The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations

Ben Shneiderman

Published by
Oxford University Press
ISBN 978-0-198-75883-9
RRP £24.99
Reviewed by Nick de Voil MBCS
Score 9 out of 10

This book may have attracted your attention because you enjoyed the author’s classic Designing the User Interface. It’s not the same sort of book at all. This time, drawing on his experience of academia, Professor Shneiderman has written an original, carefully thought out and trenchantly argued manifesto for a new way of doing research in universities, which has implications for all of us.

He calls for two fundamental changes in the way that we think about research, both concerned with breaking down barriers between siloed disciplines and mindsets. First, the segregation between “basic” and “applied” research should be done away with. Researchers should not address themselves purely to developing new knowledge for its own sake (basic research) or to solving specific practical problems (applied research). Rather, they should set themselves aims which combine and balance both types of goal so that they reciprocally reinforce each other.

Second, we need a renewal and extension of the collaboration between science, engineering and design. The combination of science and engineering is quite well established, but adding design thinking into the mix brings a new dimension. As he says, ‘design is a unique way of thinking that engages with stakeholders, reflects on ethics, and is devoted to human values’. It includes an emphasis on multi-disciplinary teams, prototyping and iteration.

One of Shneiderman’s previous visionary works was entitled Leonardo’s Laptop, and here too there’s a feeling of wanting to return to a Renaissance-style freedom from the artificial divisions that have grown up around subject areas. And with good reason: the problems facing humanity are becoming increasingly complex, and we need to bring multiple perspectives to bear on them in an integrated way.

He places great emphasis on the identification of suitable areas for research. Problems should be solvable, and the solutions should lead to the greater good of society. It’s an explicitly utilitarian approach, but none the less inspiring for that, and entirely in tune with BCS’ ‘Making IT good for society’ theme.

Not only is this required reading for decision makers in universities and government, but designers of socio-technical systems of all kinds can learn something from it.

Further information: Oxford University Press

August 2016