Towards the next step, leaving academia

Today was my last day at Media and Design Lab and consequently at EPFL. So, I leave academia and... here's the whole story. It's been 5 years that most of my time was spent there (although other ventures such as simpliquity, LIFT and the near future laboratory also took me some time) doing a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction and a post-doc in a design/architecture lab working on various projects. So not it's time to reflect a bit abut the next step (as Julian did lately).

So, I am leaving academia and there are different reasons for that. The first thing to say is that I am not sure that I want to play the tricks of the academic game which are both about location ("in Europe is usually "you go to certain US universities for 3-X years and find another position somewhere to eventually try to get back"), publication competition and of course specialty/discipline. I guess it's here that I was a bit frustrated lately. Being a bit interdisciplinary, I don't know where to sit now: my original background was in cognitive sciences (psychology) and I did a master in Human-Computer Interaction in a psychology department (University of Geneva), and then a PhD in HCI in a Computer Science department (EPFL). My last job (research assistant in a design/architecture lab) also reflect my interest in design research. And in addition, over the course of my studies, I have been interested in having conversations with companies/think tank which turned me into a consultant and a conference organizer for LIFT. This combination of activities and interests have led me to look various overlapping domains (user experience, design research, foresight research, cognitive psychology, anthropology and ethnography, human-computer interaction, usability, etc.) and of course different methods, paradigms, authors, POV.

Looking at these another domains and methods have no doubt changed my practice and modified my interests. The sort of research I was doing 5 five years ago was mostly experimental and quant studies to address psychological implications of technologies. Starting from theoretical models, the point was to test hypothesis (H0 versus Hn), compute inferential statistics, analyse the results, see what they mean wrt to theories and at the end of the day reflect on what this means for engineers or design practitioners (the criticized "implications for design"). Very much cognitive psychology-inspired HCI. I don't really do that anymore and my research practice has been changed due to different factors:

  • Having worked with video game designers in the last 7 years, I learnt how looking or building "implications for design" is different than doing cognitive psychology. I felt that their needs were less about building theories and laws about behavior but more situated account of how their technologies or environment were used, understood, appropriated. Learning more about ethnography and qualitative research was very fruitful for that matter. Of course, this does not dismiss more quant-inferential research but it seemed to me that qual+quant descriptive research was the thing they need at first.
  • On the theoretical side, I was also interested in less hardcore cognitive science theories, more alternative accounts of how people make decision, do things together and use/create artifacts. Theories like Situated Action, Distributed Cognition was interesting for that matter although I don't agree with everything here. But it surely changes the way I want to conduct research.
  • Having done research in ubicomp where it's impossible to carry out studies in a controlled environment (which is the pre-requisite to run experiments), I had to go for more qualitative methods.
  • ...

Thus, having experienced that (and sometimes tried to make some bridges between different methods or theories), I started to doubt about where I was sitting, what sort of research tradition I'd like to adopt (top-down inferential cognitive psychology? bottom-up descriptive situated ethnomethodology?). And of course, once you're doubting... you start raising issues or questions that does not appeal to reviewers or researchers from certain tradition. Eventually, I found it hard to get back to ultra narrow-minded cognitive stuff and interdisciplinarity is sometimes recommended however not really rewarded. And i became fed up reading papers in which people don't know anything about a certain literature/methods/ideas because it's "out of their field".

So... this situation led me to to question what I was interested in: circulation of knowledge, innovation, user experience of techniques/technologies, foresight and future research can be relevant keyword in that context. Which can be defined by two vectors:

  1. "User experience research": I know that sounds not very academic and rather practitioner oriented but I find it covers a lot of the issues I like to investigate through field/user studies. It's about understanding the implications of certain technologies, how they are appropriated, used, deployed, understood, etc. a a micro/meso level (not the whole society level) from a descriptive perspective that can inspire design.
  2. "Foresight": doing scanning, building scenarios, describing alternative futures based on weak signal spotting. This is definitely less academic and more about diffusion of innovation but I am convinced the material gathered in (1) can be useful for this and help defining scenarios for the future. In general, foresight research rather operate at higher level (more macro, with data coming from sociology) but my point is that all these levels can be combined.

What I am interested in, oftentimes, it the cross-pollination between different worlds, making analogies between different domains and drawing issues/solutions/problems/insights form them to enrich the problem at stake. Mapping the overview, defining the problem space, finding opportunities by using various sources: meeting people, having conversations, reading academic papers, annotating books, conducting user research (from usability test to ethnographical studies), taking weird pictures or writing about all of this. This is why I am interested in foresight research since it's rather about this sort of macro perspective than the more narrow POV of scientific research.

What does that mean for the next? Simply that I will have, from now on, 2 affiliations: being a consultant/conference organizer at LIFTlab and a researcher at the Near Future Laboratory. In the end, it's about being involved in a "think-tank" stance: smaller, more flexible, less about ivory-tower and silos. That said I will still have one foot in academia through teaching HCI and user experience research in different institutions; and I am still working on academic publications.

We are currently in the process of defining the services we will provide ranging from providing strategic review of projects, writing foresight research report, conducting user studies, organizing workshops (or participating in workshops), lecturing, teaching and organizing conferences. And my focus will remain in my areas of expertise are: urban and mobile computing, networked objects and tangible interfaces. Any interest in collaborating? Need someone like me for a specific gig? feel free to ping me.

In the meantime, thanks Jef and all the LDM team for this fruitful year!