XXVII.5 September - October 2020
Page: 22
Digital Citation

HCI and UX as translational research

Elizabeth Churchill

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The most common understanding of the word translate is to transform words from one language into another. Language translation apps like Google Translate ( are used every day by travelers to close communication gaps, by writers to ensure their thoughts are effectively shared, and by language learners to advance their skills.

However, as any one of these "personas" knows, translation is not as simple as taking a word in one language and substituting it for the corresponding word in another language. Translation requires interpretation based on context, and involves the co-construction of mutual understandings between a speaker and a listener, or between a writer and a reader. Translation is mutual sensemaking to establish common ground [1], requiring empathy to co-construct meaning in some form of shared context. Translating idioms is a perfect illustration of how hard this can be, and that simple word-to-word sentence translation is not enough. Just how does one convey the meaning of "feeling under the weather" or "dropped like a hot potato"? Certainly not by literally translating the words and leaving it at that. Translation is also often a fully embodied communication: vocalized sounds intended to be clearly pronounced words in the target language, but which sometimes fail to be understood by the listener; illustrative, iconic gestures; animated communications of positive or negative emotion and affect… and so on. Translation is not simple.

This expanded version of the word translate reflects its deeper definition: "to move from one state or condition to another." Translation is to shift a person's understanding from one conceptual state or condition to another. It is in this arena where the disciplines of human-computer interaction (HCI) and its stepchild, user experience (UX), truly shine. HCI and UX involve significant translational work. HCI and UX professionals translate research findings into domain-relevant insights that other disciplines (e.g., engineering) can act on. HCI and UX insights can translate into an entire team or company or industry culture shift, uncovering new areas for investigation and innovation, and conceptual paradigm shifts within the whole technological landscape. In sum, as pointed out in a paper published at the 2019 CHI conference (, HCI and UX are translational research enterprises [2], focused on long-term as well as short-term trajectories [3]. The authors state:


In the field of HCI, TS [translational science] is about translating rich understandings of people and their interactions with technology with a goal of influencing the design of interactive systems … The goal of the TS problem in HCI is thus to facilitate the adoption, implementation, and institutionalization of theoretical findings into design practice [3].

The authors suggest a number of ways in which HCI translates between theory, abstracted research questions, and driving or refining areas of application. Two areas certainly resonate strongly for the industry context in which I work:

  • Use of research knowledge. Applying concepts derived through theory or lab experimentation to the design of example prototypes, products, and services. HCI has always involved theory, as well as lab and field studies, to address fundamental human and interaction characteristics, and taken insights from these into design recommendations and impact evaluations. Teams in my work context produce work that may have immediate application in products and/or services but the work typically also offers avenues for future theory, exploration, and application.
  • People transfer. Knowledge is shared as people move between theory and application, between collaborative contexts, and through job or role changes. The creation of project and role opportunities, and the peer and alumni networks of expertise sharing (even when specifics are not shareable) are a form of translating across contexts, application areas, and domains. These alliances and boundary crossings are how translational professionals cross-fertilize ideas, approaches, and patterns of insight. And also how we uncover new opportunities.

There are, of course, cautions and reservations about defining HCI or UX as solely translational research disciplines.

First, we need to be mindful about overindexing on the translational work at the cost of investing enough time in more abstracted theory building, or so-called basic research. It is critically important that basic research and theory formulation continues to be conducted. Overindexing on one end of the continuum, for example on applied translation at the cost of basic research, has its risks, as discussed in "The Perils of Translational Research," a 2012 article by Ashutosh Jogalekar. He writes:

[C]uriosity-driven basic research has paid the highest dividends in terms of practical inventions and advances. Tinkering, somewhat aimless but enthusiastic exploration of biological and physical systems and following one's nose have been the ingredients for some of the key inventions that have transformed our lives. Radar, computers, drugs, detergents, plastics and microwave ovens were all made possible not because someone sat down and tried to discover them but because they arose as fortuitous consequences of elemental, pure research [4].

Second, we need to acknowledge the criticality of our well-honed (but often under-recognized) communication skills; HCI and UX experts are skilled at creating carefully designed communications for diverse audiences. Producing artifacts that summarize insights in such a way that they can cross disciplinary boundaries and be taken up in new contexts—as well as be translated into possible solutions—is hard. This is an underappreciated craft. Research reports are translational co-agents, offering a space for co-constructing ideas into implementation. Invoking Gilbert Ryle's idea of thick versus thin descriptions, translational research involves weaving multiple formats and creating thick social events, rather than thin devices for knowledge transfer [5].

Finally, it is important to note that translational work comes with an ethical imperative. In HCI and UX, we have to ask not just Does X technique or approach work in Y context? but also What are all the consequences of applying X techniques or approach in Y context, and SHOULD we do that translational work? HCI and UX scholars and professionals often do translational work that involves the production and promotion of work that centralizes and provides evidence for ethical reflection on proposed technological trajectories. A good example would be the application of machine learning techniques or recommendation algorithms; often built in the abstract to prove some theoretical concept, HCI scholars were early to call out issues with such algorithms being taken up and designed into end-user experiences uncritically. Outside of HCI or UX (but currently top of mind) is the application of lab-based studies to propose solutions for disease—Covid-19, for instance. In the rush to publish, many papers were initially promoted as groundbreaking lab research with implications for possible vaccines or treatments. Many of these papers have since been retracted [6]; with further testing, the results were proven to be not robust enough to be translated into vaccine or drug-regimen programs. Here, the fast track from lab to translation into proposed cures could have been disastrous.

To conclude, I believe HCI and UX professionals deeply understand that translation work is nuanced and complex, not a simple result-to-application model akin to a word-for-word language translation. We understand that translation is about creating shared meaning, and reflecting on where meaning is not shared. We participate strongly in deciding what work is appropriate and communicated; we also participate in the translations themselves. HCI and UX professionals are, to my mind, the most equipped to define and lead translational design and development cultures.

back to top  References

1. From Wikipedia: "Grounding in communication (or common ground) is a concept proposed by Herbert H. Clark and Susan E. Brennan. It comprises the collection of 'mutual knowledge, mutual beliefs, and mutual assumptions' that is essential for communication between two people." Original article: Clark, H. H., Brennan, S.E. Grounding in communication. In Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition. L.B. Resnick, J.M. Levine, and S.D. Teasley, eds. American Psychological Association, 1991.

2. The Wikipedia entry defines translational research to be "a way of thinking about and conducting scientific research to make the results of research applicable to the population under study." The goal of translational research especially in medicine seems to transform basic biomedical research discoveries from "bench" to "bedside."

3. Colusso, L., Jones, R., Munson, S.A., and Hsieh, G. A translational science model for HCI. Proc. of the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2019;

4. Jogalekar, A. The perils of translational research. Scientific American. The Curious Wavefunction blog. Nov. 26, 2012;

5. From Wikipedia: "A thick description results from a scientific observation of any particular human behavior that describes not just the behavior, but its context as well, so that the behavior can be better understood by an outsider. A thick description typically adds a record of subjective explanations and meanings provided by the people engaged in the behaviors, making the collected data of greater value for studies by other social scientists." Also see Nina Wakeford's analysis of PowerPoint decks as thick devices:

6. See Retraction Watch:

back to top  Author

Originally from the U.K., Elizabeth Churchill has been leading corporate research at top U.S. companies for the past 18 years. Her research interests include social media, distributed collaboration, mediated communication, and ubiquitous and embedded computing applications.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2020 ACM, Inc.

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