Reflecting on the Year and Going on the Job Market

Early in August, I celebrated my first anniversary at AT&T and I reflected on the year. I made a list of ten events and activities that I found most fulfilling and fun during this year. In no particular order, these were:

  • Mentoring my summer intern (Tom Jenkins): coming up with a scoped project, working to understand the space, and advising on the direction of the project and study design
  • All of the STEM advocacy work I’ve done, including the invention workshop for the “Take Your Child to Work Day,” speaking to women at the “Girls Who Code” Camp, blogging for HuffPost on STEM stuff, etc.
  • Giving back to the academic community by serving on committees, including being short papers chair for IDC (that short paper madness was MAD!!) and serving on the CSCW PC for the first time.
  • Working in interdisciplinary teams on new patents for AT&T and having more than 5 of them pursued by the company (I was the primary lead on 3 of those).
  • Seeing a Masters student I advised at Georgia Tech (Sanika Mokashi), present her work as a first author at IDC and knowing that I had a big role in helping her shape and carry out this research.
  • Having my first single-author publication at CHI and getting an honorable mention award for it. Presenting the work at CHI, I felt that the community really appreciated my contribution.
  • Finding that other researchers are actually starting to use the questionnaire I developed in the course of my thesis work, even before its official publication (slated to appear at CSCW). That made me feel really useful to others.
  • Blogging and getting feedback from friends and colleagues on early ideas and reflections like this one. Having 3 posts hit over 1000 views: 1, 2, and 3.
  • The three workshops I participated in this year: Diverse Families @ CHI, Enhancing Children’s Voices @ IDC, and DSST, and all of the follow-up work and new research that’s coming out of the collaborations forged there.
  • Working with the OCAD University’s Suz Stein and my department to understand new research directions for AT&T through future-casting design techniques. Following up on these ideas to flesh out and sketch concrete scenarios, that eventually led to patents, projects, prototypes, etc.

It’s definitely been a fun year with lots of excitement! Unfortunately, I’m coming to realize that the recent organizational changes at AT&T Labs Research might make it harder for me to do the aspects of the work that I enjoy most. Also, it became clear that the things I enjoyed most about this year are much easier to pursue in academia than in industry (except maybe collaborating on department-wide project and developing patents). I love working with students, publishing, going to conferences, collaborating with researchers from other institutions, and doing service to the community. I am allowed to do all these things at AT&T, but it is becoming harder and harder to carve out time for them under the new organizational structure — researchers are expected to dedicate a lot more of their effort to projects vetted by the company’s strategy division.

This reflection has led me to the decision to go on the academic job market this year. I want to be clear that I am not making this decision because AT&T has not been a fun place to work. I love my colleagues and my manager, the culture of collaboration and willingness to help both in and outside of my department, and the potential for having my ideas influence real products. But, I think at this point in life, my passions are taking me in a different direction.

I’m open to any institution that will allow me to pursue the things I love most: working with students, investigating interesting problems, and publishing my work. And yes, I do understand that there are other parts to the job as well, like grant writing, teaching, and serving on committees — I think that I would enjoy all these parts as well. If you think I may be a good fit for your department, let me know! I’d love to check it out and learn more about it. Here’s my 140-character Tweesume: I am “an HCI researcher, investigating technologies for enhancing social relationships in the contexts of familyhealth, and personal growth.” I linked an example paper in each context (though, many more are available on my publications page).

What’s In a Word

9409141159_66fbabd750_z

There were a lot of sticky notes involved in figuring out my next research agenda. Luckily, I got great help at DSST!

Recently, I had an amazing opportunity to attend the DSST (Digital Societies and Social Technologies) Summer Institute in College Park, MD. DSST brings together junior (e.g., postdoc, pre-tenure faculty) and established researchers from fields like Computer Science, HCI, Social Informatics, Information Science, Sociology, Anthropology, STS, and more. While there, I participated in workshops, got more familiar with methods used in other fields, and got a lot of great tips on articulating my research agenda (this is frequently a struggle for me because I have such broad research interests).

In small groups, we mapped out the research space of DSST, focusing on how we fit into the picture of a research area that encompasses so many different communities and venues. Interdisciplinarity is not for the weak!

There is so much I could write about this event, but there is one particular issue that resonated in multiple presentations, workshops, and offline discussions — the issue of vocabulary. It seems to me, that the biggest problems in interdisciplinary work arise not when we don’t know the words the other person is using but when we use the same words in different way. Here are a few examples:

  •  Problem: In Computer Science, this term often means “research challenge,” as in “I’m working on the problem of how to connect parents and children who live apart.” However, in some Social Science domains the word “problem” may be reserved for situations that are broken or non-normative. In other words, “connecting parents and children” is not a problem to solve — I might be supporting families in facing the challenge of separation, but I’m not fixing something that is broken. In some ways, using the word “problem” takes agency away from the people we am trying to support, instead positioning the designer as “the fixer.” Usually, this is not what people who build systems actually mean. This is a loaded term and might be better avoided or replaced with “challenge.”
  • Theory: In Computer Science, this term often refers to the study of abstract constructs like Algorithms and Data Structures and frequently developed through mathematical proofs. In the Social Sciences, there are many types of theories serving different functions (my favorite reading on this is Halverston’s “What Does CSCW Need to DO with Theories?”). Theories are frequently heuristics used to understand and discuss empirical data and may or may not need to have strong predictive power. My personal observation is that theorists of both sorts have keen minds and a love for an elegant explanation and can become great friends once the vocabulary issues can be resolved.
  • System: In Computer Science, “system” usually refers to a set of software and hardware that performs a specific function. At DSST, it was more frequently expanded and used to refer not just to the software and hardware but also to the people, practices, and ecosystems around the use of that particular tool.
  • Ethnography: I’ve heard builders use this terms to refer to any sort of formative work that involves observing and talking to users. Not surprisingly, people who are trained as ethnographers might see this as an over-simplification. It’s hard to put the same label on a single week of observation versus two years of being embedded in a particular setting. Perhaps, rather than using the loaded term, it might make more sense to refer to specific methods used such as “two weeks of participatory observation” and “contextualized interviews.”
  • Social Computing: This is a slippery terms, because we are all still trying to figure out what it means. This area is at the intersection of social science and computational systems, but what is included or excluded? As I spoke to people at the workshop, many equated Social Computing with either large-scale social network analysis (e.g., “we looked at 3 mill Tweets”) or Crowdsourcing (e.g., “we leveraged the crowd to do citizen science”). I was happy to provide a third possibility that I believe should be included in the definition: mediated communication for supporting one-to-one and small-group relationships. I hope that we continue to include things like videochat, ShareTable, haptic connectedness devices, small online support groups, etc. in our definitions and investigations of Social Computing.

In industry, most of our work happens in interdisciplinary groups. This kind of reflection has helped me understand why at times I have had trouble explaining my work or outlook to somebody from a different background, like formal methods or software engineering. DSST reminded me the importance of establishing a common ground and a common vocabulary in any work that brings together diverse disciplines.

Availabowls and Other Uses of Bowl-and-Pebble Systems

I’ve always been kind of obsessed with interacting with abstract digital ideas using simple physical metaphors. One of my recent projects in this space has recently gotten some press coverage from Fast Company, so I thought that I’d share and offer a bit more detail.

A bowl with physical "pebbles" can be a more intuitive way of managing complex settings.

A bowl with physical “pebbles” can be a more intuitive way of managing complex settings.

The issue is that there are lot of complex settings with many facets that are a pain to manage by using checkboxes in a settings panel. I use privacy as an example in a system I call “Availabowls.” Currently, the granularity allowed for specifying availability is often a bit all-or-none, but there may be a lot of nuances in how you want to manage access to self. For example:

  • I may want to be seen as available to some people/groups and not others
  • I may want to be contactable via some technologies and not others
  • I may want to specify a level of busyness between “available” and “not available” and let the sender decide if they’re issue is important enough to disrupt me

It would be a nightmare to manage each of these settings in a control panel every time I come home. Literally, I have nightmares where I’m swarmed by radio boxes and checkbox panels! Instead, I imagine that a physical token can be used to represent a specific setting. For example, pebbles represent one unit of “busyness,” small blocks represent people or groups of people, plastic tokens represent communication media. Now, to set my privacy settings, I just have to transfer objects between a green bowl (on) and a red bowl (off) when I get home. There’s more about all this in the Fast Company article.

But really, I imagine that a physical pebble-and-bowl system of this sort could be useful for other complex settings. For example, pebbles may represent separate elements of my security system, making it easy to dis/arm everything but also easy to just leave specific elements disarmed (e.g., the back door while I’m having a family BBQ). Or they may represent different eco-friendly subroutines in the house such as ones that turn off lights in un-used rooms, control the house temperature, outdoor sprinklers, etc., again allowing me to only pick the things that I really want to have on right now.

Advantages? I think this is easier to deal with than checkbox panels. It’s easier to have a pebble-and-bowl system “live” where you would most likely be making these changes (e.g., by the front door) than a computer or a tablet. It doesn’t feel like a computer, so it won’t freak out grandma. It’s glanceable or even potentially eyes-free if each pebble has a unique shape.

Disadvantages? There’s only one physical pebble-and-bowl object and I see no elegant way to be able to sync states with this object if you wanted to make changes to your settings remotely or if you wanted to have multiples of these in a big house.

Is this something that appeals to others? Or am I unique in my checkbox-panel-phobia?