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Breakthrough Products Need Breakthrough Collaboration (Book Review)


Book coverA review of

The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaboration

by Ben Shneiderman

Book website
Author on Twitter: @benbendc
Introduction video


About this book

A good reference for Methods/How-To, UX Theory
Primary audience: Researchers and designers with some or significant experience with topic
Writing style: Mostly text
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2016, 320 pages, 12 chapters

Learn more about our review guidelines


If you’ve ever taken a class in research methods, you were probably taught that the scientific method is the gold standard for new discoveries. It’s a clean, simple model in which hypotheses are proposed, tested and built on through subsequent investigation. Then those discoveries travel from the lab to general use in an equally linear progression from basic research to applied research, to development, and finally to full production.

I have always been suspicious of how tidy that seems. It just didn’t match my experience of the messy iterations between the theories and design prototypes that created innovative digital products. All those small careful steps need the ability to control the experiment, which is difficult to do in the complex social context of user experience and the many different ways we use modern digital tools. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that basic research and the sort of applied design research that underpins good UX design are really two different things.

Ben Shneiderman’s new book tackles this contradiction, proposing a new way of thinking about how breakthrough innovations are created. Who better to take it on than the director of a human-computer interaction lab that has produced a steady stream of innovations and the author of one of the best known textbooks in the field?

The civic, governmental and business problems that challenge both human-computer interaction researchers and user experience practitioners are immense. They are socially and technologically complex, in an environment of raised ambitions for how new technologies can be put to work in new, and even unforeseen, ways. This has created the need for a new way of thinking about how we foster innovation.

This book lays out an approach that starts by blending the development of theory and solutions (the Applied & Basic Combined, or ABC, of the title). It also brings together science, engineering & design (SED), breaking down the silos that exist within both academia and industry. Shneiderman argues that these two starting points are the basis for new research strategies that lead to innovations that can change the world.

The very first chapter lays out the new model (see Figure 1) that shows just how differently we can think about the process of getting from research to innovation. Instead of assuming that basic research precedes applied (or design) research, we can let ideas flow freely from theory to practice, as well as from the real-world context to theory. Instead of isolating science, engineering, and design, we can see them as collaborative disciplines, bringing diversity to the way a problem space is investigated.

Model described below
Figure 1. The new ABCs of research are based on three contexts, two principles, and five strategies and produce two outcomes. Read the text in this image.

It’s easy to see how this approach incorporates many ideas that have become best practices in business innovation: the iterative cycles of user-centered design, multi-disciplinary teams, and bringing diverse perspectives to understanding the problem.

Starting with an examination of the relationship between science, engineering, and design, Shneiderman looks at what it takes to manage blending disciplines and approaches that have historically worked in isolation. He makes the case that the sort of teamwork that is a long tradition in design research, such as brainstorming, design studio-style critiques, and shared environments does more than just bring more viewpoints together. The social interaction in a team creates incentives to both demonstrate excellence to and learn from fellow team members. Diverse teams, he says, have an even greater edge, bringing together different experiences, skills, and research strengths.

The case studies in the book focus on how new research strategies work in action. They examine processes and innovations at Google, Bell Labs, and more. Each is an example of the process or principles in the chapter, showing how it worked in a real breakthrough. The first case study shows how researchers used the basic discovery that cholera is a water-borne disease to create an applied experiment that not only proved, but extended the theory (all while also protecting a population from the disease). Controlling a deadly disease may seem far from the world of product design, but the current business strategy of launching a minimally viable web app to explore its value to users is practical research in the same tradition.

All of the elements of this approach for achieving breakthroughs come together in the final case study, a description of how he teaches teamwork in his classes. These classes have clearly been his laboratory. The structure and approach of the class illustrates how to put the whole approach together and details Shneiderman’s five strategies:

  • Choose actionable problems: civic, business & global problems
  • Apply observation, intervention & controlled experiments
  • Form teams with diverse individuals and organizations
  • Test prototypes with realistic interventions
  • Promote adoption & assess impact

In a model now typical of many project-based courses in UX programs, the students spend 12 weeks on a project for an external “client.” In those months, they create a project proposal, do a short literature review, create prototypes that start with rough sketches and build to working versions of the interface in rapid prototyping tools. The designs are iterated through feedback from the class, usability testing, and expert reviews, and finally presented to the class and clients. Following this process, the students have been able to bring together science, engineering, and design to tackle important challenges in the real world.

This approach is not very different from design thinking or a robust user-centered design process. It offers a rationale for including user research, a team with diverse skills and backgrounds, and testing new ideas by trying them out in a realistic setting.

For those seeking to achieve breakthroughs in challenging and complex civic, business, and global problems, it is easy to see how this approach could be used.



The New ABCs of Research

I believe that the research leaders of the coming decades will be those who adapt the [Applied & Basic Combined (ABC)] and [Science, Engineering & Design (SED)] principles to fit their research projects. Success will require imagination coupled with perseverance, reflection amplified by collaboration, and inspiration channeled into action.

Researchers who embrace the ABC and SED principles and deftly apply new technologies can form highly motivated teams to deal with the challenges of our time, while inspiring their colleagues and future researchers. The quest for excellence is a noble human value, which manifests itself best in research when outcomes increase human knowledge, heal our planet, and raise the quality of life for every person.

Achieving these high aspirations requires thoughtful tailoring of the following five research life cycle strategies:

  1. Bring academic researchers closer to civic, business, and global problems, to help ensure that meaningful problems are being addressed and that the barriers to technology transfer are lowered.
  2. Apply the power of observations, interventions, and controlled experiments to produce clear descriptions, causal explanations, reliable predictions, and prescriptive guidance.
  3. Form and manage research teams with diverse individuals and organizations possessing the necessary knowledge, skills, and resources to address major problems.
  4. Test ideas and prototypes with realistic observations, interventions, and controlled experiments so as to make rapid improvements and scalable designs while collecting evidence to refine theories and practical guidelines. Combining quantitative big data analysis and qualitative analysis and qualitative ethnographic observations in well-designed replicated case studies promotes excellence.
  5. Present research results effectively to promote adoption, applying strategies that can be refined by using carefully chosen measures to assess impact.

These five strategies, taken together, provide a classic case of the whole being larger than the sum of its parts: together, they create even more opportunities than when they are applied separately, as research leaders seek appropriate partners to define problems and then work with those partners to validate theories, using traditional research methods in fresh contexts. Academic, business, and government partnerships based on genuine problems often smooth the way to successful technology transfer. These strategies emphasize the use of small research teams and larger collaborations, so that prototypes can be tested quickly to support scaling up (increased size) and scaling out (increased diversity), As solutions are found, these teams can reach out to their diverse audiences.



Description of Figure 1

The model is a flow diagram, moving from left to right, with the following boxes.

Three contexts:

  • Immense problems
  • New technologies
  • Raised ambitions

Two principles:

  • Allied & Basic Combined
  • Science, Engineering and Design

Five strategies

  • Choose actionable problems: civic, business & global problems
  • Apply observation, intervention & controlled experiments
  • Form teams with diverse individuals and organizations
  • Test prototypes with realistic interventions
  • Promote adoption & assess impact

Two outcomes:

  • Solutions
  • Theories