Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men. Although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths. Assuming Aristotle is academia and his wives practitioners in industry (or vice versa), a lack of communication and verification also appears to be occurring in the HCI domain. Knowledge, skill and requirements exchange seems to be limited. But it is not our aim to blame Aristotle entirely for not checking the reality. His wives could have, and perhaps should have, volunteered the information if they were aware of Aristotle’s need to know. The real problem in HCI is that neither industry nor academia seems to communicate their requirements or knowledge to the other in a timely manner, despite the potential for a harmonious and mutually beneficial marriage. While it has been argued by some that academia should concern itself with stimulating research to advance the discipline, here we argue that instead a mutually beneficial relationship should be facilitated. With a lack of suitably skilled practitioners in HCI (Harper et al, 2008), it is important to improve communication between the two to ensure graduates receive appropriate training for industry. Improved communication would also provide academia with first hand exposure to commercial problems that could be researched.
HCI, usability and user experience (UX) are complex and constantly changing. The technological capabilities and complexity of projects is advancing rapidly. Unfortunately, the knowledge and skills needed to address these changes are not necessarily keeping pace. For example, not enough is known about context and etiquette of complex interaction such as web 2.0 applications. The business reality in which practitioners work is so diverse and complex that it is often difficult to get quick and practical answers from academic research, even if academic research is cutting edge. In addition, research results from academia often have such a narrow focus that they cannot be applied across a variety of industry projects. But the problems with knowledge and skill transfer are certainly not one sided. Industry is often poor at making its requirements known to academia. Perhaps due to confidentiality restrictions and business realities of limited time, commercial projects are only rarely presented at conferences. The resources required to support industry placements also reduces the number of students that can be offered first hand experience. These factors further reduce knowledge and requirements exchange.
Knowledge and Skills
Practitioners need knowledge, skills and abilities to be effective. Graduates need to not only be knowledgeable about fundamental human requirements, but also skilled in the application of this knowledge for them to be useful as soon as they enter the commercial world. Knowledge is the understanding of the specific information needed to perform a job and skills are the proficiencies needed to perform that job that are enhanced during practice (Muchinsky, 2000). Without innate ability, knowledge and skills are less likely to be able to be applied. But knowledge needs to be applied for it to become a useful skill. While Academia provides knowledge to graduates, it is unclear whether this is the most appropriate knowledge needed for an industry based career. There is also limited opportunity for students to apply their knowledge and hone their skills. A symbiotic relationship between industry and academia needs to be facilitated to overcome the limitations suggested here.
Usability and UX companies need to offer opportunities for students to apply the knowledge gained in academia. A student with up-to-date theoretical knowledge of best practice gained at university could also help provide industry with a timelier link to academic knowledge which could then be applied. In return, when the student returns to university their industry knowledge could be used to fuel future research projects. While academia teaches best practice and industry aspires to achieve the ideal, industry often has to take short cuts because of commercial realities. Academia often looks at only small parts of problems with scientific rigour that is not possible in commercial reality. But if academic research was more applicable it could make the industrial process quicker and easier.
Design patterns, guidelines and standards
Existing broad HCI guidelines are available but they are often abstract, generic, obscure or obsolete rather than design patterns that can be applied to specific projects. Industry needs both up-to-date broad spectrum guidelines and more specific design patterns to reduce the need to reinvent the wheel for each project. To illustrate, in medicine penicillin works for certain types of illnesses but broad spectrum antibiotics are also available to treat a wider variety of illnesses. HCI’s broad spectrum remedies are standards and guidelines that can be applied across a variety of projects. But an HCI penicillin, perhaps in the form of design patterns, appears to be lacking. There is also no obligation in industry to apply established guidelines and standards, which often do not adapt quickly enough to the constantly changing business realities to provide real solutions. The generality, lack of immediacy, lack of obligation and business reality mean applying the guidelines or standards is not always possible. Even if design patterns were available (knowledge), they only tell practitioners what to consider, not how to design (skills and ability). The more knowledge is standardised the quicker practitioners can find solutions to applied problems and reach design decisions. Improved communication of commercial needs to academia and research findings to industry may provide research opportunities and findings that help create useful design patterns.
A small survey
To find out what knowledge and skills gained during their academic education were seen as beneficial in an industrial setting, and to avoid Aristotle’s mistake, we polled our colleagues at Flow. Our convenience sample of eleven HCI practitioners revealed that a variety of academic disciplines are feeding into the HCI industry. The majority of respondents have postgraduate education, in either Design, HCI, Ergonomics, Media and Communication or Psychology, suggesting communication channels need to be established between industry and several different academic disciplines. Respondents were generally in agreement that the two most valuable aspects of their formal education were fundamental knowledge related to research methodologies, data analysis, models of psychological theory, ergonomics principles; and the application of the knowledge. All respondents stated that practical experience of any type, but especially that gained on industrial placements or applied projects, was highly valuable. Practical exercises in paper prototyping, report writing and user research were valued, as was the opportunity to present research findings at conferences which helped gain useful skills for client facing work. Respondents commented that students also value input in their teaching from industry practitioners who offer visiting lectures or seminars or those who are involved in setting or evaluating real project briefs for students. The seminars or lectures provide students real world examples of the type of projects they might work on if they enter HCI. In addition to opportunities to apply their knowledge, project management, group work and written and verbal communication experience were seen as valuable for the consulting world.
Required Knowledge and Skills
As well as a good grounding in the basics, students need real, applied, experience of working on commercial projects, or at least responding to actual briefs, and getting feedback from industry practitioners to be able to enter an industry job at the skill level required. Without the practical experience it is not possible to know how to apply the knowledge learned to different and complex projects and be able to make informed decisions about which methodology to use and which trade offs to make. Learning in abstraction is a problem, as industry needs problem solvers who can think on their feet. Consulting and client facing skills are also needed in HCI related courses. Knowledge and experience of commercial realities and drivers behind delivering a good UX, such as client relationship management and team working were seen as necessary skills. The priorities, expectations, pressures and practicalities that come into play in a business context, and how to respond to difficult client situations were seen as lacking in current courses. Several respondents also believed that academic programmes lag behind industry as courses do not change rapidly enough to keep up with current methods and problems.
Research to clarify the real requirements and desires of both is needed for a harmonious marriage. A starting point may be more rigorous research into which fundamental knowledge is required for students and which disciplines graduates are entering HCI industry. It is necessary to explore whether there is enough crossover between disciplines, whether it is realistic that graduates will have or want enough crossover to be effective and whether one discipline is able to provide all relevant knowledge. It is necessary to explore whether industry wants or needs research from academia; whether an over reliance on academic research may stifle innovation in industry; or whether academia needs to push the boundaries of the industrial reality in an effort to keep informing. If academia just taught what is happening in industry then it is possible that no new knowledge would be introduced. A means to speed up the exchange of requirements and findings is also worth exploring. Additionally, the actual user cost and commercial realities are not well understood by both sides and could be further explored.
Further discussion between industry and academia about how a mutually beneficial relationship should be developed. Industry needs to let academia know what skills graduates need, and what is happening in the commercial world. Industry also needs to provide more opportunities for students to apply their knowledge. Academia needs to facilitate the learning of skills as well as knowledge and needs to ensure timely exchange of research findings. Aristotle and his wives need to learn to communicate their requirements for knowledge. Perhaps a bit of marriage guidance can be offered.
Muchinsky, P.M. (2000). Psychology applied to work. (sixth edition) Wadsworth: Belmont, CA.
Harper, R., Rodden, T., Rogers, Y. and Sellen, A. (eds) (2008). Being human: Human-computer interaction in the year 2020. Microsoft Research Ltd: Cambridge.
- Edited version of an article written by Chandra Harrison, Ofer Deshe and Kelsey Smith
- Presented at the British Computer Society HCI Workshop – The challenges faced by academia preparing students for industry: What we teach and what we do.