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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 World of Practice

The messy world of practice is replete with interesting, relevant, and knotty problems and challenges. In contrast to isolating variables to study them for their own sake, every product development decision reflects the intersection of and tradeoffs among huge numbers of variables. The challenges of product development in the business world are thus inherently extremely difficult to address rigorously. Furthermore, research in the business world takes place in a culture where there are unfortunately many disincentives to the rigorous and critical thinking at which our academic colleagues excel.

Rather than “publish or perish” as the guiding principle, practitioners live by the mantra “produce or perish.” The goal of their work is the integration of user-centered information into the development of products or services so these will be useful and usable. Therefore, the information practitioners seek about users, users’ context, and the usability of products are all intended to support those products or services, rather than to satisfy an intellectual interest. Personal career success depends on the perception that you make a valuable contribution to helping products progress through the pipeline, and that your contribution increases the chance of commercial success—preferably that you are indispensable to this. Deepening knowledge of the relationships among abstract variables is of little use in itself and does not increase your standing. Focusing on these without tying the dialogue back to concrete product-development decisions can interfere with career success by making you seem too “academic,” which is an epithet in many corporate settings.

The context of product development has a tendency to suppress skepticism and critical thinking. This is not to say that product ideas can’t be questioned, but there are always issues that the team feels it has already made and moved on from. Questioning these can lead to be seen as obstructionistic. When the consensus begins to move in a certain direction, there can be intense pressure on practitioners to be silent about their qualms. Practitioners often must demonstrate enthusiasm at least about the basic product concept. Cognitive dissonance that inhibits questioning grows as more time and energy are invested in the product.

There are many examples of products where everyone other than the people on that team wonder how on earth the product has gotten so far down the pipeline, because of “obvious” flaws. For example, we once did ethnographic research on consumer behavior for a team working on a battery-powered machine to take care of odors in the refrigerator. It was extremely obvious early on that this concept made no sense to consumers because it was solving a problem that consumers did not perceive that they had. Either they did not perceive odors in their fridge (even when we did), or they had other, cheaper solutions (e.g., a box of baking soda) that worked fine for them. They saw no reason to buy a costly machine requiring batteries to do the job that the baking soda did just fine. The team, however, was passionate that this product was terrific and maintained that we had simply chosen the wrong people to visit. It was only a year and many millions of dollars later that the product was finally cancelled, due, it would seem, to “lack of a market”—something we had told them a year earlier.

Practitioners live in highly pressurized settings where decisions have to be made quickly, often without as much information, time for planning methodology, or analysis as would be ideal. The time to think deeply about findings and interpretation is greatly compressed. In fact, taking time in this way is a negative because the focus is on speed, not deep understanding. As a colleague of ours at a large company quipped, “Close enough is close enough.” Time is measured in hours or days, sometimes in weeks, rarely in months or quarters, and almost never in years. In these circumstances, practitioners must find ways to gather, analyze, and present data quickly, efficiently, cogently, and compellingly in ways that “work” in their organization.

One manifestation of the time pressure is the need to present “topline” findings before doing a full analysis of data, often within one or two days of completing the data collection. This is a symptom of an environment where the audience is also under tremendous time pressure and cannot take the time to wrestle with nuances. Someone has to take responsibility to be prescriptive and make strong recommendations, and putting too much emphasis on describing nuances can seem like hedging.

The implications of the fact that the audience for practitioners is not composed of specialists in UX and UCD cannot be over-emphasized. UCD professionals in companies work in a highly cross-disciplinary environment. This has many benefits, such as fostering cross-disciplinary learning, but it also presents many challenges. Colleagues in other, related disciplines are also trying to have influence with decision makers and experience the same pressures toward prescriptive simplification. Success can be determined not by who has the “best” methodology or analysis, but by who best understands the concerns of the decision makers and communicates in the most concise, compelling, memorable, and simple prescriptive ways. People talk of the “PowerPoint culture” that focuses on form and brevity rather than content and rationale. Career success is heavily influenced by the judgment of people outside of the profession. UCD practitioners cannot assume that these people know of or are interested in the fine points of methodology that allow well-trained UCD people to make a contribution that is distinct from that of other people who bring in data about users and customers or recommend aspects of product strategy based on beliefs or information about people (marketing, sales people and field representatives, customer support people, etc.).

Another implication of working in a cross-functional environment is that it is important to maintain collegial relationships and choose one’s battles. This means that there is a tendency to defer to others rather than confronting underlying paradigm differences or critique each other’s methods.

Another factor that comes into play is the relative fluidity of the UX practitioner’s career. Rarely does someone stay in the same job or even the same specialty for an entire career the way an academic typically does. People often move around—both within a company, between companies, and to new areas of specialty. For instance, in the 9 years of my own career prior to becoming a consultant, I worked in two different companies and did Human Factors research for the military; analyzed user manuals; conducted ethnographic research in a variety of settings; worked in the corporate IT department; developed ergonomic guidelines; created a cross-functional methodology to incorporate organizational factors in the design and implementation of internal IT systems; developed user interfaces of thermostats, control systems, and other products (consumer products, industrial controls, forms, online applications, etc.); did user testing; ran focus groups; managed a systems training group; created and ran a usability lab; did organizational development consulting; and finally, directed an integrated UX team. In addition, some of these were individual contributor roles while others were management roles at a variety of levels from first-line supervisor to middle manager to executive. There was a thread there, of course, but each new job was radically different from the last and almost every transition was with a new group and required that I learn new skills. This is hardly unusual in our field. As a result, practitioners often are in roles for which they lack formal training and must rely instead on learning on-the-job.

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