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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

Incentives and Pressures in the Academic Context

Why is it so hard for so many academics to do research that practitioners will consider relevant? The answers come from understanding the incentives and dynamics that influence the career paths of academics.

In academia, the most basic measures of success are typically scholarly publishing and obtaining grants. It is a truism that faculty must “publish or perish.” Anything that increases success in obtaining grants and producing publications in refereed publications increases career success. The quickest and easiest types of papers to write tend also to be the most narrow—and unfortunately, these are also the least likely to be considered relevant and useful by practitioners. Operationalizing sticky, real-world problems is difficult and messy. Conducting rigorous research in the real world is extremely challenging logistically. It is also much easier to get funding and to be productive if you buy into an existing research tradition and extend it through a modest variation on what has been done before. These are the social pressures towards “normal science” that Thomas Kuhn discussed in his classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1996).

When academic research takes the form of experimentation, academics are likely to focus on isolating variables to discover the abstract relationships among them, using artificial simulations. Research that involves proof of concept for new forms of human-computer interaction usually is also carried out in an artificial context and with a very narrow focus. A noted researcher acknowledges the pressures toward a narrow and artificial focus in his blog, writing the following:

“The reviewers [for the CHI conference which is considered by academics to be among the most prestigious venues for publication] simply do not value the difficulty of building real systems and how hard controlled studies are to run on real systems for real tasks. This is in contrast with how easy it is to build new interaction techniques and then to run tight, controlled studies on these new techniques with small, artificial tasks” (Landay, 2009).

The goal of tenure adds to the pressures that skew the choice of research topics. The emphasis on volume of publications is especially true for young faculty who, in order to achieve tenure, must churn out papers and get grants. Therefore, the pressure to do research that is tightly focused and relatively easier to publish can push young faculty to do less relevant research. This becomes a habit over the 7 years leading to tenure decision, and as we all know, longstanding habits are very hard to break. This same dynamic influences graduate students who may be interested in academic careers, because there is also increasing competition for academic posts in our field. Also, graduate student research must be circumscribed so it is feasible for the student to graduate in a reasonable time.

Most academics will spend much of their careers investigating a particular problem area, with increasing depth and focus—and some would say narrowness—over time. In addition, one’s colleagues at other universities reinforce this specialization by partnering on publications, presentations at conferences, and grant proposals. It is almost unheard of for an academic to switch to an entirely different field (e.g., to move into Humanities from Computer Science) and such a switch would require significant re-tooling, additional education, and an excellent rationale to be taken seriously.

In none of the above do I mean that academics are lazy or avoiding complex problems. Rather, they are simply following the natural incentives and shared interests of their community. Work driven by theoretical interest in the nature and influence of particular variables naturally pushes for narrowness of focus—isolation of variables through controlling confounds. Operationalizations of independent and dependent variables can only capture particular manifestations, and in the choice of operationalization, the emphasis is on ease of measurement.

However, increasingly, students are finding that jobs in academia are scarce. Many academic programs now have terminal master’s degrees or industry-focused programs that are intended to prepare students for life as practitioners. While some of these include teaching by practitioners, most do not, although many include internships or other industry experience as part of the program.

While academic research may not be seen as relevant, it is usually rigorous. Academics deepen their understanding by applying rigorous analysis and thought to decoding underlying principles and developing theories to explain their findings. This focus on rigor is a hallmark of the best academics. They know their research will be exposed to criticism by specialists from their own discipline. While this may promote caution in the topics taken on, it has the virtue of incentivizing methodological soundness and critique.

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