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Human-centered Explainable AI: Towards a Reflective Sociotechnical Approach

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Explanations-a form of post-hoc interpretability-play an instrumental role in making systems accessible as AI continues to proliferate complex and sensitive sociotechnical systems. In this paper, we introduce Human-centered Explainable AI (HCXAI) as an approach that puts the human at the center of technology design. It develops a holis-tic understanding of "who" the human is by considering the interplay of values, interpersonal dynamics, and the socially situated nature of AI systems. In particular, we advocate for a reflective sociotechnical approach. We illustrate HCXAI through a case study of an explanation system for non-technical end-users that shows how technical advancements and the understanding of human factors co-evolve. Building on the case study, we lay out open research questions pertaining to further refining our understanding of "who" the human is and extending beyond 1-to-1 human-computer interactions. Finally, we propose that a reflective HCXAI paradigm-mediated through the perspective of Critical Technical Practice and supplemented with strategies from HCI, such as value-sensitive design and participatory design-not only helps us understand our intellectual blind spots, but it can also open up new design and research spaces.
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Human-centered Explainable AI: Towards a
Reflective Sociotechnical Approach
Upol Ehsan and Mark O. Riedl
Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta, GA 30308, USA
ehsanu@gatech.edu, riedl@cc.gatech.edu
Abstract. Explanations—a form of post-hoc interpretability—play an
instrumental role in making systems accessible as AI continues to pro-
liferate complex and sensitive sociotechnical systems. In this paper, we
introduce Human-centered Explainable AI (HCXAI) as an approach that
puts the human at the center of technology design. It develops a holis-
tic understanding of “who” the human is by considering the interplay
of values, interpersonal dynamics, and the socially situated nature of
AI systems. In particular, we advocate for a reflective sociotechnical ap-
proach. We illustrate HCXAI through a case study of an explanation
system for non-technical end-users that shows how technical advance-
ments and the understanding of human factors co-evolve. Building on
the case study, we lay out open research questions pertaining to fur-
ther refining our understanding of “who” the human is and extending
beyond 1-to-1 human-computer interactions. Finally, we propose that a
reflective HCXAI paradigm—mediated through the perspective of Criti-
cal Technical Practice and supplemented with strategies from HCI, such
as value-sensitive design and participatory design—not only helps us un-
derstand our intellectual blind spots, but it can also open up new design
and research spaces.
Keywords: Explainable AI, rationale generation, user perception, inter-
pretability, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Critical Technical
Practice, sociotechnical, Human-centered Computing
1 Introduction
From healthcare to finances, human resources to immigration services, many
powerful yet “black-boxed” Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems have been de-
ployed in consequential settings. This ubiquitous deployment creates an acute
need to make AI systems understandable and explainable [5,7,8,12,25]. Explain-
able AI (XAI) refers to artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques
that can provide human-understandable justification for their output behavior.
Much of the previous and current work on explainable AI has focused on inter-
pretability, which we view as a property of machine-learned models that dictates
the degree to which a human user—AI expert or non-expert user—can come
2 Ehsan & Riedl
to conclusions about the performance of the model given specific inputs. Expla-
nation generation, on the other hand, can be described as a form of post-hoc
interpretability [30,32,34,41]. An important distinction between interpretability
and explanation generation is that explanation does not necessarily elucidate
precisely how a model works but aims to provide useful information for practi-
tioners and users in an accessible manner.
While the letters “HCI” might not appear in “XAI”, explainability in AI is as
much of a Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) problem as it is an AI problem,
if not more. Yet, the human side of the equation is often lost in the technical
discourse of XAI. Implicit in Explainable AI is the question: “explainable to
whom?” In fact, the challenges of designing and evaluating “black-boxed” AI
systems depends crucially on “who” the human in the loop is. Understanding
the “who” is crucial because it governs what the explanation requirements for
a given problem. It also scopes how the data is collected, what data can be
collected, and the most effective way of describing the why behind an action. For
instance: with self-driving cars, the engineer may have different requirements of
explainability than the rider in that car. As we move from AI to XAI and recenter
our focus on the human—through Human-centered XAI (HCXAI)—the need
to refine our understanding of the “who” increases. As the domain of HCXAI
evolves, so must our epistemological stances and methodological approaches.
Consequential technological systems, from law enforcement to healthcare, are
almost always embedded in a rich tapestry of social relationships. If we ignore
the socially situated nature of our technical systems, we will only get a partial
and unsatisfying picture of the “who”.
In this paper, we focus on unpacking “who” the human is in Human-centered
Explainable AI and advocate for a sociotechnical approach. We argue that, in
order to holistically understand the socially situated nature of XAI systems, we
need to incorporate both social and technical elements. This sociotechnical ap-
proach can help us critically reflect or contemplate on implicit or unconscious
values embedded in computing practices so that we can understand our episte-
mological blind spots. Such contemplation—or reflection—can bring unconscious
or implicit values and practices to conscious awareness, making them actionable.
As a result, we can design and evaluate technology in a way that is sensitive to
the values of both designers and stakeholders.
We begin by using a case study in Section 2, to delineate how the two
strands of HCXAI—technological development and the understanding of hu-
man factors—evolve together. The case study focuses on both the technological
development and the human factors of how non-expert users perceive different
styles of automatically-generated rationales from an AI agent [19,20]. In Sec-
tion 3, using the insights from the study, we share future research directions
that demand a sociotechnical lens of study. Finally, in Section 4, we introduce
the notion of a Reflective HCXAI paradigm and outline how it facilitates the
sociotechnical stance. We overview related concepts, share strategies, and con-
textualize them by using scenarios. We conclude by delineating the challenges of
a reflective approach and presenting a call-to-action to the research community.
Human-centered Explainable AI 3
2 Case Study: Rationale Generation
The case study is based on our approach of post-hoc explanation generation
called rationale generation, a process of producing a natural language rationale
for agent behavior as if a human had performed the behavior and verbalized
their inner monologue (for details, please refer to our papers [19,20]). The main
goal for this section is to highlight the meta-narrative of our HCXAI journey;
in particular, how the two processes—technological development in XAI and
understanding of human-factors—co-evolve. Specifically, we will see how our
understanding of human factors improve over time.
As an analogy while we go through the two phases of the case study, consider a
low-resolution picture, say 16×16 pixels, that gets updated to a higher resolution
photo, say 256 ×256 pixels, of the same subject matter. Not only does better
technology (in our analogy, a better camera) afford a higher resolution image, but
the high-resolution image also captures details previously undetectable, which,
when detected broadens our perspective and facilitates new areas of interest.
For instance, we might want to zoom in on a particular part of the picture that
requires a different sensor. Had we not been able to broaden our perspective
and incorporate things previously undetectable, we would not have realized the
technical needs for a future sensor. As we can see, the two things—the camera
technology and our perspective of the subject matter— build on each other and
co-evolve. For the rest of the section, we will provide a brief overview of rationale
generation, especially its technical and philosophical underpinnings. Finally, we
will share key takeaways from the two phases of the case study. For fine-grained
empirical details, please refer to [19,20].
With this narrative of co-evolution in mind, let us look at the philosophical
and technical intuitions behind rationale generation. The philosophical intuition
behind rationale generation is that humans can engage in effective communica-
tion by verbalizing plausible motivations for their actions, even when the ver-
balized reasoning does not have a consciously-accessible neural correlate of the
decision-making process [22,10,9]. Whereas an explanation can be in any commu-
nication modality, we view rationales as natural language explanations. Natural
language is arguably the most accessible modality of explanation. However, since
rationales are natural language explanations, there is a level of abstraction be-
tween the words that are generated and the inner workings of an intelligent sys-
tem. This motivates a range of research questions pertaining to how the choice of
words for the generated rationale affect human factors such as confidence in the
agent’s decision, understandability,human-likeness,explanatory power,tolerance
to failure, and perceived intelligence.
From a technical perspective, rationale generation is treated as the problem
of translating the internal state and action representations into natural lan-
guage using computational methods. It is fast, sacrificing an accurate view of
the agent’s decision-making process for a real-time response, making it appro-
priate for real-time human-agent collaboration [20]. In our case study, we use a
deep neural network trained on human explanations—specifically a neural ma-
chine translation approach [31]—to explain the decisions of an AI agent that
4 Ehsan & Riedl
Fig. 1: A screenshot of the game Frogger. The green frog Frogger, seen in the
middle of the image, wins if it can successfully reach the goal (yellow landing
spots) at the top of the screen.
plays the game of Frogger. In the game, Frogger (the frog, controlled by the
player) has to avoid traffic and hop on logs to cross the river in order to reach
its goal at the top of the screen, shown in Figure 1. Frogger can be thought of as
a gamified abstraction of a sequential decision-making task, requiring the player
to think ahead in order to choose a good action. Furthermore, sequential tasks
are typically overlooked in explainable AI research. We trained a reinforcement
learning algorithm to play the game, not because it was difficult for the AI to
play but because reinforcement learning algorithms are non-intuitive to non-
experts, even though the game is simple enough for people to learn and apply
their own intuitions.
Having contextualized the approach, we will break the case study into two
main phases. For ease of comparison in the co-evolution, we will cover the
same topics for both phases—namely, data collection and corpus creation, neu-
ral translation model configuration, and evaluation. Table 3, at the end of this
section, summarizes each aspect and provides a side-by-side comparison of the
two phases.
2.1 Phase 1: Technological Feasibility & Baseline Plausibility
In the first stage of the project [19], our goal was an existence proof—to show that
we could generate satisfactory rationales, treating the problem of explanation
generation as a translation problem. At this stage, the picture of the human or
end-user was not well-defined by construction because we did not even have the
technology to probe and understand them.
Data Collection and Corpus Creation There is no readily-available dataset
for the task of learning to generate explanations. Thus, we had to create one.
We developed a methodology to remotely collect live “think-aloud” data from
players as they played through a game of Frogger (our sequential environment).
Human-centered Explainable AI 5
To get a corpus of coordinated game states, actions, and explanations, we built
a modified version of Frogger in which players simultaneously play the game and
explain each of their actions.
In the first phase, 12 participants provided a total of 225 action-rationale
pairs of gameplay. To create a training corpus appropriate for the neural net-
work, we used these action-rationale annotations to construct a grammar for
procedurally-generating synthetic sentences, grounded in natural language. This
grammar used a set of rules based on in-game behavior of the Frogger agent to
generate rationales that resemble the crowd-sourced data previously gathered.
This entails that our corpus for Phase 1 was semi-synthetic in that it contained
both natural and synthetic action-rationale pairs.
Neural Model Configuration We use a 2-layered encoder-decoder recurrent
neural network (RNN) [4,31] with attention to teach our network to generate
relevant natural language explanations for any given action (for details, see [19]).
These kinds of networks are commonly used for machine translation tasks (trans-
lating from one natural language to another), but their ability to understand
sequential dependencies between the input and the output make them suitable
for explanation generation in sequential domains as well.
Empirically, we found that a limited, 7×7, window for observation around
a reinforcement learning agent using tabular Q-learning [39] leads to effective
gameplay. We gave the rationale generator the same 7×7observation window
that the agent needs to learn to play. We refer to this configuration of the
rationale generator as the focused-view generator.
Evaluation For this phase, the evaluation was part procedural- and part human-
based. For the procedural evaluation, we used BLEU [33] scores–a metric often
used in machine translation tasks–with a 0.7 accuracy cutoff. Since the grammar
contained rules that govern when certain rationales are generated, it allowed
us to compare automatically-generated rationales against a ground truth. We
found that our approach significantly outperformed both rationales generated
by a random model and a majority classifier for environments with different
obstacle densities [19].
With the accuracy of the rationales established via procedural evaluation,
we needed to see if these rationales were satisfactory from a human-centered
perspective. On the human evaluation side, we used a mixed-methods approach
where 53 participants watched videos of 3 AI agents explaining their actions in
different styles. After watching the videos, participants ranked their satisfaction
with the rationales given by each of the three agents and justified their choice
in their own words. We found that our system produced rationales with the
highest level of user-satisfaction. Qualitative analysis also revealed important
components of “satisfaction” such as explanatory power that were important for
participants’ confidence in the agent, the rationale’s perceived relatability (or
humanlike-ness), and understandability.
6 Ehsan & Riedl
Fig. 2: The rationale col-
lection process. (1) Game
pauses after each action.
(2) Automated speech recog-
nition transcribes the ratio-
nale. (3) Participants can
view and edit the transcribed
rationales.
Fig. 3: The rationale review process where play-
ers can step-through each of their action-rationale
pairs and edit if necessary. (1) Players can watch
an action-replay while editing rationales. (2) But-
tons control the flow of the step-through process.
(3) Rationale for the current action gets high-
lighted for review.
To summarize, the goal of this first phase was an existence proof of the
technical feasibility of generating rationales. We learned that our neural machine
translation approach produced accurate rationales and that humans found them
satisfactory. Not only did this phase inspire us to build on the technical side,
but the understanding of the human factors also helped us design better human-
based evaluations for the next phase.
2.2 Phase 2: Technological Evolution & Human-centered
Plausibility
Phase 2 [20] is about taking the training wheels off and making the XAI sys-
tem more human-centered. Everything builds on our learnings from Phase 1.
Here, you will see how the data collection and corpus is human-centered and
non-synthetic, how our network produces two styles of rationales, and how our
evaluation was entirely human-based.
Data Collection and Corpus Creation We expanded the data collection
paradigm introduced in phase 1. For phase 2, we built another modified version
of Frogger that facilitates a human-centered approach and generates a corpus
that is entirely natural-language–based (no synthetic-grammar–generated sen-
tences). We split the data collection into three phases: (1) a guided tutorial,
(2) rationale collection, and (3) transcribed explanation review. The guided tu-
torial ensured that users are familiar with the interface and its use before they
began providing explanations. For rationale collection, participants engaged in
a turn-taking experience where they observed an action and then explained it
Human-centered Explainable AI 7
Table 1: Examples of different rationales generated for the same game action.
Action Focused-view Complete-view
Right I had cars to the left and
in front of me so I needed
to move to the right to
avoid them.
I moved right to be more centered. This way
I have more time to react if a car comes
from either side.
Up The path in front of me
was clear so it was safe for
me to move forward.
I moved forward making sure that the truck
won't hit me so I can move forward one
spot.
Left I move to the left so I can
jump onto the next log.
I moved to the left because it looks like the
logs and top or not going to reach me in
time, and I'm going to jump off if the law
goes to the right of the screen.
while the game is paused (Figure 2). While thinking out loud, an automatic
speech recognition library [1] transcribed the utterances, substantially reducing
participant burden and making the flow more natural than having to type down
their utterances. Upon game play completion, the players reviewed all action-
explanation pairs in a global context by replaying each action (Figure 3). We
deployed our data collection pipeline on Turk Prime (a wrapper over Amazon
Mechanical Turk) and collected over 2000 unconstrained action-rationale pairs
from 60 participants.
Neural Model Configuration We use the same encoder-decoder RNN as in
phase 1, but this time, we varied the input configurations with the intention of
producing varying styles of rationales to experiment with different strategies for
rationale generation. Last time, we deployed just one configuration, the focused-
view configuration. This focused-view configuration accurately reflects what the
agent is considering, leading to concise rationales due to the limitation of data
the agent had available for rationale generation. To contrast this, we formulated
a second complete-view configuration that gives the rationale generator the abil-
ity to use all information on the screen. We speculated that this configuration
would produce more detailed, holistic rationales and use state information that
the algorithm is not considering. See Table 1 for example rationales generated
by our system. However, it remains to be seen if these configurations produce
perceptibly different rationales to users who do not have any idea of the inner
workings of the neural network. We evaluated the alignment between the up-
stream algorithmic decisions and downstream user effects using the user studies
described below.
Evaluation For phase 2, the evaluation of the XAI system was entirely qualita-
tive, human-based analysis. We conducted two user studies: the first establishes
that, when compared against baselines, both network configurations produce
plausible outputs; the second establishes if the outputs are indeed perceptibly
8 Ehsan & Riedl
Fig. 4: User study screenshot depicting
the action and the rationales: P = Ran-
dom (lower baseline), Q = Exemplary
(higher baseline), R = Our model (Can-
didate)
Fig. 5: Emergent relationship be-
tween the dimensions (left) and com-
ponents (right) of user perceptions
and preference
different to “na¨ıve” users who are unaware of the neural architecture and ex-
plores contextual user preferences. In both user studies, participants watched
videos where the agent is taking a series of actions and “thinking out loud” in
different styles (see Figure 4 for implementation details).
The first user study established the viability of generated rationales, situ-
ating user perception along the dimensions of confidence, human-likeness, ad-
equate justification, and understandability. We adapted these constructs from
our findings in phase 1, technology acceptance models (e.g., UTAUT) [38,14],
and related research in HCI [13,29,6]. Analyzing the qualitative data, we found
emergent components that speak to each dimension; see [20] for details of the
analysis. For confidence, participants found that contextual accuracy, awareness,
and strategic detail are important in order to have faith in the agent’s ability to
do its task. Whether the generated rationales appear to be made by a human
(human-likeness) depended on their intelligibility, relatability, and strategic de-
tail. In terms of explanatory power (adequate justification), participants prefer
rationales with high levels of contextual accuracy and awareness. For the ratio-
nales to convey the agent’s motivations and foster understandability, they need
high levels of contextual accuracy and relatability (see Figure 5 for a mapping
and Table 2 for definitions of these components).
In the second user study, we found that there is alignment between the in-
tended differences in features of the generated rationales and the perceived dif-
ferences by users. Without any knowledge beyond what is shown on the video,
they described the difference in the styles of the rationales in a way that was con-
sistent with the intended differences between them. This finding is an important
secondary validation of how upstream algorithmic changes in neural network
configuration lead to the desired user effects downstream.
The second user study also explores user preferences between the focused-
view and complete-view rationales along three dimensions: confidence in the
autonomous agent, communication of failure and unexpected behavior. We found
that, context permitting, participants preferred detailed rationales so that they
can form a stable mental model of the agent’s behavior.
Human-centered Explainable AI 9
Table 2: Descriptions for the emergent components underlying the human-factor di-
mensions of the generated rationales (See [20] for further details).
Component Description
Contextual Accuracy Accurately describes pertinent events in the context
of the environment.
Intelligibility Typically error-free and is coherent in terms of both
grammar and sentence structure.
Awareness Depicts and adequate understanding of the rules of
the environment.
Relatability Expresses the justification of the action in a relatable
manner and style.
Strategic Detail Exhibits strategic thinking, foresight, and planning.
2.3 Summary
As we wrap up our case study overview, we want to underscore how technology
development and understanding of human factors co-evolve together. In the fol-
lowing section, we will see how the foundation laid by the case study generates
new areas of research, enabling a “turn to the sociotechnical” for the HCXAI
paradigm.
3 What’s Next: Turn to the Sociotechnical
At first glance, it may appear that a case-study using Frogger is not repre-
sentative of a real-world XAI system. However, therein lies a deeper point—
considering issues of fairness, accountability, and transparency of sociotechnical
systems, it is risky to directly test out these systems in mission-critical domains
without a formative and substantive understanding of the human factors around
XAI systems. By conducting the case study in a controlled setting as a first step,
we obtain a formative understanding of the technical and human sides, which
can then be utilized to better implement such systems in the wild. Subsequent
empirical and theoretical work can then build on any transferable insights from
this work.
Building on our insights, we will outline two areas of investigation and share
preliminary challenges and opportunities: (1) Perception differences due to users’
backgrounds, and (2) Social signals and explanations. These areas are by no
means exhaustive; rather, these are ones that have come to light from our case
study. It’s important to note here that, without the formative insights from
multiple phases of our case study, the depth and richness of the research areas
would not have been obvious. That is, while we considered multiple end-users
(developers, non AI-experts, etc.), the case study’s findings highlighted further
non-obvious striations in the technical and social aspects of human perceptions
of XAI.
10 Ehsan & Riedl
Table 3: Side-by-side comparison of each phase in the case study
Phase 1 Phase 2
Data Collection 225 action-rationale annota-
tions from 12 people
Over 2000 action-rationale an-
notations from 60 people
Corpus Semi-synthetic grammar on
top of natural language
Fully unconstrained natural
language; no grammar
Neural Network
Configuration
Only one setup: focused-view,
a7×7window around the
agent
Two configurations: focused-
view and complete-view de-
signed to produce concise vs.
detailed rationales
Evaluation Part procedural; part human-
based evaluation along one di-
mension – satisfaction of ex-
planation
Full human-based evaluation
with metrics defining plausi-
bility against baselines using
two studies
Key Lessons The technique works to pro-
duce accurate rationales that
are satisfactory to humans.
User study insights help un-
pack what it means to be “sat-
isfactory”, which enables the
next generation of systems in
Phase 2.
Both configurations produce
plausible rationales that are
perceptibly different to end-
users. User studies further re-
veal underlying components
of user perceptions and pref-
erences, refining our under-
standing of “who” the human
is.
3.1 Perception differences due to users’ backgrounds
How do people of different professional and epistemic backgrounds perceive the
same XAI system? Do their backgrounds impact their perception? These ques-
tions came from the observation that explanations, by definition, are context-
sensitive. The who governs how the why is most effectively conveyed. Moreover,
qualitative data analysis in our case study also hinted that people’s professional
and educational backgrounds impact their perception of explanations. The dif-
ferences in perception were salient namely in the dimensions of confidence and
understandability. These differences were particularly remarkable for people who
were familiar with the technical side of computing compared to ones who were
not. This observation sparked the question: what might be the different explain-
ability needs for end-users with different backgrounds? How might we go about
teasing this apart?
From a methodological standpoint, we can run user studies similar to that
in our case studies to get a formative understanding of how backgrounds impact
perception and preferences of XAI systems. For instance, we can provide the
same explanation to two related yet different groups (e.g., engineers vs. lay-
riders of self-driving cars) and investigate if and how their backgrounds impact
perception and preferences.
Human-centered Explainable AI 11
3.2 Social signals and explanations
What roles might social signals, especial ly in a team-based collaborative setting,
play in HCXAI? How might we embed social transparency into our systems in or-
der to facilitate user actions? This research interest stems from the observation
that we seldom find consequential AI systems in isolated settings where only one
human interacts with the machine. Rather, most systems are socially situated
in organizational settings involving teams of people engaging in collaborative
decision-making. How will our design evolve as we move beyond the 1-1 human-
computer interaction paradigm? When we talk about a paradigm beyond the 1-1
human-computer interaction, we are referring to situations where the collabora-
tive decision-making and relationships of multiple individuals in an organization
or a team are mediated through technology. The scenario is complex now be-
cause we have two types of relationships to consider: the type that is between the
machine and the humans as well as the interdependent accountability amongst
different kinds of stakeholders.
Let us consider the following scenario: In an IT setting, Cloud Solutions ar-
chitects often need to make purchasing decisions around Virtual Machine (VM)
instances that help the organization run online, mission-critical services on the
cloud. There are real costs of “wrong-sizing” the VM instance—if you under-
estimate, the company’s system might become overloaded and crash; if you
overestimate, the company wastes valuable monetary resources. Moreover, there
are teams of people who are secondary and tertiary stakeholders of the VM
instances. Suppose an AI system recommends certain parameters for the VM
instances to a single Solutions architect who is accountable to and responsible
for the other stakeholders. The AI system also provides “technical” explanations
by contextualizing the recommendation with past usage data analytics. Given
the interpersonal and professional accountability risks, is technical explainability
enough to give the engineer the confidence to accept the AI’s recommendation?
Or does the explanation need to incorporate the embedded, interconnected na-
ture of stakeholders such as the use of social signals? Social signals here can be
thought of as digital footprints that provide context of the team’s perspective
on the collaborative decision-making; for instance, stakeholders can give a “+1”
or an upvote on the recommendation.
From a methodological perspective, we can design between-subject user stud-
ies where we measure the perceptions of collaborative decision-making. One
group would only get technical explanations while the other group gets both
social and technical signals. We can simulate the aforementioned scenario and
measure how confident each group is in their decisions to act on the right-sizing
recommendations.
3.3 Summary: Socially Situated XAI Systems
In considering these research directions, we should appreciate the value of con-
trolled user studies in generating formative insights. However, if we ignore the
socially situated nature of our technical systems, we will only get a partial,
12 Ehsan & Riedl
unsatisfying picture of the “who”. Therefore, enhancing the current paradigm
with sociotechnical approaches is a necessary step. This is because consequential
technological systems are almost always embedded in a rich tapestry of social re-
lationships. Take, for example, the aforementioned scenario with right-sizing VM
instances. Our on-going work has shown that the organizational culture and its
perception of AI-systems strongly impacts people’s confidence to act on machine-
driven recommendations, no matter how technically explainable they are. Any
organizational environment carries its own socio-political assumptions and bi-
ases that influence technology use [37]. Understanding the rich social factors sur-
rounding the technical system may be as equally important to the adoption of
explanation technologies as the technology itself. Designing for the sociotechnical
dynamics will require us to understand the rich, contextual, human experience
where meaning-making is constructed at the point of interaction between the
human and the machine. But how might we go about it? We will need to think
of ways to critically reflect on methodological and conceptual challenges. In the
following section, we lay out some strategies to handle these conceptual blocks.
4 Human-centered XAI, Critical Technical Practice, and
the Sociotechnical Lens
The prior section highlights the socially situated nature of XAI systems that de-
mand a sociotechnical approach of analysis. With each hypothesis and technical
advancement, the resolution of “who” the human is improved. As the metaphori-
cal picture of the user became clearer, other people and objects in the background
have also come into perspective. The newfound perspective demands the abil-
ity to incorporate all parties into the picture. It also informs the technological
development needs of the next generation of refinement in our understanding
of the “who”. As the domain of HCXAI evolves, so must our epistemological
stances and methodological approaches. Currently, there is not a singular path
to construct the sociotechnical lens and nor should there be given the complex-
ity and richness of human connections. However, we have a rich foundation of
prior work both in AI and HCI that will help us get there. In developing the
sociotechnical lens of HCXAI, we are particularly inspired by prior work from
Sengers et al. [36], Dourish et al. [16,17], and Friedman et al. [24]
In particular, we believe that viewing HCXAI through the perspective of a
Critical Technical Practice (CTP) will foster the grounds for a reflective HCXAI.
CTP [2,3] encourages us to question the core assumptions and metaphors of a
field of practice, critically reflect on them to overcome impasses, and generate
new questions and hypotheses. By reflection, we refer to “critical reflection [that]
brings unconscious aspects of experience to conscious awareness, thereby making
them available for conscious choice” [36].
Our perspective on reflection is grounded in critical theory [28,21] and in-
spired by Sengers et al.’s notion of Reflective Design [36]. We recognize that
the lens through which we look at and reason about the world is shaped by our
conscious and, more importantly, unconscious values and assumptions. These
Human-centered Explainable AI 13
values, in turn, become embedded into the lens of our technological practices
and design. By bringing the unconscious experience to our conscious awareness,
critical reflection not only allows us to look through the lens, but also at it.
A reflective HCXAI creates the necessary intellectual space to make progress
through conceptual and technical impasses while the metamorphosis of the field
takes place. Given that the story of XAI has just begun, it would be prema-
ture to attempt a full treatise of human-centered XAI. However, we can begin
with two key properties of a reflective HCXAI: (1) a domain that is critically
reflective of (implicit) assumptions and practices of the field, and (2) one that
is value-sensitive to both users and designers.
In the rest of this section, we will provide relevant background about CTP,
how it allows HCXAI to be reflective, why it is useful, and complimentary strate-
gies from related fields that can help us build the sociotechnical lens. We will also
contextualize the theoretical proposal with a scenario and share the affordances
in explainability we gain by viewing HCXAI as a Critical Technical Practice. We
conclude the section with challenges of a reflective HCXAI.
4.1 Reflective HCXAI using a Critical Technical Practice Lens
The notion of Critical Technical Practice was pioneered by AI researcher Phil
Agre in his 1997 book, Computation and Human Experience [3]. CTP encourages
us to question the core assumptions and metaphors of a field and critically
reflect on them in order to overcome impasses in that field. In short, there are
four main components of the perspective: (i) identify the core metaphors and
assumptions of the field, (ii) notice what aspects become marginalized when
working within those assumptions, (iii) bring the marginalized aspects to the
center of attention, and (iv) develop technology and practices to embody the
previously-marginalized components as alternative technology. Using the CTP
perspective, Agre critiqued the dominant narrative in AI at the time, namely
abstract models of cognition, and brought situated embodiment central to AI’s
perspective on intelligence. By challenging the core metaphor, they successfully
opened a space for AI that led to advancements in the new “situated action”
paradigm [37].
In our case, we can use the CTP perspective to reflect on and question
some of the dominant metaphors in Explainable AI. This reflection can expand
our design space by helping us identify aspects that have been marginalized or
overlooked. For instance, one of the dominant narratives in XAI makes it appear
as though interpretability and explainability are model-centered problems, which
is where a lot of current attention is rightfully invested. However, our experiences
while broadening the lens of XAI has led us to reflect on explainability, leading
to an important question: where does the “ability” in explain-ability lie? Is it a
property of the model or of the human interpreting it, or is it a combination of
the two? What if we switch the ‘‘ability” in interpretability or explainability to
the human? Or perhaps there is a middle ground where meaning is co-creatively
manifested at the point of action between the machine and the human? By
enabling critical reflections on core assumptions and impulses in the field, the
14 Ehsan & Riedl
CTP perspective can be the lighthouse that guides us as we embark on a reflective
HCXAI journey and navigate through the design space.
There are three main affordances of the CTP approach in HCXAI. First,
the perspective allows traversal of the marginalized insights —in this case the
human-centered side of XAI—to come to the center, which can open new design
areas previously undetected or under-explored. Second, the critical reflection
mindset can enable designers to think of new ways to understand human factors.
It can also empower users with new interaction capabilities that promote their
voices in technologies, which, in turn, can improve our understanding of “who”
the human is in HCXAI. Take, for instance, our understanding of user trust. To
foster trust, a common impulse is to aim for the “positive” direction and nudge
the human to find the machine’s explanation plausible and to accept it. As our
case study shows, this is certainly a viable route. However, should that be the
only route? That is, should this impulse for user-agreeableness be the only way
to understand this human factor of trust? In certain contexts, like fake news
detection, might we be better off by designing to evoke reasonable skepticism
and critical reflection in the user? Since no model is perfect at all times, we
cannot expect generated explanations to always be correct. Thus, creating the
space for users to voice their skepticism or disagreement not only empowers
new forms of interaction, but also allows the user to become sensitive to the
limitations of AI systems. Expanding the ways we reason about fostering trust
can create a design perspective that is not only reflective but is also pragmatic.
Third, critical reflection can help us defamiliarize and decolonize our thinking
from the dominant narratives, helping us to not only look “through” but also
“at” the sociotechnical lens of analysis.
4.2 Strategies to Operationalize Critical Technical Practice in
HCXAI
To operationalize the CTP perspective, we can incorporate rich strategies from
other methodological traditions rooted in HCI, critical studies, and philosophy
such as participatory design [11,18], value-sensitive design [24,23], reflection-in-
action [35,40,15], and ludic design [26,27]. Reflective HCXAI does not take a
normative stance to privilege one design tradition over the other, nor does it
replace one with the other; rather, it incorporates and integrates insights and
methods from related disciplines. For our current scope, we will briefly elaborate
on two approaches—participatory design (PD) and value-sensitive design (VSD).
Participatory Design challenges the power dynamics between the designer
and user and aims to support democratic values at every stage of the design
process. Not only does it advocate for changing the system but also challenges
the practices of design and building, which might help bring the marginalized
perspectives to the forefront. This fits in nicely with one of the key properties
of a reflective HCXAI: the ability to critically reflect on core assumptions and
politics of both the designer and the user.
Value-Sensitive Design is “a theoretically grounded approach to the design
of technology that seeks to account for human values in a principled and compre-
Human-centered Explainable AI 15
hensive manner throughout the design process” [24]. Using Envisioning cards [23],
researchers can engage in exercises with stakeholders to understand stakeholder
values, tensions, and political realities of system design. A sociotechnical ap-
proach by construction, it incorporates a mixture of conceptual, empirical, and
technical investigations stemming from moral philosophy, social-sciences, and
HCI. We can use it to investigate the links between the technological practices
and values of the stakeholders involved. VSD aligns well with the other key
property of reflective HCXAI: being value-sensitive to both designers and users.
With the theoretical and conceptual blocks in mind, let us look at a scenario
that might help us contextualize the role of the CTP perspective, VSD, and
PD in a reflective HCXAI paradigm. This scenario is partially-inspired by our
on-going work with teams of radiologists. In a large medical hospital in the US,
teams of radiologists use an AI-mediated task list that automatically prioritizes
the order in which radiologists go through cases (or studies) during their shifts.
While a prioritization task might seem trivial at first glance, this one has real
consequences—failure to appropriately prioritize has consequences ranging from
a missed report deadline to ignoring an emergency trauma patient.
The CTP perspective encourages us to look at the dominant narrative and
think of marginalized perspectives to expand our design space. Here, we should
critically reflect on the role of explanations in this system. In such a consequen-
tial system, fostering user trust is a core goal. Considering that the AI model
might fail, is trust best established by creating explanations that always nudge
users to accept the AI system’s task prioritization? Or might we design with the
goal of user reflection instead of user acceptance? Reflection can be in the form of
reasonable skepticism. In fact, skepticism and trust go hand in hand; skepticism
is part of that critical reflective process that helps us question our core assump-
tions. Even if we could build such a system, how might we evaluate explanations
that foster reflection instead of acceptance? What type of prioritization tasks
should privilege acceptance vs. reflection?
The answers to these questions are not apparent without a sociotechnical
approach and constructive engagement with the communities in question. Hav-
ing identified some of the marginalized aspects and critically reflecting on them
using the CTP perspective, we can use the aforementioned strategies, such as
participatory design (PD) and value-sensitive design (VSD), to operationalize
the reflective HCXAI perspective. For instance, we can use the PD approach
to ensure the power dynamics between designers and users are democratic in
nature. Moreover, we can reflexively recognize the politics of the design practice
and reflect on how we build any interventions. We can also incorporate VSD
elicitation exercises using the Envisioning Cards to uncover value tensions and
political realities in the hospital systems. For instance, what, if any, are tensions
between the values of the administration, the insurance industry, and the radi-
ologists? What values do the different stakeholders feel the XAI system should
embody and how do these values play off of each other in terms of alignment or
tensions?
16 Ehsan & Riedl
4.3 Challenges of a reflective HCXAI paradigm
With the affordances of a reflective HCXAI in mind, we observe two current
challenges where we need a concerted community effort. First, sociotechnical
work requires constructive engagement with partner communities of practice.
Our end-users live in communities of practices that have their own norms (e.g.,
radiologists within the community of medical practice). As outsiders, we cannot
expect to gain an embedded understanding of the “who” without constructively
engaging with partner communities (e.g, radiologists) on their own terms and
timelines. This means we need to be sensitive to their values as well as norms
to foster sustainable community relationships. Not only are these endeavors re-
source and time intensive, which could impact publication cycles, but they also
require stakeholder buy-in at multiple levels across organizations.
Second, sociotechnical work in a reflective HCXAI paradigm would require
active translational work from a diverse set of practitioners and researchers. This
entails that, compared to >-shaped researchers who have intellectual depth in
one area, we need more Π-shaped ones who have depth in two (or more) areas
and thus the ability to bridge the domains.
5 Conclusions
As the field of XAI evolves, we recognize the socially situated nature of conse-
quential AI systems and re-center our focus on the human. We introduce Human-
centered Explainable AI (HCXAI) as an approach that puts the human at the
center of technology design and develops a holistic understanding of “who” the
human is. It considers the interplay of values, interpersonal dynamics, and so-
cially situated nature of AI systems. In particular, we advocate for a reflective
sociotechnical approach that incorporates both social and technical elements in
our design space. Using our case study that pioneered the notion of rationale gen-
eration, we show how technical advancements and the understanding of human
factors co-evolve together. We outline open research questions that build on our
case study and highlight the need for a reflective sociotechnical approach. Going
farther, we propose that a reflective HCXAI paradigm—using the perspective
of Critical Technical Practice and strategies such as participatory design and
value-sensitive design—will not only help us question the dominant metaphors
in XAI, but they can also open up new research and design spaces.
Acknowledgements
Sincerest thanks to all past and present teammates of the Human-centered XAI
group at the Entertainment Intelligence Lab whose hard work made the case
study possible—Brent Harrison, Pradyumna Tambwekar, Larry Chan, Chen-
hann Gan, and Jiahong Sun. Special thanks to Dr. Judy Gichoya for her informed
perspectives on the medical scenarios. We’d also like to thank Ishtiaque Ahmed,
Malte Jung, Samir Passi, and Phoebe Sengers for conversations throughout the
Human-centered Explainable AI 17
years that have constructively added to the notion of a ‘Reflective HCXAI’. We
are indebted to Rachel Urban and Lara J. Martin for their amazing proofreading
assistance. We are grateful to reviewers for their useful comments and critique.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation
under Grant No. 1928586.
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From the Publisher: This book offers a critical reconstruction of the fundamental ideas and methods of artificial intelligence research. Through close attention to the metaphors of AI and their consequences for the field's patterns of success and failure, it argues for a reorientation of the field away from thought in the head and toward activity in the world. By considering computational ideas in a philosophical framework, the author eases critical dialogue between technology and the humanities and social sciences. AI can benefit from new understandings of human nature, and in return, it offers a powerful mode of investigation into the practicalities and consequences of physical realization.
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This 2007 book considers how agencies are currently figured at the human-machine interface, and how they might be imaginatively and materially reconfigured. Contrary to the apparent enlivening of objects promised by the sciences of the artificial, the author proposes that the rhetorics and practices of those sciences work to obscure the performative nature of both persons and things. The question then shifts from debates over the status of human-like machines, to that of how humans and machines are enacted as similar or different in practice, and with what theoretical, practical and political consequences. Drawing on scholarship across the social sciences, humanities and computing, the author argues for research aimed at tracing the differences within specific sociomaterial arrangements without resorting to essentialist divides. This requires expanding our unit of analysis, while recognizing the inevitable cuts or boundaries through which technological systems are constituted.