‘corroborated,’
‘well-confirmed’ or otherwise justifiable within the framework
of contemporary epistemology” (Laudan, 1977).
User psychology and related disciplines are in a way difficult
to locate on the map of science. On the one hand their ultimate
goal of improving technology for human use makes them ap-
plied science. In user psychology, psychology is used for solv-
ing practical problems, analogous to, say, what is done in traffic
psychology. Bunge (2001) defines a discipline as applied if it is
in intellectual debt to another field. On the other hand, we must
ask whether user psychology is really applied science, for its
goal is to produce a new coherent view of the human’s rela-
tionship with interactive technology. If this kind of problem
that addresses the most salient characteristic of our time is not
basic science then what has went wrong? In this light, the old
basic–applied dichotomy is problematic.
We have to look what science is in a new way. Instead of
seeing science as a set of justifiable beliefs, or improvements in
“truthlikeness” of theories, we might see it as a dynamic
process where our problem-solving ability is increased (Laudan,
1977). This means that scientific concepts, theories and empir-
ical findings should be evaluated on the ground of practical
advancement they allow us in developing technology or if for-
mulated in a wider sense: how they improve the development of
information society. Naturally, problem-solving capacity can-
not be increased on the basis of outright false theories, so the
two aspects of epistemology—truthlikeness and usefulness—
are related. However, we see that the primary goal of user psy-
chology should be not be truthfulness, as there are cautionary
examples in its past (Carroll, 1991, 1997).
What does a problem mean? In his work, Laudan (1977) dis-
tinguishes two kinds of problems: empirical and conceptual.
Empirical problems involve unknown phenomena, unknown
factors, and unknown effects. Much of user studies and evalua-
tive experiments fall into this category. Conceptual problems
involve implausibility (to explain something within a theory/
concept), inconsistency, and incompatibility. Most theory ap-
plication and construction addresses this category of problems.
Because Laudan was mainly interested in natural and humanis-
tic sciences, it may have escaped his attention that there are also
problems of constructive character. Three subtypes can be
thought of: 1) inability to imagine a solution, 2) insufficient
knowledge for implementing a solution, and 3) unavailability of
resources for implementing a solution. Much of user interface
design and UI software technologies work reported in academic
forums like UIST address these problems, but just as well deci-
s ion-making, policies, and educational programs could be
thought this way. The contribution that user psychology makes
toward solving these problems is that its theories and results of
empirical work can provide us with ideas on how to make good
constructions. The point is that work on all three types of prob-
lems is necessary. It is a form of short-sightedness to require
every study to be able to contribute to constructive problems
directly. In the absence of understanding, this form of prob-
lem-solving science would not carry far as it would lead to poor
solutions to the problems.
What is a good solution, then? Laudan (1977) argues that
progress in science is about adequate solutions to important
problems. Laudan (1977) defined a good solution as having
1. it solves a problem that is significant,
2. it has the potential to solve many new problems, and
3. it solves the problem(s) effectively.
From the perspective of the first quality, research on cogni-
tive models of the user has been successful, because these
models helped solving significant problems of the early 1980s.
However, one can say that in the 21st century its challenge has
been the second quality: it has not been able to solve those
problems that are the most important ones (Carroll, 1991), as
technology has developed and models were not updated accor-
dingly. Moreover, even the earlier versions of GOMS (Goals,
Operators, Methods, & Selection Rules; Card et al., 1983) were
criticized as being too difficult to apply—in other words, too
inefficient as a solution (3rd quality). However, significant
progress has been made in lowering the barrier to apply these
models to everyday interaction problems (John, 2004). Another
P. SAARILUOMA & A. OUL ASVIR TA
good example is Fitts’ (1954) law that has been applied widely
to analysis and prediction of input devices. The problem of
target acquisition is central to all HCI and Fitts’ law offers an
effective way to address it, which is why it fills two out of the
three qualities of Laudan. However, the law in its original form
does not really involve any explanation, rather a description of
statistical relationship between three variables (movement time,
target size, target distance). Without explanatory basis, its ex-
tension to new problems has mainly taken place through trial
and error rather than prediction (Friedlander et al., 1998).
Importantly, the problem-solving epistemology makes it
clear that prediction is only one aim in the psychology of the
computer user (Card, Moran, & Newell, 1983). From the Lau-
danesque perspective prediction is a false a goal for epistemol-
ogy. It is more essential to have psychological knowledge that
is applicable (Carroll, 1991). However, it is very common for
non-psychologists to believe that the existent psychological
knowledge is somehow applicable as such and ready to be used,
although it is often necessary to study first what the meaning of
a psychological construct in a particular phenomenon of tech-
nology use, before it can really be applied in practice. Thus,
identifying the most significant and practical explanatory frame-
works is as important task for research as is actually elaborating
Thus, we believe that the core of our epistemology should
not be quantitative prediction of outcomes but explana tion. If
we think of a normal engineering design, it relies heavily on the
laws of nature (Pahl & Beitz, 1996). An engineer must be con-
fident that, once built, the bridge will stand. Neither do engi-
neers build skyscrapers by trial and error. The reason they can
do this is that they know the properties of materials and the
effect of forces on structures and can thus engage in explanato-
ry problem solving. However, when we move to interactive
technology, it is a completely different case: trial and error and
reliance on intuitions in place of theory-based argumentation.
This has been a necessity, because we have not been able to
create a practice in which the laws and principles of modern
psychology would support and guide problem-solving the way
natural physical laws do in machine engineering. Getting from
the intuitive to explanatory problem solving practices is a cen-
tral goal for user psychology. In other words, user psychology
is ideally conducted in a way where applicable solutions are
sought via deepening understanding.
But whose problems are we are attempting to solve? We be-
lieve that any piece of technology ties around it a complex web
of stakeholders whose problems are relevant and which we
ought to be solving. There is no a priori reason to limit our
work to serve designers. True, we need to aid designers to find
rational ways of solving immediate interaction design problems.
However, designers are not our only stakeholders (Carroll,
1991, 1997). There are also the individual end-users, or cus-
tomers, whose needs and abilities we have to worry about. By
informing consumer segments, user psychology can help them
making informed choices and raise awareness of the conse-
quences of poorly designed technology. But the list is much
longer. In organizations, there are stakeholders from adminis-
trators to helpdesk to managers to human resources specialists.
In the Internet, user communities and groups are formed that
have different requirements for technology. Developers also
have their constructive needs, as have designers, and service
providers and commercial companies have their take and inter-
ests that are often evaluated in monetary terms. Finally, institu-
tions like schools and societies as a whole take significant deci-
sions on information technology, and thus their needs should
also be served. Given these widening spheres of stakeholders,
we believe it has become impossible to maintain that design is
the main “client” of our discipline. The ultimate goal of user
psychological research should be the improvement of the con-
ditions of human life and our research should indeed be eva-
luated, in the end, from that point of view (Cockton, 2008; Sel-
len et al., 2009).
This characterization fits quite well the de facto practices of
the HCI community. The flagship conference CHI, for example,
places as the foremost demand that its papers “offer contribu-
tions that clearly and significantly advance the field of HCI.”
Moreover, the conference asks the authors to think “what kinds
of problems might readers be facing to which your contribution
could provide the solution” and tries “to make sure that the
submission explains the contribution in sufficient detail for the
full benefit to be extracted” (CHI Conference, 2009). In other
words, CHI has already started to define itself in terms of solu-
tions to stakeholders’ problems. Previously, however, we were
lacking an epistemology that would fit these aims. If user psy-
chology wants to contribute to real-world efforts, as it should,
this reformulation of its epistemology as a problem-solving
epistemology is natural.
Prediction is the sine non qua of engineering sciences. When
engineers build a bridge or skyscrapers, they apply models
derived from the laws of nature to make advance calculations.
Although they also test their constructs empirically, the ad-
vance use of laws gives their work a predictive character. Of
course, there is always also an element of intuition involved.
The designers of the ship Estonia that sank in 1994 with 800
passengers did not have sufficiently sophisticated mathematical
formulas to calculate the weight of the wave forces against the
keel structures (The Joint Accident Investigation Commission
of Estonia, Finland & Sweden, 1997). Save the cognitive mod-
eling community, the predictive stance is weak or missing in
areas around human-technology engineering. Usability testing
is common, but it is one thing to generate and test and another
to predict and test. This is why much of present-day design
practices remind of medieval construction practices where, by
means of trial and error, stable solutions are found and passed
on from one to another.
Nevertheless, as we discussed in the previous section, we do
not suggest taking prediction as the ultimate goal of this discip-
line. There are reasons for this. First, it may be impossible.
Landauer (1997) criticized such attempts by claiming that the
to-be-predicted phenomena are too complex: Any attempt at
prediction is overly sensitive to differences in the starting pre-
sumptions, subject to extreme random variation, and includes
variables that are impossible to know in advance. Moreover,
people are not “deterministic” and thus never 100% predictable
(von Wright, 1972).
We believe that the primary epistemic goal of this discipline
should be explanation. By explanation it is generally meant that
connections are established between previously miscellaneous
P. SAARILUOMA & A. OUL ASVIR TA
items. However, explanation is not necessary for prediction－
statistical prediction involves no explanation. Instead, explana-
tion is often a sufficient condition for prediction, at least if it is
not conceived narrowly as quantitative prediction. Namely, the
nature of prediction can also be of a relative or nominal type:
“this design will induce user error,” or “design A will be better
than design B.” When connections are established between
variables our artifacts affect, such as number of items in a menu,
and variables of use, such as number of errors, an explanation
will have some predictive power.
How should we work toward explanation in concrete prob-
lems of computer use? In its simplest form user psychology
unifies 1) a problem with 2) the respective knowledge from a
field of psychology to chart solutions through 3) scientific in-
ference that maps the two. An explanatory framework is a psy-
chological knowledgebase which provides us with information
beneficial in solving a problem or some of its aspects (Saariluoma,
2005, Figure 1).
Problem * Scientific knowledge Solution
Explanatory framework. The problem is described in a
way that scientific knowledge can be brought to explain
it and a solution inferred.
In the rest of this section, we examine a handful of important
frameworks from the past and present lines of research: biolog-
ical psychology, information processing psychology, psychol-
ogy of emotions, mental contents, individual differences,
groups, and socio-cultural aspects. The list is only one possible
cross-section of vast volumes of work. The list is not supposed
to be taken as comprehensive, it only serves to illustrate two
points: 1) that there are many domains of general psychology
outside cognitive psychology that are in fact already being ap-
plied in contemporary HCI, 2) that the internal logics of the
frameworks are very different—so different that it is difficult to
see how any one framework could possibly cover them all. Any
concrete interaction problem is so complex that multiple ex-
planatory frameworks must be called in. Some of these frame-
works have emerged as a response to the needs of a particular
application area, but have widened their scope along with re-
search being formulated around user-related issues. For exam-
ple, the recent surge of research on emotions in human-computer
interaction was boosted by some seminal work on affective user
interfaces. By re-thinking psychological research from the
perspective of the user, user psychology may reach generality
across application domains.
It is important to note that the examples presented below
represent high or macro-level explanatory frameworks and
define rather extensive wholes. In practice, explanations at the
level of a particular study must often be much more nuanced
and refer to more detailed theoretical explanations. For example,
much of (but not all) information processing psychology that
has been applied to HCI has utilized what could be called a
ma cro-level explanatory framework of limited capacity. How-
ever, in a particular project one could be interested in micro-
level frameworks such as, say limitations of the human working
memory and its subsystems (Baddeley, 1986).
We begin with questions typical to a framework, and then
look at the background theories, and finally present concrete
examples of empirical work. It takes considerable time to de-
velop a good micro-level explanatory framework for a particu-
lar problem, but in many areas that work has been done to the
extent that we can start coalescing the micro-level explanations
into more coherent wholes. Looking at things from this pers-
pective forces us to address and improve the generalizability of
First, the limited capacities of human information processing
system is one of the classic explanatory frameworks and partic-
ularly strong in contemporary human factors (Wickens et al.,
2003). Human information processing is limited in many dif-
ferent ways; most well-known limitations relate to perceptual
discrimination (Goldstone, 1994), working memory capacity
(Baddeley, 1986; Cowa n, 2000), and selective attention (Pash-
ler, 1998; Styles, 1997). These limitations have been studied for
decades as explanations to performance and errors (Broadbent,
1958; Miller, 1951), and utilized in interface design to address
such questions as how to construct a display that is legible, how
to make warning signals discriminable, how many alternatives
you can have in a menu node, how to design notifications so
that they do not hamper memory, and how users search web
pages. A powerful example concerns perceptual discrimination.
People can visually perceive only a limited part of the electro-
magnetic spectrum from 380 nm to 750 (Coren, Ward, & Enns,
1999) and hearing is similarly limited, between 20 and 20 000
Hz. This means that sensation is based on a relatively narrow
spectrum of physical energy. Discrimination based on the elec-
tromagnetic spectrum may be difficult because people simply
cannot exceed the absolute thresholds of human sensory sys-
tems. However, discrimination depends also on the quality of
background, and if the background information is too similar
with the target, it also makes it difficult to perceive the object in
question. Low intensity of a stimulus may refer to a target re-
flecting light inadequately or to a target that is not clearly dis-
criminable against its background (Isler, Kirk, Bradford &
Parker, 1997). A somewhat different set of limitations is in-
volved in human attention (Pashler, 1998; Styles, 1997). Atten-
tion segregates the target or figure out of its background and
thus organizes perceptual reality in only one of the millions of
possible ways. Attention selects the messages, which are im-
portant for the ongoing action. In this way, it allows human
mind to focus on relevant things. The capacity of selection is
normally one unit at the time (Broadbe nt, 1958). It is possible
to switch attention from one target to another relatively swiftly
and thus follow two or even more competing messages at one
time. However, this kind of performance has its costs and is
risky. One of the core problems here is how we can select the
target information from irrelevant background information. A
key explanatory factor is discriminative cue. This means that
relevant information has some property such as color, which
makes it different from irrelevant information and thus is easy
to pick up. Discriminative cues and selective attention are im-
portant issues in graphical interface construction. It is critical to
be able to design the information to be expressed in such a way
that, from the action point of view, the most important informa-
tion is sufficiently discriminable. The system of discrimination
to be used is often a vital issue in designing effective visualiza-
tions (Card, 2003). These examples give an idea about how
capacity-based explaining is already part of user psychology. It
is necessary to ensure that interaction with an interface does not
P. SAARILUOMA & A. OUL ASVIR TA
surpass the available capacity. The main way of reacting is
naturally to reduce the complexity, which can be done either by
redesigning the interface in question or by improving the skills
of the user.
Another deeply seated framework concerns mental contents
of the user. Such notions as schemas and mental models have
often been used to describe information in mental representa-
tions of computing systems (Carroll, 1997; Norman, 1987).
What these notions share is that they involve beliefs or proposi-
tional information, properties of this information, and function-
al connections between content elements. The concepts of
mental contents provide us with an alternative perspective to
interaction compared to capacity-based explanations. The cru-
cial limit of capacity based research is that we can fill the li-
mited capacities with any type of information. That information
can be correct, false, or irrelevant but if it does not exceed the
processing capacity, there are no problems. As a metaphor, we
can fill a bottle with milk, honey, poison or any substance as
long as the bottle is not broken or does not overflow. This
means that the capacity based language cannot express those
problems which are characteristically explainable in terms of
mental contents (Saariluoma, 1997). One active research area
has been representations of objects of information that are not
directly present but “projected” on the user interface. The feat
of being cognizant or acting in the absence of instigating stimu-
li is of course not confined to human-computer interaction. For
instance, talking about a yesterday’s weather, counting time,
and thinking about our political system are such activities, and
in explanations of these phenomena we find links to general
psychology. There are many other interesting but less researche d
topics concerning mental contents related to computer use, such
as attitudes, values and social representations of users. Good
examples are the seminal studies of Reeves and Nass (1996)
t hat showed how users attribute humane qualities to computers
and media. Key in this explanatory framework are the mental
contents and inference processes that work on them that allow
the user to “jump into conclusions” beyond the literal meaning
of technological projections. Such inference is so basic to the
construction of meaning through interaction that the topic
should cover much more ground in human-computer interaction
than it currently does.
The third widely utilized mode of explanation concerns indi-
vidual differences. This macro-level framework subsumes mul-
tiple middle-level frameworks from skills to age to gender to
personality. The issue of individual differences has been recog-
nized since the very first experimental studies in HCI (Sackman,
1970) and is today reflected in popular agendas such as Uni-
versal Access and Design for All. Since we cannot possibly
cover all relevant frameworks, we briefly visit the issue of user
personality as an example. The best known of feature approaches
to personality is most likely the so-called BIG 5 theory which
focuses on five basic personality traits. These are extraversion,
agreeableness, conscientiousness, stability, and openness to
experience (McCrae & Costa, 1997; Wiggins, 1996). A typical
problem could deal with the question of how a user’s commit-
ment to a device might depend on a number of personality fea-
tures and the symbolical and identity values provided by the
product (Aaker, 1997). Another often used view to individual
differences is age (Hawthorn, 2000). Czaja and colleagues
(Czaja et al., 2006), for example, analyzed the connection of
intelligence and anxiety to older peoples’ use of computer
technology. Similar to all sub-frameworks is the idea that users
are unique and idiosyncratic characteristics must be taken into
account when analyzing interaction.
Fourth, a recent surge in the study of emotions in interaction
has opened up a very different system of explanatory grounds.
Emotions define our subjectively felt personal positions towards
events and objects (Jordan, 1998; Norm an, 2004; Power &
Dalgleish, 2007). Such categories of contemporary ICT re-
search as user acceptance and user experience are essentially
emotional issues. Of particular relevance among emotional
phenomena are, at least, the contents of emotions and their
connections to cognition and action. Emotions can be unders-
tood as reactions and preparations to prevailing situations, but
before we know what a situation is we have to make a cognitive
analysis (Power & Dalgleish, 1997). Emotions are activated
with appraisal, the cognitive analysis of the situation which in
user psychology involves a computer technology. Therefore,
the designers’ route to influencing user experience by means of
design is via cognitions (Beck, 1976). Emotions are also im-
portant, because they can convey information about our needs.
Naturally, these connections have an important role in motivat-
ing our immediate actions. Finally, emotions are always impor-
tant in experiencing the world in interaction with computers.
They bring some self-perspective to experience. They also tell
the “goodness” of the experience to the experiencing person.
We can also speak about a “felt” experience, which opens a
different perspective to interaction when compared to perfor-
mance (McCarthy & Wright, 2004). There are questions which
can be answered on emotional grounds only and for this reason
it makes sense to take emotions as an independent explanatory
Fifth, the recent “Decade of the brain” has brought about a
general movement toward biological psychology, also within
the HCI community (Parasuraman & Rizzo, 2007) that did not
recognize this area before the turn of the millenium (Landauer,
Helander, & Prabhu’s, 1997 handbook did not have a chapter
about it). The basic form of argumentation is familiar to us,
going from biologically determined properties of human per-
formance to explain why some design alternatives are prefera-
ble to others. Human motor performance is a prime example of
linking performance to properties of human nervous system
(Rizzo, Robinson & Neale, 2006). The size of hand and fingers,
muscle power, limb and joint movement, the speed of neural
signals, and physical limits of transduction are variables that are
crucial in designing low-level interaction. The harmony be-
tween movements and input devices is a critical issue and many
types of problems require signal processing analyses in a peri-
pheral and central level. Recently, neuroergonomics has ex-
tended the application of biological psychology from “low-
level” issues such as sensation, perception, and motor control to
problems related to higher-level cognitive concepts such as
vigilance and atte ntion and memory capacity. It has also been
applied to register physiological states of users, such as stress,
emotional states, and mental workload. Arguably, neuroergo-
nomics should be as important a part of user psychology as
neural theories are for understanding mind and it can provide
deeper understanding of user performance with pointing devic-
es than statistical models such as the Fitts’ law (Fitts, 1954). As
a philosophy of science, however, biological psychology may at
first blush appear too strict in its reductionism—a position that
has been criticized numerous times. It may seem that in many
P. SAARILUOMA & A. OUL ASVIR TA
important design solutions, there is no additional value that can
be achieved by biological explanations, but this is not always
true. There are indisputable cases in which neuroergonomics
can be of real and non-replaceable use in HCI. On the other
hand much of the research is still in a very early stage com-
pared to the cognitive paradigms.
Sixth, the development of information and communication
technologies—first groupware and now especially web and
recently mobile technologies—have opened new forms of com -
munication and collaboration between people. On an elementar y
level one may focus on the effects of group parameters such as
size when performing a basic interaction task such as searching
information from a display. Forlines and colleagues (2006), for
example, noticed that groups may be slower in searching in-
formation from a display but they are 10-15% more accurate
than individuals. On a higher level it is possible to investigate
motivational and dynamic factors for users interacting in groups
( B ackstrom et al., 2006; Beenen et al., 2004; Malone &
Crowst on, 1994). Sociometric analyses (Lindzey & Borgatta,
1954) and many other ways of studying groups have been taken
in use again. In general, group-level concepts can be used both
in analyzing interaction phenomena as well as in explaining the
forms they get. In a narrow sense, interaction means immediate
interaction with a screen and controls, but, in a wider sense, it is
essential to analyze also how groups of people organize their
actions when mediated by technology (Grudin, 1994).
Seventh, beyond the group level, cultural issues are on the
radar of user psychology as well. Humans are essentially cul-
tural creatures. There are numerous questions in computer use
that must be resolved by referring to culture, such as values,
communication practices, and cultural norms. We have to be
able to discriminate important subcultures and the ways they
see computer use, to be able to serve all segments of users.
Women, for example, form their own subcultural group in web
cultures (Frieze, Hazzan, Blum, & Dias, 2006). One additional
resource can be provided by cross-cultural psychology with its
long tradition of conceptual and empirical analyses of human
cultures (Cole, 1991; E kman, 2003; Hofstede, 1984; Matsumo-
to, 1996). There are much fewer obstacles now for communica-
tion between people of different countries and districts than
there have been during previous centuries. This means that
there are new ways of group formation in society and one can
participate with very different types of groups. Choi et al.
(2005), for example, reported a comparative crosscultural in-
vestigation concerning design norms for mobile data services.
In-depth interviews were conducted in Korea, Japan, and Finland,
to find a number of culturally explainable differences between
users. The most important of the differences were found in
uncertainty avoidance, individualism vs. collectivism, and con-
text, which could be linked with such usability features as va-
riety of options, contents, the use of colors, and iconic style.
Wider reference groups that are characterized by such attributes
as nationality, ethnicity, values, beliefs, living conditions, so-
cial order, or religious group will also become important in user
psychological analyses. Bourges-Waldegg and Scrivener (1998)
investigated multicultural CSCW and noticed that understand-
ing differences in representations forms a major design chal-
lenge. They very justly called attention to analysis of meanings
underlying cultural representations. One can also find numerous
subcultures within one’s own society. Age, work organization,
profession, wealth or education differences can culturally di-
vide people. Even a larger context for socio-cultural human-
technology interaction is proposed by Rauterberg (2006), who
sees socio-cultural computing as the new paradigm emerging
amongst the traditional personal and cooperative computing.
We have presented existent and emerging explanatory frame-
works referring to such subdisciplines as cognitive psychology,
neuroscience, personality, social psychology, and (cross cul-
tural psychology. Today we have a wealth of knowledge about
basic psychological phenomena, and the mission of user psy-
chology is to organize and translate the various types of know-
ledge into coherent wholes that can work as a reference in
solving problems. Alas, we do not yet have a unified psychol-
ogy, and psychological research areas are very different from
each other. For example, the limited capacity of working mem-
ory can be used to solve some interaction questions, while the
psychology of emotions is applicable to very different types of
problems. It is true that these fields have some connection points
such as the Yerkes-Dodson’s law, but still the two frameworks
can and should be used in solving very different types of prob-
lems. Consequently, it would be self-handicapping to adopt as
the main goal a unified theory of user psychology. User psy-
chological explanatory frameworks must be and are being built
on the basis of many types of psychological knowle dge.
Conclusion: The New Role of Psychology in I CT
The sheer scale of technological development over the mil-
lennia has been astonishing. Once-innovative technologies be-
came either obsolete or mundane elements of everyday con-
temporary life as human societies progressed. The technologi-
cal developments of especially the last decade have dramati-
cally altered most humans’ way of life. Interaction with objects
and people is not direct anymore, if it ever was, but increasing-
ly requires interaction with computers manifested as hardware
of all kinds and, more recently, software. It would not be an
exaggeration to view humans as standing at the cusp of pro-
found social changes that are in line with those following the
invention of writing or the steam engine. Therefore, now is a
good time to stop for a moment and ponder the forces that make
such new developments possible.
For decades it has been sufficient to intuitively imagine hu-
man interaction with new services. Today, however, it is ne-
cessary to admit that mere intuitions have not given us a suffi-
ciently deep enough understanding of the human mind and
social roles to enable us to design really good technical prod-
ucts for people. Scientists working with the human mind and
society have naturally known for a long time that simple intui-
tions and lay science do not provide technologists with an ac-
curate understanding of people. This is why psychology, soci-
ology, anthropology, and other human sciences have developed
sophisticated observations, concepts, and theories that make it
easier for specialists to understand better human being.
We have proposed user psychology as an explanatory prob-
lem-solving science contributing to the development and so-
cietal use of interactive technology. A hundred and fifty years
of scientific psychology has developed a deep understanding of
the regularities and principles of human mind. We understand
much about emotions, motives, thinking, psychology of lan-
guage and social processes. To an outsider, it may seem un-
P. SAARILUOMA & A. OUL ASVIR TA
problematic to expect that psychological knowledge in all of its
breadth and depth should form a basis for modern information
technology and that interaction should be designed on the ground
of professional psychology. Nevertheless, the difficulties in
applying psychology in industry have been known for a long
time. The links between psychological knowledge and con-
structive processes have not met each other in an ideal manner
(Carroll, 1991, 1997). The purpose of this paper has been to
search for solutions to some foundational issues that we think
underlie these problems. We have repurposed the classic con-
cept of user psychology, suggesting a number of new elabora-
tions to it (Moran, 1981).
The need to reformulate user psychology has arisen, because
original formulations have been found limited and no compre-
hensive alternatives have been proposed. The information
processing model of human cognition is mechanical, because it
assumes that each act is a consequence of the prevailing states
and state histories. The activity theory and related ideas have
not been able to host contemporary psychological work due to
their unwillingness to accept internal mechanisms of mind as
the explanatory base. Building on earlier mainstream ontologies,
we have taken the human being as an intentional creature to the
subject of inquiry in this discipline. Instead of activity, we talk
about intentional action with interactive technology.
By doing this, we have tried to address two unfortunate con-
sequences of the previous formulations of psychological re-
search in this area. First, it has been recognized that psycholog-
ical research has fragmented into niches that—notwithstanding
few promising exceptions—have been defined by technological
boundaries (Carroll, 1997; Olson & Olson, 2003). User psy-
chology should be formulated around psychological questions
so that we can merge these fragments over artificial boundaries.
This is the essence of what “putting the user first” means for a
scientist. Secondly, user psychology is needed for replacing the
folk-psychological thinking by scientific psychology and its
principles. Current folk-psychological practice simply does not
accumulate—the same things are being repeated in a frustrating
cycle. Explanatory practices should replace seat-of-the-pants
thinking. However, finding explanations to particular problems
can also be regarded as search for the most suitable form of
Thus far, the development of technology has belonged to en-
gineers and computer scientists, who relatively seldom have
in-depth knowledge of psychological phenomena and know-
ledge. Consequently, psychological knowledge has been
brought to the picture only after devices or platforms have al-
ready been built. The question is if we could do better. We
expect user psychology to contribute to earlier stages of devel-
opment. For example, usability research with its interest in
immediate suitability of technology for human action is ulti-
mately a conservative form of possible psychological perspec-
tives. What we could do is to turn this thinking upside-down by
first designing human actions and after that asking what kinds
of technologies would be useful. At first blush, this does not
sound like news to researchers trained in user-centered de-
s ign—it is known that the earlier psychological knowledge can
be taken as a part of action analysis, the better human require-
ments can be implemented to interaction. However, we claim
that user psychology can a) do this work more systematically
than approaches that rely on folk psychology and b) it can help
us systematically examine the very premise that technology is
needed in the first place.
However, we do not expect user psychology to be easy. In
the short term, it is time-consuming to deal with psychological
knowledge compared to running a simple study. But this is the
only way out of the method of trial and error. Moreover, getting
psychologists interested in “applied psychology” may be diffi-
cult. Relatively few psychologists are seriously interested in
“technical issues” as they have hands full with traditional prob-
lems within departmental focus areas, such as education, mental
illnesses, family violence etc. However, we see the possible
rewards motivating enough that solutions can be found. Tech-
nology has become so pervasive an aspect of modern life that
its relationship with human mind deserves the status of a basic
research question and its own discipline. Psychology of com-
puter use should not be the handmaiden of technologists but
define itself by its own terms.
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