I recently visited Lancaster University's HighWire doctoral students to give a talk. As I remarked beforehand, HighWire brings together students from Management, Design and Computer Science (and more besides, it turned out). After talking it over with Graham Dean (who was kind enough to invite me), I decided the seminar would be a great opportunity to discuss about how we conduct research across disciplines, and indeed bridging industry and academia.

I gave a talk in three parts:

  1. Industry and academia: drawing on my experiences as an EngD student with the University of Southampton and IBM -- advantages, disadvantages, and some tips on getting it done and making the most of it
  2. Interdisciplinary work: I'm a Computer Scientist turned Web Scientist and HCI researcher, and I've done work in the past with people from the Humanities, Industrial Design and Education. I feel qualified to discuss interdisciplinary work ;) I touched on the pros and cons of disciplinary labels (you can be too introspective!), the different lenses through which we can see disciplines (drawing on my and Alan's "WebSci and HCI" paper), and the use of mixed methods for strengthening results. I also took the opportunity to find out how the HighWire students perceive themselves -- what disciplines they come from and what disciplines they work with.
  3. I rounded off with a quick taster of two big projects I've worked on -- TAPT, the method I developed for understanding and analysing experiences, and the French Kitchen, a smart kitchen for learning foreign languages. Why? To show how various threads can run through work that appears on the surface to be startlingly different: interdisciplinary work, interface design, ubiquitous computing, and -- above all -- a focus on the end user.

Pleasingly, the HighWire students are a very engaged bunch -- it was one of those seminars where there's active discussion and dialogue, rather than a monologue from the invited speaker -- which is much more fun! One of the interesting points for me was that I hadn't realised I was using the word 'community' almost synonymously with 'discipline' in some contexts, until it was pointed out to me. This is almost certainly down to my recent thinking about the Web Science community, which is still a core of maybe 100 people -- there are few enough Web Scientists that the discipline really has a community of its own. HCI, by contrast, is huuuuuuge (see, for instance, CHI'12, with over 2500 participants), and although it's rich with sub-communities, it's too massive a field to have a cohesive community in that traditional sense.

As well as being engaged, the Lancaster students (and staff!) were warm and welcoming -- and they work on a beautiful campus. All in all, a great trip.