SIGCHI Equity Talks #6: Research & Practice
Vinoba Vinayagamoorthy (outgoing Adjunct Chair of Equity) - Project Research & Development Engineer, BBC.
The sixth Equity Talks centred around Research and Practice and was hosted by Neha Kumar (then VP at Large, now President) and Vinoba Vinayagamoorthy (myself, outgoing AC for Equity). We invited members of the SIGCHI community to join us in a roundtable, moderated by Cale Passmore, to discuss what it means to be inclusive of the diverse ways in which research and practice come together within HCI. SIGCHI sees and values participation from a wide variety of individuals and institutions in this context, and we hoped to begin to unpack these differences and how they impact us as a community.
The hour-long discussion started with Neha explaining that her research frequently engaged communities as groups of individuals, or in relation to community-based organisations. I introduced myself as a Research & Development Engineer from the BBC, a job I got after earning a PhD at University College London. The experience of being in academia and industry was the reason I was most excited about this Equity Talk.
Cale took over proceedings to moderate (2:26), starting with land acknowledgements, our code of conduct, and a draft agenda:
- Name the problem(s), that is, what are the challenges facing the intersection of research and practice in the SIGCHI community today?
- What might a more inclusive and collaborative environment within SIGCHI look like for those engaged in research and practice, honoring those who place research first as well as those who place practice first, even as they’re all engaged in both?
- Then, we asked: what are some barriers to inclusion and participation and career progression that we might expect to see in this regard?
- And finally, where does the responsibility for change lie and how might we create a more inclusive SIGCHI community that encompasses the different attitudes regarding research and practice? What actions can and should be taken to effect this kind of change?
Academic vs. Industry Research
Cale then turned things over to me as the “resident expert” on bridging academic and industry practice. This is of course an over-exaggeration since I have experience with exactly one of each.
As mentioned (8:06), my research journey started in academia. I came across an advert for a summer job in Virtual Reality (VR)with Mel Slater at University College London (UCL). I was successful in getting the job, and happily a week into my job, Mel invited me to do a PhD in VR. Long story short, I earned a PhD at UCL (part-time) while I worked as a research fellow. I was an international student so having a job at the university in a well-funded project was the best way to fund my doctoral ambitions. It was a privilege to be able to work and study in the same cutting-edge field. As part of that, I also had to churn out papers. My life was a mix of trying to find a path as a PhD student and also churning out papers because that’s a part of being a research fellow if you wanted to get another job in academia. I was also asked to help teach Java to first year undergraduate students — a language I had little interest (or experience) in; that was a stressful job not of my choosing. However, even if the subject matter you end up teaching is within your realms of interest, being a teacher comes with the knowledge that you can only make an impact on a percentage of the students you target. It takes three times the amount of teaching time to make a lecture and so you end up getting attached to the material, which makes it hard if you get back apathy from your audience. It takes experience to take the hit and keep on going.
I realised that I could not and so I started looking for a job in industry without really knowing what I wanted to do. I came across a job within the BBC to do research and development, a space I didn’t know the BBC was in. Since the BBC is a public service institution, we do research in cutting edge technologies and we do work in social good areas like sustainability and green technologies. I was able to go from doing things in computer vision/graphics, all the way to trying to find ways to conduct HCI research in-the-wild and using mobile phones to make companion screen experiences — so a wide range of research. As an R&D researcher, I am not a master of all things but I tackle multiple things not necessarily connected to the same project. I also get to choose my students or interns. So I think the difference between academia and industry is in the type of research you do (pure vs. applied) and the ability to choose which projects to collaborate on (theoretical vs. practical). I often think of going back into academia but I don’t want to lose the privilege of working in industry.
Barriers to Collaborating: Academia+Industry
Pejman Mirza-Babaei (14:04) described how his PhD experience had shaped his life in academia, where he engages frequently with industry actors. This had to do with his PhD supervisor having founded a startup, where Pejman also worked. Having run 30–40 user studies in this role, Pejman had been able to gain appreciation of the importance and relevance of combining research and practice, which he viewed as a privilege. He also mentioned that one challenge of running so many studies, however, was that they did not all reach the quality that one expects in an academic publication. They might not be deep enough, or be too focused to matter to a larger audience. Pejman talked of the struggle he encountered (and still does) in his collaboration with industry, where he still had to transfer project output into a publishable format. He targets his work to not just CHI but also to other SIGCHI-sponsored conferences which have tracks more suitable to disseminating industry work. Pejman pointed out that while his university kind of recognises and even likes applied research, he has heard of colleagues who have struggled to convince their dean or university that there is impact/value in applied research. Currently, in his role as associate dean for industry partnership, he always looks for more ways to bring in industry projects into the faculty. However, he has faced troubles in defining what ‘research’ is. On that topic he recommends The New ABCs of Research — an interesting book he recommends you to read if you want to see a different point of view and think a bit differently about research, how it may have impact and different types of impact.
The Importance of Building Bridges
Susan Dray (18:40) came on to talk of her passion — bridging — be it bridging between the North and the South or bridging between academia and industry/practice. She works as a consultant — a researcher for hire — and has worked primarily for companies around the world. As a result, she thinks of her experience in academia as being limited but has done a lot of lecturing duties as an adjunct professor in Panama as a Fulbright Scholar. She has had people in industry thinking that she is an academic and vice versa while she thinks she fits somewhere in the middle. Susan relayed that one thing that has bugged her in her experience of researchers is the perceived hierarchy within SIGCHI of researchers being important and practitioners really aren’t; that the things that really matter are papers at CHI. Case studies, she feels, are neglected. She feels that if we are really going to succeed as a profession, we need to acknowledge that we are an applied profession.
In her SIGCHI Lifetime Practice Award talk ‘Building Bridges, Not Walls’, in Seoul at CHI 2015, Susan talked of building bridges between academia and research. She talks of the many differences in how people in industry and people in academia work. She feels it’s important to look at these differences and figure out ways to address those so that we can build better bridges — a myriad of them even. She feels that if we want practitioners to be a part of the SIGCHI community, if we want to find ways of working with UXPA, for instance, we need to be honest about what SIGCHI brings to professionals, practitioners, or industry people. How can we make it less toxic to be a part of the community, less like you are always going to be a second-class citizen?
“I helped to found SIGCHI and yet, I have sometimes felt like a second class citizen…”
Nic Bidwell (23:44) talked of how she conducts practice in rural communities, how she works with NGOS — that guy who works for a telecom company and gets involved in the community network on the ground in order to do action research. Nic feels like when that sort of work is written about, it could come across as if these facilitators, these access points, are somehow bridges but not an integral professional part of the actual research, because that is the way we talk about it in mainstream spaces. She talked of her work with Oxfam who bring the ability to connect ourselves to an audience but they are not necessarily seen as people who have high expertise in technology themselves. So thinking of UX in industry — these highly skilled people are, Nic feels, integral parts of action research in her projects. She stated that they are treated as sort of subsidiaries, perhaps because that is how it works in the global North but really that is how stuff really gets done. So if we work with health workers or community people who are really good at digital storytelling then it’s difficult to partition things.
“There are these embedded questions of who one works with, how one works with them, who that knowledge is working for”
“Our Pie (HCI) is Pretty Small”
Elizabeth Rosenzweig (26:24), director of World Usability Day, wanted to add to what Susan was saying about UXPA and SIGCHI. She considers herself in both camps. She is an adjunct faculty at Brandeis and a consultant. At the time of this equity talk, she was working with a pharmaceutical company, interviewing patients and doctors about cognitive assessments — literally on the front lines, and yet she felt there was no place in SIGCHI to talk of this type of work. She feels UXPA went in a different direction too. Elizabeth hopes to use world usability day as a way to bring the HCI community together because our pie is pretty small to cut into little pieces and make progress. Elizabeth met Susan when SIGCHI was started and has been a member ever since, followed by UXPA. She doesn’t feel there is time or resources to decide that one of us is better than the other.
Debora Leal (28:14) added her support to the nature of the discussion. She added her practical perspective as a researcher in Brazil. Debora feels she is a practitioner but had to join the academic world in order to get paid. She faces conflicts thinking about how to write a paper that is evaluated not just for what is written but for what has been done — beautiful work done in a community but perhaps not communicated in writing as expected. Cale (29:42) commented that this points towards the challenges of finding ways to create systems around measuring impact or understanding the purpose of the knowledge work we do which is something they have encountered in their work to figure out practice versus academic research — the definitions of deliverables are so different.
There was a comment in the chat, relayed by Cale, where some conferences have industry tracks and demos which bring an interesting side to the experience. Increasingly a lot of organisations, at least in some fields, are developing tools at such a rapid pace. Working together can help boost each of those spaces.
Comparing Apples to Oranges
Susan (31:18) pointed towards SIGCHI awards as being an example of the problem spaces. She talked of the long time it took to get a practitioner award that was like the research award and for practitioners to get accepted into the CHI Academy.
“I wrote to Ben, Ben Schneiderman, at one point and asked about this and he said — ‘you will never be in the Academy because you are not an academic and it is for academics’. And that was pretty much the way it was.”
Susan had to push to get practitioners into the SIGCHI Academy and together with others had to push hard to get a Lifetime Practice Award in addition to the Research award. She notes that we are now seeing something similar in the Social Impact Award — awarded to people who study the impact of whose papers have had an impact in the academic community. However, she notes, that people who have actually impacted the world, who have made significant changes, people who started HCI communities outside the US, had an impact on the educational systems of a city — those people are not considered worthy of a Social Impact Award. She thinks this is an issue. Cale (33:29) thanked Susan for her work as we all should. I (Vinoba) added that in terms of what career achievements and progression mean — there have been conversations in which achieving tenure in academia (USA) is compared to 15 years of industry practice which personally seems to be an inaccurate comparison. The comparison is really not a like for like situation — experiences acquired in academia and experience acquired in industry are very different.
Neha (34:52) recalled a conversation she had with Melissa Densmore at AfriCHI where the exchanges suggested that practitioners questioned if there is room for them at CHI. Neha said that this was echoed in the inclusion survey administered in the SIGCHI community about a year ago; she questioned how to create spaces for that participation to be more valuable.
“If we are not relevant to practitioners as researchers, then we are not relevant.”
Melissa Densmore (36:21) felt that without them (practitioners) in the room, it means that we (researchers) are not putting together something relevant because they (practitioners) don’t feel the need to be there. She works with different kinds of practitioners and sees them as partners who know what’s on the ground, helping to identify participants, with domain expertise, maybe even in UX. The practitioners come with a variety of skills and expertise so she finds all perspectives essential to be able to do participatory design and contextually relevant work. She also recalled conversations she has had with Susan, concerning various conferences such as ACM DEV, now COMPASS, or AfriCHI, looking at how to bring US practitioners viewpoints on HCI into the room. She feels one of the issues is budget — most UX practitioners don’t budget time (6 days at CHI) and $900 per person for a conference registration. She liked how practitioners were not required to pay a registration fee at ACM DEV in Bangalore but were invited to attend the poster session. Similarly, in ACM DEV 2016, the organisers invited a panel of practitioners to talk to the community and made sure the keynote was from a practitioner as well. It felt important to create spaces for voices that are aligned with how they engage an industry to empower work to be conducted in context.
David Ayman Shamma (41:55), currently one of two Technical Program Chairs (TPCs) for CHI 2022, wanted to add to Melissa and Susan’s points. He pointed out that a smaller conference, ACM IMX, has been integrating industry talks into their program. Ayman recalled that one year when IMX had an industry day, in which a demo session was offered on the day at a lower rate so people from industry could drop in just for the day. Attendees who wanted to interact with industry could network and set up meetings for future collaborations if they wanted. Ayman also thanked Susan for her work in fighting to get the different SIGCHI awards implemented: Lifetime Practice, Lifetime Research, and now Social Impact. He also pointed out that the ACM model where previously they had distinguished scientist, distinguished engineer or distinguished educator, now they are all just distinguished members where your contribution could be engineering-centric, educator-centric or research-centric. Ayman questioned what impact that sort of thinking would have in SIGCHI awards.
Improved Ways of Thinking
Christian Sturm (45:08) gave us his perspective of institutions in Germany: universities versus universities of applied sciences. In order to be a professor at the University of Applied Sciences, you need at least 5 years of industrial experience, whereas in a normal university, you’d have to spend at last five years doing what amounts to a second PhD in pure theoretical research. He said that if you want to supervise PhD students at the University of Applied Sciences (where he works), you will have to pick a professor from a university to co-supervise. He feels that industrial experience is rather much less and it’s a hierarchical relationship. For the next CHI, he suggested a co-design method with the local chamber of industry/commerce to bring them to a workshop at the conference in order to define what the next CHI could be.
“Why not experiment together to come up with new categories, new formats, new sets of motivational factors?”
Ayman (48:52) commented that the idea sounded like a very interesting set of submissions for workshops and panels. Just in time as well as I was going to turn over the floor to Ayman. From my own personal experience, back in 2020 (before CHI 2020 got cancelled), my collaborators at Snap reached out to CHI 2020 to ask if there would be interest in a workshop in which we (organisers from Snap, Microsoft, and BBC R&D) funded 10–12 sets of academic teams (a professor/lecturer + students) in a creative challenge project to envision what the future of storytelling in augmented reality could be. The workshop would act as the culmination of the projects with a promise to bring at least 40 people to a workshop at CHI. Snap would fund these people to come to CHI but CHI said ‘no’. Given what Ayman said in the talk, hopefully future CHI events would be open to the idea of different formats. In the end the Snap Creative Challenge came to ACM IMX 2020 with 90 attendees from all over the world who presented wildly different projects. The second round of creative challenge in AR is now in progress with a focus on the future of co-located social augmented reality experiences.
I wanted to add to what Ayman said on two subjects — industry involvement and awards. In IMX 2021, we really struggled to get industry participation in the traditional track way. Practitioners found it difficult to understand what the industry track required and what sort of rigor was expected. We ended up hosting exciting panels instead but that was only viable because we were virtual this year. It’s very important to communicate that what conferences want with industry participation, first and foremost, is the exposure to relevant work and context. It’s important to define what conferences want from industry and format sessions accordingly. The same goes for awards. One of my fears in combining the separate SIGCHI awards into one stream is that we will have to make sure the committee is diverse, has good representation, and is unbiased. If we have a mainly academic committee, they will find it difficult to understand the significance of industry work and practice. This, of course, the problem Susan tried solving back in the day.
Nic added that applied research is seen as a dirty phrase by not wanting to admit that academia is part of the same economic system that might be distasteful to some or perhaps it is a classist model of the workers versus the intellectuals. Melissa added that practice is not just about industry; it’s wider and includes communities, NGOs, governments, multinational institutions etc. Christian added that it might come down to a simple power struggle and people being afraid of the unknown. Neha pointed out that many PhD students end up in these practice spaces so we should not be creating these hierarchies. Mellissa mentioned that crafting papers is not how most practitioners share knowledge, which I think is a great point and brings us back to a lot of the epistemic inequalities and epistemic differences we’ve been discussing throughout the series. Nic then wondered if the key to building bridges, picking up from Melissa’s thoughts, is around communication. She stated that at the moment we have a scenario in which lay people often distrust scientists and academics, maybe because they don’t understand our papers. Whereas in industry, for instance NGOs, half of their idea is just about being able to communicate effectively with a wider audience in order to reach them. It seems like academia sorely needs those skills right now. Nic wondered if this might be a way forward to rebalance things.
“Ultimately we need both practitioners and researchers and a balance between the two. And that’s how we can build bridges and make the world better for all of us.”
As we concluded the recorded portion of this equity talk, it is clear to me that there is so much more potential for SIGCHI to uncover. It was quite challenging to center a roundtable around an issue that’s mostly made of experiences and accounts where each side is aware of their strengths but is seemingly identified by their perceived weakness by the other side. Most of these opinions seem to have lingered from bygone eras. In recent years, the collaboration between industry and academia have covered not just research projects but also industrial doctorates, internships, industry-sponsored student projects, industry-funded creative challenges. There is an opportunity for SIGCHI to host spaces where researchers from academia and practitioners from industry come together to elevate each other and co-create together.
I’d like to close this blog post by inviting you to continue this conversation online. Come and join the SIGCHI Discord space (email email@example.com for an invite). You can also email to send us ideas you might have.
As ever, we are open for conversation!