Academic Design Research & Commercial Design Practice

All disciplines and professions rely on academic research to improve their practice. Medical doctors, for example, rely on academic medical research to improve their diagnostic and treatment practices and outcomes. They also rely on industry research as well to augment the academic research in specific areas such as pharmacology. And, of course, there is always pure academic research that explores furthering human knowledge which also occasionally impacts medical practice.

Design should similarly also have solid academic research on which to base its practice and the improvement in that practice. However, I'm concerned that it doesn't, or at least not commerserate with the increasing importance of design.

I attended the Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference in Paris, France a few weeks ago, after not having attended for some years. Although there were notable exceptions, I was struck by the lack of relevance to commercial design practice of the vast majority of presentations, papers, and posters at the conference. One of the notable exceptions was a paper specifically exploring this topic. It was a paper by David Roedl and Erik Stolterman of Indiana University with the title, "Design research at CHI and its applicablity to design practice". There were two parts to the research they presented, the first an analysis of previous CHI papers and the second a set of interviews with design practitioners about academic design research.

For the first part, they examined all the papers that were part of the CHI conference in 2011. Of a total of 468 papers, they found 35 that made some reference to the work presented being relevant to design practice. Strangely absent from their paper is the observation that this number in itself is rather on the low side.

Only 7.5 percent of all papers presented were actually related to design practice! They go on to analyze the few papers that were intended to address design practice and found that even these had significant issues that limited their effectiveness. The issues all had to do with a general lack of understanding of real-life design practice and/or a desire to address the complexities in such environments. For example, the issues included the over-generalization of design situations, the lack of respect for the complexity of group decision making, the lack of consideration for the burden of limited time and resources, and the priorization of design exploration (divergence) rather than synthesis (convergence). The second part of the study involving the structured interviews with 13 design practitioners yielded results further questioning the relevance of academic design research to commercial design practice.

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I should point out that I'm fully aware of the various models of academic research having served on the NSERC University Education Committee for some years. University research programs should have a balance between programmatic research which involves a series of studies investigating a specific set of questions of direct pragmatic relevance and what is often called "pure research" which involves investigators pursuing entirely "blue-sky" exploratory directions aiming to simply further human knowledge and understanding. Both of these types of research are incredibly important to pursue and design research has to broadly include these two types as well. The problem is the balance. While a 50/50 balance need not be the target, we have to do a lot better than 7.5/92.5!

I've been thinking about this topic since the CHI conference and in particular duing my recent trip to China. I met with professors and students at two design schools in universities in Shanghai and Beijing and was struck by their extremely pragmatic focus and their desire to directly impact commercial design practice. Their focus was perhaps a little too heavily weighted to commercial practice. However, it was refreshing to see.

I'm again increasing my involvement with design schools and universities over the next while and am planning to advocate for a more healthy balance in their design research focus to ensure that a larger proportion of the design research that is carried out is in fact directly relevant to commercial design practice.