(Re)Discovering the value of rigour

By Rob Gillham

For the last 10 years University College London Interaction Centre (UCLIC) has provided the user experience (UX) industry in the UK - and beyond - with many of its movers and shakers through its Masters course in Human-Computer Interaction. You can now find UCLIC graduates in the corridors of many of the leading consultancies, not to mention companies such as Google and eBay.

Foolproof counts at least half a dozen UCLIC graduates amongst its current staff, so it felt only natural that we should sponsor the Centre’s 10th anniversary as a demonstration of our ongoing commitment to this most valuable of resources. As a former student, it was with great pleasure that I returned to UCLIC last week to attend a day of lectures and networking to celebrate their anniversary.

Academia and its role in business

The lectures, given by a mix of UCLIC luminaries old and new, were without exception extremely interesting. Yet - if I am being honest - for me, they also highlighted the perennial gap that exists between academic research and the actual practice of user experience design.

When academics talk about UX design, their views can often seem quite aspirational and not particularly rooted in the world of business reality. Not everything that is produced by university research centres seems immediately useful to industry.

The highly involved methods and timescales involved in academic research would simply never be tolerated in the faster moving world of business. The analyses of a problem and solutions offered to the design industry by academics can often appear hopelessly idealistic and worse, simply unfit for the purposes of commercial practice.

If it’s sometimes hard for those of us in industry to see the immediate value in academic research, then events such as this serve to reiterate the incredibly important role it plays. While research centres like UCLIC may not break boundaries, they endlessly validate what industry has previously done, explaining why certain things have worked whilst others have not – avoiding future reinventing of the wheel – and building incrementally on previous research to produce a validated body of knowledge for the field.

A theoretical framework

Some industry commentators have begun to complain about the proliferation of unsubstantiated, opinion-driven comment out there in blogs and magazine articles – viewpoints, methods and approaches supported by little more than anecdote, and made without sufficient attention to the knowledge we have previously acquired as a discipline.

Whilst anyone who decides to call themselves a ‘UX-this-or-that’ can be up and running with a blog within hours, academics have to subject their work to scrutiny by peers – not once, but many times. The work will be reviewed, edited and resubmitted before finally being published or presented at conference. At this point, the work will then be open to the fierce scrutiny of the author’s peer community.

In a recent post on his Bad Science website, the Guardian’s Ben Goldacre commented: “[Peer review] is often represented as some kind of policing system for truth, but in reality, some dreadful nonsense gets published, and mercifully so: shaky material of some small value can be published into the buyer-beware professional literature of academic science; then the academic readers of this literature, who are trained to critically appraise a scientific case, can make their own judgement.”

For me, this sums up the advantage that academic rigour provides anyone preparing for a career in user experience. In providing a theoretical framework to underpin their design work, it teaches students to thoroughly analyse source materials, helps them spot methodological flaws and weed out unsubstantiated claims from genuine user insights. This arms the future UX practitioner with the ability to discriminate between genuine, informed comment and guesswork.

Thanks to the work of UCLIC and other leading HCI research centres, companies like Foolproof continue to reap the benefits of graduates with these very skills - and long may it continue.

So we cynical industry hacks salute you, UCLIC here’s to the next 10 years.

What do you think?