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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

Why Does this Matter?

I am not articulating the differences between academia and industry because I believe mutual understanding is a good thing (although it is). Rather, it is because I think that bridging the gulf is crucial to the future of our field, because it will strengthen the quality of both academic and applied work, and help us deal with trends in the market that can dilute our contribution.

For example, just as UX practitioners are moving around in their careers, so too are people moving into UX and UCD roles from many other areas. Sometimes they have had at least some formal preparation in the form of a course or seminar, but often, they have not. Instead, just like the moving UX pro, they learn by doing. This means that, while there is the benefit of new perspectives being infused into UX, there is also the risk that the field will lose its distinct identity.

Related to this is the commoditization and co-opting of UX by other disciplines. In the past, usability could lay claim to a professional identity based on a particular set of practices or methodology—usability testing. Of course we have more to offer than just critiquing other people’s designs, including applying our research skills to deeper levels of product definition. However, as usability has moved out of the usability lab and the usability profession has expanded its mandate to look not just at usability (narrowly defined as the ease of accomplishing a defined goal) but also at defining what those user goals are, understanding the context of use, looking at perceived value and emotion, its overlap with other disciplines has increased.

For instance, marketing people in companies and in agencies are increasingly selling usability and other user experience research services, or sometimes co-opting them under other names, but with a not-surprising tendency for them to resemble the methods that come out of the intellectual culture of marketing research, with its heavy reliance on self report. Marketing groups typically have larger budgets and hold management’s ear in a way that HCI people often don’t. This creates the risk of decreasing the perceived value and distinctiveness of the usability profession. Competition for the turf of introducing understanding of users into product development means that professions and vendors are under pressure to differentiate themselves. This leads to proliferation of branded research methods being sold on the basis of their intuitive appeal to decision makers who may well not have the knowledge or inclination to carefully weigh their validity. This environment promotes a proliferation of methodological fads and of pundits fighting for visibility by making provocative, memorable, and simplistic pronouncements that undermine disciplined and nuanced thinking. These trends raise the question of what is our profession’s intellectual core. What defines usability and UX as a body of knowledge and a profession at all? If we do not have a strong and constantly updated conceptual base, why is our opinion any more valid than anyone else’s? How do we justify our particular approaches to observation, collection of data, analysis, or understanding of users as a basis grounded in research?

Part of the answer is an infusion into industry of the type of critical thinking associated with academia, and of practice that is backed up by sound research. By critical thinking I mean being willing to ask things like the following and being prepared to evaluate the answers:

For academic work in our field to play this role of supporting practice, it needs to focus on things that matter to practitioners, but it is not only the practitioners who will benefit. Such “engaged scholars” will find a wealth of extremely interesting, perplexing, and complex problems to research—great grist for those who want to make a difference in the world. Researchers who get too locked into “normal science” elaboration of existing research paradigms will miss out on new research questions of interest that will be raised by the evolution of new technologies. The following are some other areas that come to mind:

Academics benefit in practical ways from closer connections with the commercial world as well. In some companies, there are opportunities for academics to partner with practitioners to do research that would not be possible by either side alone but that can answer real needs for information. Practitioners can sometimes help provide access to key populations of interest and can help leverage corporate resources to provide funding for certain types of research activities. In addition, deeper understanding within academia of the world of practice can help academics do a better job of preparing their students to function as professionals in the face of the pressures they will encounter as they increasingly go into jobs in industry rather than in academia. Alliances can help provide students with real-life experience that makes them more marketable in tough economic times and can also provide industry with thoughtful practitioners who understand both the rigor of academia and the pace of industry. In short, both academics and practitioners stand to benefit from strengthening the bridge between academia and practice.

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