Jeff Atwood’s blog post on reading HCI Remixed lead me to try and clarify some of the thoughts I’ve been having on the role of Academic HCI and it’s relationship with developers, entrepreneurs and other interested parties in this space. I’m an enormous fan of the book and I know and admire many of people who have contributed essays to it but it’s never struck me as a book that would be of much use to those outside of the tight knit community of academic HCI researchers. On reflection, I’ve noticed an interesting distinction which might not be immediately apparent to outside observers.

The normal role of (good) academic research is to engage in medium to long term basic research which will eventually migrate it’s way into industrial research and finally into products. Academic material scientists are working on carbon nanotubes which will eventually be thrown over the wall to practising material scientists to make into space elevators. Academic biotechnologists are working on sequencing genomes to throw over the wall to practising biotechnologists to convert into gene therapy. Natural, the naive observer might expect that the role of Academic HCI is to develop new tools and techniques that practising HCI professionals can then take forward and use.

In actuality, the worlds of Academic HCI (including “Industrial Research”) and Professional HCI have very little to do with each other. Academic HCI is the province of major academic universities as well as industry research labs such as Microsoft Research, IBM and Xerox Parc. Professional HCI is largely the province of Interaction Designers, User Experience Engineers and Usability Experts who work for either large companies of consultancy firms.

The key to understanding Academic HCI is that it’s not in the business of throwing stuff over the wall to HCI folk, it’s main goal is to throw research over to product designers. Academic HCI is in the business of envisioning potential future products that have some significant interface component. This is a key distinction to make and one which I failed to adequately understand when I first entered my PhD program, focusing on HCI.

Indeed, there really is no discipline dedicated to advancing the state of the art of practicing HCI and I suspect a large part of this is because the slot of “Academic HCI” has already been taken. The work of contributing to a greater theoretical and practical understanding of the new problems facing design is one which simply isn’t being done for lack of various infrastructure elements like funding, tenure and journals.

Although Academic HCI and professional HCI share the same names and even aspects of common terminology, it’s a mistake to see one as the research version of the other. I found out the hard way that the field I was looking to make a contribution in simply doesn’t exist and that was primarily the reason I decided to leave academic and strike out on my own as an entrepreneur.

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  • Kai Lukoff

    Perhaps a naive question, but why should a product designer not be considered a practitioner of HCI? In other words, what’s wrong with this sentence: “Academic HCI folks are working on improving interface components that will eventually be thrown over the wall to practising product designers to make into new digital products.”

    Second, if they’re not implementing or doing academic HCI research, what would you say “Professional HCI” folks (Interaction Designers, User Experience Engineers and Usability Experts) are doing?

    I’m Kai, a product manager in China, and I’m deciding if an M.A. program in HCI is right for me. Your answers on Quora have been extremely helpful–thank you!