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UXRPI at Connecting Dots

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I will be doing a presentation about user experience research-practice interaction (aka UXRPI) at the AIGA Design Educators conference Connecting Dots (March 14-15, 2014, Cincinnati, Ohio). Even though I am not a design educator, I thought it was worth proposing something to help find connections between the HCI researchers and User Experience practitioners, who I have been hanging out with, and design educators, who are asking questions about "what constitutes appropriate and effective research." And the conference is nearby, in Ohio.

Preparing for the session means writing a paper (version below) and creating a presentation (still in the works, will upload later). It was a great excuse to go back and try to make sense of the various UXRPI activities that have happened the past few years.


Abstract

There are gaps between research and practice in many professions. In the area of user experience, over the past few years, various activities have tried to create interest, document the challenges, discuss the issues, and propose solutions related to this gap. The label "user experience research-practice interaction" (UXRPI) has emerged as a loose term to help connect the conversations over time and across disciplines. This paper recaps some of the major UXRPI activities to date in the hopes of adding design educators to the dialogue.

Introduction

To fit in with the "Connecting Dots" theme, this paper strives to use challenges around the research-practice gap to help connect the dots across various disciplines, professional organizations, and educational efforts:

  • Disciplines: Design (graphic and communication), user experience, information architecture, human-computer interaction, interaction design.
  • Professional organizations: AIGA, UXPA, IAI, ACM SIGCHI, IxDA.
  • Educational initiatives: AIGA Design Educators, IAI teaching IA workshop, IxDA Education Summits, SIGCHI education community.

Finding the common research-practice problems and awareness of various solutions that are being tried might encourage collaboration across disciplines and professional organizations, for example.

User experience research-practitioner interaction

In the user experience world, "research" can mean many different things. In this context, we are focused on "scientific research" where we are trying to learn about how people behave and use technology in a general sense that may be applied across several contexts. Within a project, a team will also perform "user research" to help them design for their specific project. The two are related: the same methods can be used for both, but the level of rigor and focus are different. But in UXRPI, we are focused more on the academic/scientific/basic types of research, and how to improve practice based on what the research shows.

From a practitioner's point of view, one of the challenges is embodied in Steve Krug's "Religious Debates" comic in his book Don't Make Me Think. In the comic, a design team is arguing about whether or not to use pulldowns for a product menu list. One person asks "Do we know if there's any research data on pulldowns?" in order to get away from personal opinions on what the design should be. The subtitle is "Rick attempts an appeal to a higher authority....". Without any research to help the team reach a decision, two weeks pass and they start debating all over again. "Research" is often seen as that "higher authority" to guide practice.

To get into what UXRPI means a bit more, here are some questions that have been used to start a conversation about user experience research-practice interaction challenges:

  • If you are a user experience practitioner, what types of challenges do you face often that you wish you had a "scientific" answer to? Have you tried to find answers in the research literature? What roadblocks did you encounter when looking for answers? What successes have you had in taking research findings and improving your practice?
  • If you are a researcher, what is the value in engaging with practitioners? What is in it for you? Do you have any examples of success stories, where your research got better because of interactions you had with practitioners?
  • What should students of HCI, interaction design and other user experience disciplines be taught about research to better prepare themselves for the practitioner world?

The CHI 2010 workshop "Researcher-practitioner interaction" kick-started the recent set of UXRPI activities and also provided a framework to talk about the problems and opportunities.

Research challenges

HCI research culture

  • Publish for researchers, not for practitioners
  • Expanding field
  • Status within academia

Research culture

  • "Publish or perish"
  • Answers narrow questions
  • Open sharing
  • Experimentation

Gap-bridging challenges

Communication

  • Little shared language
  • Speed-of-operation differences
  • Finding each other
  • Fragmented professional organizations
  • Mapping "research answers" to "practical questions"

Knowledge

  • Need shared knowledge base
  • Hard to organize research for practical use
  • Multi/inter-disciplinary

Education

  • HCI education vs. practice
  • Amateur practitioners
  • HCI education for CS (etc.) degrees
  • Training for practitioners

Practice challenges

UX practice culture

  • No time for "research": good enough
  • Rapidly evolving practice
  • Status within corporations

Corporate culture

  • "Produce or perish"
  • Wants broad answers
  • Strategic advantage
  • Fear of failure

Important aspects of the problem space:

  • There is a "pillar" of challenges associated with the research culture overall and the HCI research culture in particular. Those are on the left.
  • Similar pillar of challenges on the right: the corporate culture overall and user experience practice culture in particular.
  • It is hard to change culture. There may be some opportunities to address some of the challenges directly in each/both pillars, but be aware what you are getting yourself into if you try to tackle them.
  • There are 3 levels of bridging, across the middle: Education (fundamental training and schooling), Knowledge-sharing (helping researchers and practitioners by sharing details on a regular basis) and Communication (just making sure we can talk with each other in an intelligent way).
  • Improving simple communication between researchers and practitioners is one place to start. Sharing knowledge is harder (but has the bigger pay-off) and forming an educational foundation should lead to the ability to address deeper challenges.

Examples of specific gaps at the cultural levels:

  • Researchers are focused on openly publishing answers to narrow questions, while practitioners want broad answers, quickly, that they can apply for a strategic advantage.
  • Researchers are often focused on publishing to gain credibility with other researchers (for tenure, for example), especially for HCI, where it may not be a respected part of computer science. Practitioners are often not given the time by stakeholders (who do not value UX) to understand core principles from research, instead pressured to just do "good enough".
  • Both researchers and practitioners are having a hard time keeping up the pace of technology change and the rapidly evolving design landscape as a whole. They each have too much to learn to just keep up with their "day jobs" and no time or energy left to interact with each other.

Examples of specific challenges in "bridge building" areas of communication, knowledge and education:

  • It can be a challenge just to find the right people "on the other side": for example, locating a researcher who is studying something that a specific practitioner needs help with. When a good match is made, it can be hard for researchers and practitioners to speak the same language and to find ways to collaborate (e.g., a researcher on a several-year grant working vs. a practitioner who needs to make a decision within a few weeks).
  • At a more fundamental level, it is hard to translate "research questions" to "practical answers". Some researchers have a hard time explaining what the practical implication is of their research. Many practitioners have a hard time explaining what they really need to know (in a way that can actually be researched).
  • In this multi- and inter-disciplinary area, it is hard to build common knowledge bases that work for either researchers or practitioners, let alone something that works for both at the same time.
  • The educational setting is an ideal place to "start off on the right foot" but the rapid pace of technology, the difficulty in teaching both foundational theory and practical skills in higher education, competition from the private sector, and the disciplinary upheaval makes it difficult to accomplish basic educational goals, let alone something that is often considered a "nice to have" like having graduates who understand research.

The next sections are reviews of the challenges from various communities perspectives, along with some some of the activities they are doing to try to improve the interaction between researchers and practitioners.

Human-Computer Interaction Community

In addition to being to the host of the workshop that helped kick off the recent focus on research-practice interaction, SIGCHI has formed a community. The RPI community goals:

The Research-Practice Interaction community is a bridge between research and practice in HCI, including all flavors thereof (user experience, usability, interaction design, information architecture, etc.). We aim to promote the exchange of information between researchers and practitioners, such that research and its results are more accessible to practitioners and that practitioner information needs are conveyed to researchers.

One of the key ways that ACM SIGCHI's main conference, CHI, tried to be more relevant to practitioners was with conference communities: "They are the primary entry points and guides for researchers and practitioners new to CHI...They help attendees and authors find ways to connect with the conference more effectively". Two initial communities were "User experience" (which helped spawn UXRPI as a thread of discussion) and "Design" (which covered topics of interest to communication design).

An example of a CHI conference presentation that looked at the UXRPI issue is "Design research at CHI and its applicability to design practice" which found that only 7% of the CHI 2011 papers were oriented towards supporting design practice. Another design-focused CHI example is "Understanding interaction design practices" where it is proposed that HCI researchers do more frequent and more intensive studies of interaction design practice.

The Indiana University research program "Research into Interaction Design Practice" is very relevant to UXRPI: "how design-practitioners understand their own practice, their design process and how they evaluate, select, and adapt design methods" by doing analytical studies of HCI research results presented as "implications for design".

The role of theory and how it relates to practice was the focus of a workshop at CHI 2012.

A special interest group at CHI 2013 was focused on research practice interaction where practitioners and researchers were matched up in groups to talk about wants and needs.

For CHI 2014, communities has become "Spotlights" with "Interaction science" (PDF) one that is addressing some of the research-practice interaction issues, such as engaging researchers and practitioners in the reviewing process.

Information Architecture Community

The information architecture community started talking about the role of research in 2006 at a panel at the IA Summit. Fast's reply: "there is no discernable body of IA research". The Journal of Information Architecture has since been formed, where practice-led research was proposed.

At the 2010 IA Summit, a session about the current relationship of research and practice in information architecture had participants draw pictures on napkins to show their view of the current state. Some of the goals that emerged:

  • Build long-term relationships between researchers and practitioners, through common channels and meeting points
  • Disseminate IA-specific conversations in related communities, conferences and meetings

The IA Summit has been the host of a subsequent "Academics and Practitioners Round Table," where it was proposed that closing the gap required looking at it as both an experience design and organizational change problem. In 2014, the 2nd roundtable will focus on teaching IA.

Interaction Design Community

Ladner issued a call to action for interaction designers to figure out how they want to draw their theoretical boundaries, where they build upon the scientific tradition, and in general, what constitutes interaction design research. IxDA, the main organization for interaction designers, has not really addressed research-practice challenges directly, but some arise in the context of their "Interaction Design Education Summit" activities.

User Experience Practitioners Community

With its origins as a "practitioner spin-off" from the HCI community in 1991, the Usability Professionals' Association (now the User Experience Professionals Association) has regularly included sessions at its annual conference aimed at presenting the latest research to practitioners. One example is the "Research in Practice" tutorial by Kath Straub: an annually updated tutorial containing an informative survey of key and emerging research that will shape practice. (A sample of what is presented in the tutorial).

An example of a practitioner who struggles to make sense of the research is from UPA's Journal of Usability Studies: Problems and Joys of Reading Research Papers for Practitioner Purposes.

The Usability Body of Knowledge project is often cited as a project that would be good to help at the "knowledge" layer of the bridge between research and practice. One of the goals is "define the knowledge underlying the usability profession" and some of that knowledge is research which practitioners need to understand.

The "Toward usable usability research: Building bridges between research and practice" workshop at the UPA 2011 conference focused on defining what practitioners need.

The 2013 UXPA conference hosted a discussion to generate ideas for solutions to UXRPI challenges. The ideas were clustered around creating hubs of activity, publishing, higher education, practitioner DIY, and influencing decision makers.

Other Activities

Don Norman has argued for the need for a new discipline, "one that can translate between the abstractions of research and the practicalities of practice". Initially called "translational development" and later called "translational engineering", the term "translational entrepreneur" has also been proposed. The model is "translational science" in the healthcare industry.

A recent masters project called Smarticle focused on one specific UXRPI challenge, designing a system that makes academic work more accessible to a larger audience.

At the 2010 Internet User Experience Conference, a panel was organized to explore UXRPI, including having attendees do napkin sketching of their view of the challenges and opportunities. Some of the issues identified include: One body/two heads (drawn by a practitioner) vs. One head/two bodies (drawn by a researcher), how to do research on the practice itself, why overcoming the gap is important, and why it is so hard.

There are many more related activities: this is just a sample to help start the dialogue. Over the long term, there are other disciplines to include: human factors, industrial design, technical communication and information design, to name a few.

AIGA & Design Educators

The Connecting Dots theme of "Design educators and professionals are challenged with identifying what constitutes appropriate and effective research" fits in nicely with UXRPI problems.

For AIGA and its members overall, user experience research-practice interaction challenges are wrapped up in the larger expectations for design education. "The Disciplined Designer" covers the same overlapping-circles discussion that many other UX-related disciplines are having. A strategic proposal to "Find methods to ensure knowledge born of design research be best utilized by design practitioners" indicates there are research-practice needs coming to the forefront for the AIGA Design educators community.

Topics for Discussion

If this recap of user experience research-practice interaction workshops, discussions and initiatives has been valuable, then it should have triggered questions about what it means to design educators. No answers, just questions.

  • What other UXRPI-related challenges have already been documented by AIGA Design Educators and AIGA as a whole? What solutions to these problems have been tried (successfully or not), are in progress or have been proposed? What things is AIGA doing well that the other professional organizations can leverage?
  • What cultural gaps are the same? Which ones are unique to this design community? What cultural shifts are on the horizon that could make bridging UXRPI gaps easier in the future? What needs to be "blown up" and re-invented from scratch?
  • Which bridging challenges (communication, knowledge and especially education) are most important for this design community? Where are the bridging challenges the same and different than what has been documented here?
  • If there is some UXRPI common ground for AIGA Design Educators, then how does collaboration happen across disciplines and across professional organizations? For example, what would a combined "education summit" across disciplines look like? How do the dots get connected to help improve research-practice interaction?

Added March 11, 2014: A first draft of the slides for my presentation at the Connecting Dots conference (PDF). I am sure I will actually present something different. There are too many slides, so some will get deleted. As I attend the conference and hear others talking about the topic, I will add my notes. One of the benefits of being towards the end of the conference is that you can update your talk based on the conference discussions. One of the curses, as well.

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