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

Susan M. Dray

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 5, Issue 1, Nov 2009, pp. 1 - 7

Article Contents


Our field faces threats to its legitimacy that we will have trouble dealing with if we continue to allow a split between academia and practice. Many academics face obstacles in the way of more “relevant” research that would be more meaningful to practitioners, and practitioners tend to see academic research as not relevant to them in reinforcing their professional identity, skills, and legitimacy as the organizational experts in user research. Meanwhile, many practitioners feel they are threatened by a perceived commoditization and co-opting of user-centered design (UCD) and user experience (UX) work. These two trends or tendencies are rarely mentioned together. How they are related, and how we address these issues will have a significant bearing on whether our field will continue to advance or whether it will wither.

In this essay I first explore the different dynamics of the worlds of academia and product development and how these differences affect the nature of the work we do. Then, I show why the world of practice needs an infusion of academic rigor that can only come from changes in the nature of academic research and the adoption of a more academic style of critical thinking in the world of practice.

In fairness, I fully acknowledge that the following analysis makes generalizations for which there are many exceptions. There are certainly academics who have made major contributions to practice and are committed to relevance, and there are practitioners who are thoughtful and rigorous in their thinking. There are also people in academia whose roles are structured so that they have some similarities to practitioner roles, and conversely people in industry who do function more like academics (such as people in industrial R & D groups). But one way or another, I maintain that even most exceptional people have to contend somehow with the problematic dynamics I describe in this essay.

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