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An international peer-reviewed journal

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


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 antibiotic resistance in microbes due to the over-prescription of antibiotics. However, that research may provide little guidance for them on how to deal with anxious patients who are demanding antibiotics. Doctors may feel pressure to produce a perceived result by writing a prescription rather than explaining why it is not a good idea, be concerned about potential complaints by a dissatisfied client, or have a fear of liability if they do not provide an active treatment. 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, Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction (SIGCHI), a part of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), where there have been major efforts to ensure that the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing systems (known as CHI) meets the needs of academics and practitioners, but it is still difficult to bring these two communities together. Indeed, the Usability Professionals’ Association (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) 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 pointed out, for practitioners, “research reading generally has to have a business purpose” (p.1). She gave a number of excellent suggestions to researchers to help them 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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