Thumbnail: Avi Parush
By Cliff Anderson
Cliff is a Senior Usability Engineer at Wachovia, the third largest bank in the US. He has been doing usability work for 20 years.
Few usability professionals are as well-rounded as Avi Parush. Avi has worked in industry and academia, testing and design, the Old World and the New, with web applications and airplane cockpits, in operating rooms and on the bridges of ships.
"My definition of usability is pretty inclusive," states Avi. "You're just trying to improve the system. Whatever you design that's supposed to be for human consumption should include usability."
Avi has "always been interested in human-machine relationships," going back to his days as an undergraduate at Bar Ilan University, in Israel. Avi continued his education in the field at McGill University, in Canada, earning a Masters in 1981 and his PhD in 1984.
While at McGill, Avi also taught, something he also did at the Israel Institute of Technology and Tel Aviv University, both in Israel. He is currently an Associate Professor at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada, having joined the faculty in 2004.
One of Avi's main academic interests is usability and safety in healthcare systems. That interest goes back to his experience as a practitioner - in particular with designing and testing GUIs for imaging devices and monitors. "I worked a lot with cardiologists and heart surgeons," Avi remembers. "They'd say, 'Why do you care about the windows, and colors, and font, and workflow? Just go into the operating room and see the unbelievable mess we have to work with. That's what you guys should work on.'"
Avi had to agree: "I don't see how anyone could walk into an operating room and not get frightened. You wonder how people get out of there cured." "There's a lot of IT in the operating room," Avi explains, "but it's a mess. They have to deal with a lot of information sources, a lot of different varieties of devices. Plus, it's teamwork too. It's a very interesting, very challenging situation."
Another academic interest of Avi's is spatial cognition, "a fancy word to describe how people manage to find their way around, learn about their environment, orient themselves," as Avi explains. He got interested in the topic when asked to evaluate a 3D metaphor for computer desktops. "The idea was that we may be able to use the idea of the physical world to find our way around," explains Avi. "We know what's left and right, what's up and down. We have this natural tendency. Maybe that's the metaphor we should use."
"To be honest," Avi confides, "I was really skeptical about it." He has found some very practical findings through his research, however, including applications to GPS, mapping, and even night-vision goggles. "It's theoretical," he notes, "but also has very practical applications too."
Before becoming a full-time academic, Avi spent most of his time in industry, working as a research associate, in-house as an individual contributor and manager, and as a consultant. During these years, he was exposed to fields as diverse as naval architecture, automobiles, aircraft, printing, the military, healthcare, semi-conductors, telecommunications, and the Web.
He's particularly proud of his consultancy, which he founded with his wife. With her, he was able to offer his clients design and testing, documentation, and training. "We had a big package we could provide to clients," he brags, "all the different parts of the product lifecycle."
He suspended his practice, though, when he started teaching at Carleton. Reflecting on the move, Avi notes that "I was always interested in more academic research, and in teaching. After about 20 years, I wanted to go back to be a full-time academic. It became less interesting to me, to keep doing the same kind of consulting. After you've done it for many years, you get to a point and say, 'Seen that, done that.' I like to learn all the time. I was getting to the part in my learning curve where I was slowing down."
He was also motivated by the opportunity to delve further into topics that he could cover only so deeply in industry: "Many, many times, I said to myself, if only I could do some serious research on this." Happily, his research topics at Carleton have been "mostly driven by some practical problem I ran into sometime in my career. It's really practice-driven."
The Two Cultures
Not all academics are like Avi however. "Unfortunately," he reflects, "academia and industry don't always play well together." "As much as I don't like it, and as much as I'd like to believe that it doesn't apply to my own research," he continues, "we still have a lot of work to do."
Avi sees both parties playing a role: "When I say 'we,' I mean practitioners and researchers. Academics should try to do their research so it is practice-driven. They should always bear in mind that there should be practical implications, and what those implications are. But that's only one side of the equation. The other side is that practitioners should bring up questions for researchers, so researchers can do some research that is of interest. It has to be a two-way street."
To help get the ball rolling, Avi wrote an editorial on the topic in Interactions, in the November, 2006 issue. He also points to his own work, as well as practicums he has set up for his students at Carleton. These are made easier by a law in Canada where certain grants "force you to have an industry partner." "Practically speaking," Avi points out, "the only way to get an industry partner is to make sure that the industry partner realizes that they can get some practical benefit out of your project. It's an interesting way to do it, from the top down, providing some kind of framework, almost forcing industry and academia to work together. But it is mutually beneficial to both sides."
Avi also points to some academic journals that have a more practical emphasis. In particular, he cites Human Factors, noting that "they force you to have a section on practical implications, and the last sentence in your abstract also has to be about practical implications." "Not many of the academic journals do that," he notes. "It could be a good practice. It could help bridge the gap between research and practice."
Journal of Usability Studies
One journal that definitely does that is the UPA's own Journal of Usability Studies. As founding editor and editor-in-charge, Avi is particularly proud of the Journal. The Journal, which was founded in 2005, has four issues per year, with three articles and one editorial in each issue.
The idea behind the Journal "goes back a few years," Avi notes. "Once in awhile, I'd say to myself, 'Well, we've got all these usability tests, which are quite interesting, but there's no chance to publish them.'" He also realized that, on various usability forums, "a lot of people were asking questions, and a lot of people were giving a lot of anecdotal experience, based on a lot of usability studies that they did. And, again, these things were not published anywhere."
After talking with Whitney Quesenbery, then president of UPA, Avi realized that "I was not the only one who thought about this." After being challenged by Whitney "to take it on," Avi jumped at the chance: "I didn't hesitate, because it's been a dream of mine for quite a long time."
Quite a bit of work went into getting the Journal started, with Avi taking the lead. After getting feedback from "important people in our field" like Jakob Nielsen and Ginny Redish, Avi ran the idea by the UPA board. The board loved the idea, though there were some areas of debate.
One of these was whether the journal should be printed or online. "I personally believe in online journals," states Avi. "I believe that pretty soon there won't be printed journals. People believe that they are more serious, but I don't know why. They're just not relevant anymore." Fortunately for Avi, the Journal is both.
Avi also "pushed very hard for it to have a real peer review, like any academic journal." "It behaves like an academic journal," Avi notes, "but it's also a very practical journal. One of its missions is that it must be geared toward practitioners."
Avi is proud of how far the Journal has come in just a few years. He points, in particular, to its "25 to 30% acceptance rate," as well as the multiple revisions that every article goes through. He also notes that he is getting requests to translate the articles into other languages, particularly Chinese.
Avi is especially proud, though, of "the little testimonials I get from individuals." He cites the very short emails he gets "saying, 'Oh, I used that article in my work,' or 'I used that technique,' or 'Can I use that questionnaire I saw in that article?'"
"We're still making our first baby steps," Avi notes, "but we are getting signs we are achieving the objectives of being a practitioner-oriented journal. This is what I'm happy about, and proud of, and what still drives me to continue with it."
One thing Avi would like to see, though, is more submissions. If you think you'd be interested, you can find out more about the Journal at its homepage, or by contacting the journal at firstname.lastname@example.org. Avi would be very pleased to hear from you.
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