About The Theory-Practice Gap

design, design research, design theory, HCI, hci research, Human-Computer Interaction, Informatics, Interaction Design, knowledge production, knowledge tools, theory, theory building, theory-practice gap, Uncategorized

I’ve been spending some time looking through the CHI best paper award winners from the past five years — all the while continuing to think about the theory-practice gap. And now I have a question. How is it that we distinguish between theorists and practitioners? Who is creating the knowledge that seems to lack practical utility or accessibility?

Just looking at the best papers, one might be struck by the volume of publications using theory, models, frameworks, etc. to do design work. And judging from the author credentials, there is quite a lot of industry collaboration, which makes me think that practitioners (if an academic/industry credential could be casually used to make this distinction) are not only using theory but they are in some cases actively contributing to it.

The theory-practice gap is simple, useful metaphor in the sense that it has guided researchers to ask interesting questions and pursue intriguing and insightful projects — think about things like intermediate-level knowledge objects — but the metaphor has been used for quite a long time (in HCI and in other disciplines) and I’m curious to know whether it has outlived its relevance in spite of its apparent utility.

The Problem of Problem-setting

design, design research, design theory, HCI, hci research, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, knowledge production

One of the more interesting and recent questions I’ve been thinking about has to do with the theory-practice gap in HCI research. Now, I have very little interest at the moment in bridging the gap. And really there are plenty of folks in the field working on this problem. I’m more interested in the theory-practice gap itself.

I’m especially interested in the fact that when the gap appears in the literature it does so without much criticism or reflection. I haven’t come across any examples yet (in HCI literature) where the gap is discussed as an interpretation of data. Whereas other folks in different disciplines (nursing, for example) have discussed it in this way.

Some HCI practitioners report lacking time and other resources to spend on theory. Others disengage (or do not engage in the first place) with conferences like CHI or DIS because they are too theoretical. These sorts of ‘facts’ have been reported in journal and conference publications, and they have fueled characterizations of theory and practice as separated by a gap, as uneasy bedfellows, and even as seller and buyer.

Each of these ways of framing reality has implications for the kinds of questions researchers ask and the kinds of knowledge they generate in response to the problem. This is important. The problem is set. It’s made. It’s not given. So why don’t we as a discipline spend more time thinking about that?