Bridging the gap

XIII.1 January + February 2006
Page: 63
Digital Citation

Building a bridge between research and practice

Carolyn Gale

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Sometimes, ranting at a rant can get you in trouble.

I was surprised and saddened about the public argument that occurred between industry sponsors and academic researchers at CHI 2005 (Rant, May-June 2005 <interactions>). One of the reasons I enjoy working with SIGCHI is that the membership varies wildly in discipline, focus, gender, and age. This is a paradoxical time—while disciplines and subdisciplines undergo increased specialization, organizations are increasingly tasked to build interdisciplinary, global relationships. Our organization is already a step ahead with a diverse membership—taking better advantage of our differences would foster a lot more creativity and innovation in our field.

Nowhere do I see this lack of creativity than at single-discipline conferences, where I'm struck by the lack of innovation, homogeneity of participants, and a hierarchy that values being a certain age (high-tech: young; social science: old) and stature. Those experiences have made me better appreciate the crazy mix of HCI professionals, and found myself wondering: Why can't we appreciate our diversity and use it as a springboard for stronger collaborations? What could we do to better connect our diverse audiences? (And simply: Can't we all get along?)

This rant made its way into a conversation with one of the editors-in-chief of <interactions> who then challenged me to help with part of the magazine's mandate:

to communicate...research results to the practitioner. [Readers] will gain access to leading-edge ideas and tools that emerge from research and development, achieving a true technology transfer from R&D settings to the practitioner community.

After spending five years teaching researchers at universities worldwide how to communicate the nature and significance of their work to lay audiences, perhaps I can be of some use!

The editors and I envision this new research column containing two parts. The first half will contain tips for researchers who want to explain what they do, why it's important, and where it can be useful. Starting with the March-April issue, we'll highlight relevant research in an "elevator talk" format (150 words, max!) and feature brief interviews offering various perspectives on the gap between research and practice—including topics on applied research and practitioner desires. If you have interesting research you'd like to share, or are a practitioner that would like to discuss your needs for research, please contact me at

For the remainder of this article, I will assume that you are a researcher who would like to submit an article to <interactions>, but don't know what would be interesting, or where to start. Here are a few ideas to get you rolling:

Consider your audience. <interactions> is a publication that produces magazine articles for practitioners. This is not a forum for publishing a paper or journal article to your peers, and should be written in an informal style. If you're experiencing writer's block, consider the technique of writing as you speak. Imagine that you're talking to a practitioner about your work—what would you say, right off the bat? Start writing from there, and don't try to censor yourself for this first draft.

Eliminate technical terms. Your reader is busy; chances are exceedingly slim that anyone will spend time looking up the meaning of acronyms, abbreviations, or the famous specialized terms used in your field called jargon. <interactions> submissions have a limit of 1200 words, which means you don't have the space to explain more than one or two pieces of jargon.

A good rule of thumb: After you've written a draft, circle all technical terms. If you use a term only once, delete it—just explain the concept instead. If you use a term more than once, define it the first time around: Better to explain what you think is obvious, rather than lose the reader.

Think about the big picture. Your article should not only describe the problem and your proposed solution, but also address why any of this is important. This is the problem of "not seeing the forest for the trees." Researchers are so busy focusing on problems in their sub-discipline (scraping the bark off of one branch of a tree), that asking them to suddenly think about the impact of their work (on the entire forest) is drastic. Recognizing this bigger picture is becoming increasingly important, with policymakers and granting agencies requiring researchers to justify their work in a larger context.

If you haven't had a chance to talk with a practitioner lately, tap into your network and have a chat with those you know. Ask more about the experiences they have had; think about their stumbling blocks, and how your research could help improve or mitigate a problem.

The converse is true for practitioners, by the way: I recently had a conversation with a designer at a HCI gathering, who grumbled about a presentation by a faculty member as being "absolutely useless." After sharing (with me, not the speaker!) a concrete situation recently faced at work, he questioned how this professor's work could help him. When I pointed out that he could have presented the situation in the Q&A session, he admitted that the idea had never occurred to him. Speak up!

The moral of the story: Transfer of research is a two-way street. Those in academia and industry should share more experiences with each other, offering empathy and respect for the respective work being done.

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Carolyn Gale
National Center on the Psychology of Terrorism & Stanford University

About the Author:

Carolyn Gale has more affiliations than she can keep track of, but has general interests in learner-centered design and science communication. She manages the Learning Technologies unit at the National Center on the Psychology of Terrorism, teaches communication courses as a visiting scholar at Stanford University, co-owns a graphic design firm, and is co-founder of a global network of research communication consultants.

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