Engaged Scholars, Thoughtful Practitioners: The Interdependence of Academics and Practitioners in User-Centered Design and Usability

Engaged Scholars, Thoughtful Practitioners: The Interdependence of Academics and Practitioners in User-Centered Design and Usability

Susan M. Dray (Usability Professionals’ Association & Dray & Associates, Inc., USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-057-0.ch041
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The current schism between academia and practice exists for many understandable reasons, mostly to do with the very different incentives and life realities that each face. However, it represents a dangerous threat to the legitimacy of the field of user-centered design. This article first discusses the fundamental differences between academics and practitioners, and then suggests a variety of ways that we each can work to break down the barriers so that together we can advance the field.
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Academia Versus Practice

As an applied field, we are not alone in experiencing a tension between academia and the world of applied practice. For example, in medicine, doctors need the fundamental knowledge that comes from research such as that on, say, evolving anti-biotic resistance in microbes due to over-prescription of antibiotics. However that research may provide little guidance for them on how to deal with the things like anxious patients who are demanding antibiotics, the pressures toward “productivity” and the fact it takes less time to write the prescription than to explain to the patient why that is not a good idea, the concerns about having to respond to a complaint filed with customer services by a dissatisfied patient, fear of liability if they do not provide an active treatment, etc. How they actually act will depend on a complex combination of rewards and incentives, past history, social dynamics of the clinic, and experience.

In our own field of usability and UCD, the tension or gap between academia and practice has a long history. The challenge of the relationship between academics and practitioners is a perennial issue at our sister organization, SIGCHI, where there have major effort to ensure that the CHI conference meets the needs of academics and practitioners, but it is still difficult to bring the academic communities together collaboratively. Indeed, UPA emerged partly from a community of professionals who felt the need for a practitioner conference distinct from CHI.

As Avi Parush (2006) points out, many practitioners engaged in design, evaluation and/or implementation of technology feel that academic research is not useful to their day-to-day life in companies. He quotes an unnamed practitioner as saying:

“There are very few, if any, research articles published in scientific and academic journals that can be utilized effectively in the practice of HCI design” (p. 61)

In this journal, Caroline Jarrett (2007) has described how to write research papers that appeal to practitioners. In general, practitioners look for and need research when they encounter a knotty problem that they need to solve or when they are approaching a new situation and are looking for guidance. As Jarrett points out, for practitioners, “research reading generally has to have a business purpose.” (p.1) . She gives a number of excellent suggestions to researchers to help them to explain their research in more practitioner-friendly ways, and this is certainly a good start, but for many practitioners, research in general is still rarely “relevant” to them. This suggests that the problem is not only with how research is written, but also in what they say and whether the pre-occupations of researchers are helpful to practitioners.

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