my research philosophy

Our understanding of individual technologies or practices—particularly in the context of human-computer interaction—is quickly becoming overrun by the rapid societal changes that surround us. These changes are being driven by emergent means for creative production and collaboration, shifting understandings of professionalism and disciplinarity, and the recent rise of user experience as a production framing. This complex social landscape, therefore, exists both in our collective understanding of what HCI practitioners face, and how the HCI academic community educates students who will eventually join these practitioners’ ranks. One substantial issue before us as educators and researchers is formalizing the competencies future HCI practitioners should attain, with direct implications for required coursework, assessments, and certifications. However, as the reach of HCI—through both its methods/approaches and technological innovations—becomes increasingly broad, specialization is becoming necessary, and the core skills that make one an HCI practitioner are becoming increasingly indeterminate. What binds together (or should bind together) those who work on web sites, mobile apps, wearables, and ambient computing devices? And how can we build educational resources that will allow students of today to be able to address and design the technological futures of tomorrow?

To address this complex space, my research focuses on documenting the competencies and expertise of HCI practitioners, both holistically and through their conception and use of design methods. Much of my work is interdisciplinary in conjunction with the design and education research communities, with recent work centered on HCI education and practice. My dissertation, comprising a one-year ethnography of an HCI graduate program, revealed the emergent proto-professional behaviors of students and the resonance of those behaviors with the students’ projected or future HCI practice community (Gray, 2014a). Surrounding this educational context in a proto-professional sense, I have also focused on how the understanding of needed competencies, particularly for those who identify as UX designers, evolves as the HCI student moves from their educational experience into the practice community (Gray, 2014b); this study indicates an initial typology of technical and social skills that are necessary for success in this rapidly expanding field. I have also contributed to the ongoing dialogue in the HCI research community in relation to the growing gap between research and practice: in an award-winning paper, my colleagues and I set forth an argument for increased understanding of the needs and approaches of HCI practitioners in order to build more situated understandings of design methods and their use (Gray, Stolterman, & Siegel, 2014).

This research trajectory extends into two important directions 1) the education of future HCI practitioners’ professional identity (Gray, 2014a, 2014b; Gray & Howard, 2014), including ways the educational environment encourages the externalization of their development of design and technical expertise; and 2) rigorously documenting the competence and skills of HCI practitioners through practice-led research, with the goal of maximizing the efforts of the research community in improving practice, which also iteratively informs the way HCI practitioners are educated.

I draw on my formal education in inquiry methodology, as well as additional experience in design theory, art criticism, and learning theory. The primary framing I use for my research draws from critical qualitative inquiry, which functions as a foundational metatheoretical lens that supports investigation into deep structural and system components in a social science orientation. I also have broad and deep experience in content and artifact analysis, thematic analysis, case studies, and various critical techniques for meaning reconstruction. In addition, I have successfully partnered with other researchers in a range of additional specialized approaches, including discourse analysis and computer-mediated communication. My current research collaborators in engineering education at Iowa State and University of Michigan also hold potential for future interdisciplinary work and external funding that capitalizes on HCI’s position at the crossroads of technological capability and prototyping and the broad impacts of devices and systems on society.

A richer understanding of HCI practice, alongside situated knowledge of the developing identity of practitioners in this context, helps us as a research community to bridge the divide between research and practice (Gray, Stolterman, & Siegel, 2014), enriching our educational programs that prepare HCI students for the workforce, while also creating better pathways for research to be quickly applied in practice. A robust, empirically-informed view of the identities HCI practitioners take on and how they develop over time will lead to better creation of theory in the research community, and more effective performance and enactment of theory in authentic practice contexts.


Gray, C. M. (2014a). Living in Two Worlds: A Critical Ethnography of Academic and Proto-Professional Interactions in a Human-Computer Interaction Design Studio. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.

Gray, C. M. (2014b). Evolution of Design Competence in UX Practice. In CHI’14: Proceedings of the 2014 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1645-1654). New York, NY: ACM Press.

Gray, C. M. & Howard, C. D. (2014). Designerly Talk in Non-Pedagogical Social Spaces. Journal of Learning Design, 7(1), 40-58.

Gray, C. M., Stolterman, E., & Siegel, M. A. (2014). Reprioritizing the Relationship Between HCI Research and Practice: Bubble-Up and Trickle-Down Effects. In DIS’14: Proceedings of the 2014 CHI Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (pp.725-734). New York, NY: ACM Press.