What Do Academic HCI Researchers Do?
In general, academic HCI researchers do three things, as shown in Figure 1.
- They innovate novel computing user interfaces through exploratory engineering and by building complex interactive systems—for example, new software applications and infrastructures, wearable devices, and mobile hardware platforms.
- They develop an empirical understanding of the usage and the user experience of user interfaces—whether through the experimental testing of user interfaces in the lab or qualitative observation of people using user interfaces in the wild, as in ethnographic research.
- They develop theoretical knowledge about the design and use of interactive digital systems. While there are a few predictive theories—such as Fitts’s law, which describes the relationship between pointer movement and the dimensions of interface elements on a screen—more often, HCI theory takes the form of design frameworks comprising interrelated concepts. HCI research may either focus on one small part of the bigger picture or attempt to address the whole.
Is There a Connection Between Academic Research and Industry Practice?
UX professionals working in industry also do research—as well as design. While the intended outcomes, goals, and scopes of focus of academic HCI research and UX research can differ significantly, research in both academia and industry often seem to deal with fundamentally similar objects: the understanding and design of interactive digital systems and their human users. Both typically follow user-centered design processes and are advocates for making the understanding of human values intrinsic to the design process. Surely there is—or should be—a strong connection and overlap between the two.
In the UK, councils funding academic research have recently raised concerns about how well the connection between academia and industry is functioning. The UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which directly funds significant portions of HCI research in the UK, have argued that HCI research needs to consider how to “package theories and methods for industry / wider use.”  Further, since academic HCI engages in research in a wide range of target domains—including medical and healthcare technology, consumer electronics devices, and software—the potential payoffs of establishing better ways for academic researchers to engage with UX professionals could be very high.
Yet academics often make inaccurate assumptions about what UX professionals actually do and can sometimes take their relationships with them for granted. Academic HCI researchers tend to assume that there is a natural link with industry through which knowledge dissemination and transfer occurs. On the other hand, UX professionals sometimes see academic HCI research as impractical and out of touch with the realities of working in the real world. They may dismiss academic work entirely—or at least find it difficult to digest and apply in their everyday work.