The Value of Old-School Literature Reviews for Modern UX Research


Chances are if you have spent any amount of time in academia, you have either encountered or been asked to conduct your own literature review. Many folks want to roll their eyes at the idea of having to do a “large book report,” but this discredits the powerful research methodology that is the literature review. Spending 6 years in academia prior to my time in UX research, I have been able to see a tremendous amount of value (and critical need) for the application of literature reviews in modern UX research. 

Often the work, practices, and thought of academia sit in the lofty “ivory tower” - where it is deemed to be used only by other “worthy” academics and rarely makes it to the larger public who could also benefit from this work. This causes methods like the Literature Review to become lost in their application to non-academic research since it is deemed as only being relegated to the world of academia. Additionally, it causes academic and empirical articles to not be utilized by non-academic researchers, since they feel it is not relevant to them and their work (plus the loads of academic jargon certainly don’t help in making these texts accessible). However, once this notion of the “ivory tower” is broken down, and that “academic research methods” are simply  “research methods,” then you realize you can skip over all the jargon to get to the root of the article and the real value of the literature review is able to come through.

A literature review is conducted by referencing published academic papers and other information in a particular subject area (and sometimes a particular time period) to gain an understanding of the work that was conducted prior, as well as where the current research questions fit into this research. It can help to piece together old information in a new way or be used to trace the way a particular research field has progressed. Additionally, a literature review might further evaluate the information presented, and help the reader identify which pieces of information are the most relevant. The goal of the literature review is not to add any new contributions to the body of research, but to summarize and synthesize the work that has already been done. This methodology is critical because it helps you as the researcher determine if the problem you want to solve is one that other researchers and academics agree is worth solving- which is arguably one of the most important aspects of conducting UX research as well.

Being able to determine if the problem you want to solve is worth solving is just one of the critical insights and benefits that literature reviews can provide to UX research. Conducting a literature review in UX will help researchers cover the gaps in their research, speed up time by determining which questions of theirs might have been already answered, and also validate if the work you are doing is going to add something new and valuable in return. A literature review is basically like a guide to a particular topic or research question. Moreover, conducting a literature review for UX allows researchers the chance to draw inspiration and insight from the literature and ensure the research they conduct is grounded in theory and thought, rather than based on assumptions. Furthermore, academic articles are not just theoretical pieces of research - they can provide insights into new and innovative research methods and concrete findings, and even tell the reader what further research the author thinks should be done to help solve this problem. 

Breaking down the idea that literature reviews belong solely in the world of academia helps researchers to be able to see the real-world value and application of this methodology in modern research efforts. I think we have just scratched the surface of the value of literature reviews for UX research!

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