Bridging Chasms

by Paula Bach on August 18, 2008 05:57pm

I have blogged previously about interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research. Now I want to turn to disciplinary chasms in software development. Social aspects such as how people communicate, collaborate, and coordinate interest me because as Andy Begel in the HIP group in MSR found, software development teams when coordinating and communicating with other teams, are like dysfunctional families. I won’t go into details, but software development is socially complex. Software development teams generally consist of software engineers, to state the obvious. But in the last ten years or so, many software development businesses began to implement user-centered design because they realized that software could be frustrating for users. A new discipline arose where people were either trained in Human Computer Interaction, or learned on the job. Professional organizations like UPA and SIGCHI are thriving. But software engineers and usability experts are from different communities of practice. Although they both work on creating software products, their goals, values, approaches, culture, and well, their work practices differ tremendously.

A theoretical approach called communities of practice helps to describe and explain the social nature of learning and interacting in communities. But the approach does not yet incorporate multidisciplinary communities or how two communities of practice come together to accomplish their goals, like designing and building software.

In my experience, through being a designer practicing user-centered design and a researcher studying user-centered design in software development practices, about half of any design practice is communicating your ideas across disciplines or communities of practice and actively listening and working to understand different perspectives. Other practitioners echo this observation as well: Gitta Salomon of, an interaction design firm, states that “One of the biggest challenges is remembering that half of what we do is the design work and the other half is the communication of that design work.” (Quoted from the book Interaction Design, by Preece, Rogers, and Sharp. This book is an excellent guide, both theoretically based and practical, most people trained in HCI will know about 80% of what is in this book and apply aspects everyday.)

Bridging software development and user-centered design could be investigated by looking at communities of practice and paying attention to communication could help bridge the chasm between the two disciplines.

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