An American Post-Doc in Paris: Settling In

After finishing my dissertation in the fall, I recently moved to Paris to do a post-doc with an HCI research lab. In my first month in France, I’m finally getting the hang of things. If you’re at all interested in studying or researching abroad, here’s a bit of logistical advice to get you off the ground:

As always, networking is the best way to find a position.  Like most post-doc openings, mine was more a matter of meeting my now-boss and agreeing upon a research topic than it was applying to a job opening online.  I did ultimately apply officially online, but I was still able to check in with my contact to see how things were coming along.  And, even if you meet someone who’s not in your field, they may still be able to point you towards colleagues who need research help.

Do not underestimate bureaucracy. Perhaps it’s just a French thing, but I’ve found that there are many, many layers of bureaucracy required to settle into functional, non-tourist living in another country.  While I’ve had a lot of help from the administrative staff at my research lab, it’s still a bit overwhelming sometimes – I started keeping a flow chart to track what documentation I needed to apply for the next layer of documentation.  After getting a scientist/researcher visa at the French consulate in San Francisco (level 1), now that I’m in France I can apply for my carte de séjour (residency permit – level 2).  After I have my carte de séjour, I can apply for national health care (level 3).  And this doesn’t even include just finding a place to live – Paris is like New York, where rental agencies manage the market (and charge an additional fee for their services). They also require a hefty amount of documentation for anything beyond a 3-month “vacation” rental – bank account information, tax forms, 3 months of pay stubs, etc.  I ultimately found a short-term apartment  where I could stay while I build up the requisite paperwork and look for a long-term apartment

Don’t let language stop you.  Most major conferences are in English – which means that most research groups either already speak English, or have a vested professional interest in improving their English.  My research group is very international – France, United States, Germany, Chile, Mexico, China, Brazil – and so we communicate on our linguistic common ground, English.

Do use the opportunity to learn the language around you.  While professionally I work in English, I try to talk in French as best I can with the people around me on an everyday basis.  I was fortunate enough to have learned pretty good French in high school, and am functional enough to order food at a restaurant, explain to a salesperson that I’m looking for a powerstrip by dancing around a word I’ve not learned yet (turns out, le multiprise) and describing its functionality instead, and chit chat with the woman next to me on the métro about what I’m knitting.  I’m still looking for a proper French class, but in the meantime I’m expanding my knowledge of French by eavesdropping on my French coworkers’ lunch conversations and watching dubbed episodes of “Les Simpson” on TV with closed captioning turned on.

Do you have any advice on the nuts and bolts of doing research internationally? Any particular topics you’d like an American-post-doc-in-Paris to address? Comment!

DIS 2012 Highlights

Here’s a few of my own highlights from DIS 2012 sessions that I attended…

At the seams: DIYbio and Opportunities for HCI (Stacey Kuzentesov, Alex S. Taylor, Tim Regan, Nicolas Villar, Eric Paulos): Fascinating look at issues facing the DIY Biology including community, materials management, ethics, etc.  Some good examples about how interaction design might have a role in supporting the DIY Biology community.

How Learning Works in Design Education: Educating for Creative Awareness Through Formative Reflexivity (Katheryn Richard, Haakon Faste).  How traditional principles of good education break down when applied to creative design education.

Reflective Design Documentation (Peter Dalsgaard, Kim Halskov).  System for design documentation, this time thinking about how this could be useful to researchers who do research through design.  Very thoughtful, particularly during the Q&A.

Framing, Aligning, Paradoxing, Abstracting, and Directing: How Design Mood Boards Work (Andrés Lucero). Mood Board 101: what are the benefits to using them, what can interaction design borrow from this practice that’s common in industrial design, fashion design, textiles, etc.

Understanding Participation and Opportunities for Design from an Online Postcard Sending Community. (Ryan Kelly, Daniel Gooch). Nifty short paper about the life and times of http://www.postcrossing.com/

Exquisite Corpse 2.0: Qualitative Analysis of a Community-based Fiction Project (Peter Likarish, Jon Winet).  Nifty short paper about crowdsourcing a novel line-by-line over twitter, looking at how the narrative is being constructed and managed in a lightweight, distributed medium.

Experiences: A year in the Life of an Interactive Desk. (John Hardy).  One computer science researcher’s reflection on spending a year living and working on an interactive desk. Brought up lots of longitudinal issues that realistically must be considered if interactive work environments are going to be supported in the long run.

… Oh, and, if you’re still curious about that “cool bit of electronics” that came with the conference nametag, it turns out it’s part of Tom Bartindale‘s to-be-published research project at Newcastle University’s Culture Lab. The board has an IR transmitter that  is picked up by the cameras at the conference that are recording talks and interviews with authors.  This metadata of ‘who’s on camera?’ allows videographers to search through stacks of footage and find clips with particular subjects.

Reporting from DIS 2012

I’ll be blogging this week (June 12-15) from DIS 2012 in Newcastle, UK.  This year’s DIS conference is actually part of a two-week conference series that also includes Pervasive 2012 and the International Symposium of Wearable Computers (ISWC 2012).

When I arrived I was very pleasantly surprised that my registration “bag” included:

  •  My badge/nametag.
  • A cool bit of electronics (more on this later).
  • A conference program, which fit into my plastic name badge.  The reverse side has a map, for easy reference.
  • A USB key with conference proceedings.
  • The ubiquitous conference bag … which is actually an Onya Bag that fits into a tiny stuff sack and attaches to a keychain.
  • A lanyard, to which everything is attached.

I tend to a) recycle 90% of the flyers that come in conference bags within 10 minutes; b) continually forget my conference program; and c) begrudgingly lug former conference bags to the grocery store.  Thank you, DIS 2012 organizing committee, for thoughtfully designing registration and being well-organized.

You may still be wondering about that QR code and cool bit of electronics near the bottom of my name tag.  Registration let me know that it’s being used to identify me automatically in video taken at the conference, and that it works with interactive coffee tables in the main lobby area.  I’ll do a bit more investigating on how this works and will report back soon!

Dear HCI, Thank you. Love, Mechanical Engineering

My entire academic background – BS, MS, PhD –  is in Mechanical Engineering.  However, in addition to conferences hosted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, I also attend the suite of ACM’s Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Conferences. So, why should Mechanical Engineering care about HCI?

First, product design includes interfaces.  ‘Product design’ refers to the blend of mechanical engineering and industrial design. Design is the ‘outward facing’ side of Mechanical Engineering; product designers conceptualize, design, and implement many of the physical products you interact with on a daily basis.  In the cafe that I’m currently writing from, a design engineer was involved in everything from the teacup, the teapot, the table, the chair, and the laptop I’m writing on… and all the packaging that each of those products arrived in.   These traditional products still have interfaces – examples from Don Norman’s infamous “Design of Everyday Things” address how people physically interact with ‘non-smart’ products and devices such as teapots, doorknobs, or rotary telephones.  Today’s product designers are asked to not only design the physical product, but also weigh in on how the user should interact with smart products.

Second, design research in mechanical engineering can learn from findings from interaction design.  Early-stage phases of new product development – particularly user research and concept generation– are agnostic to whether or not the final ‘product’ is a physical product, software, a physical or digital service, or an architectural space.  As a result, many of the same design theory principles coming out of the interaction design community are broadly applicable to other design domains, including product design or new product development, within some level of translation.

Finally, engineers deserve well-designed technology. Engineers are people too – and, while computer scientists frequently design new programming environments for themselves, mechanical engineers and new product developers are not always the subject of thoughtful, human-centered technology design. Taking an HCI perspective to understand how engineers and designers are users of software opens up the possibility for better-designed tools in the future (I’m looking at you, CAD!).

… so why should HCI care about Mechanical Engineering?

It’s sometimes easy to get lost in cognition, perception, algorithms, and pixels.  However, when mechanical engineers check their gut, they see the physical interface between humans and computers.  You’ll see plenty of relevant contributions from Mechanical Engineering in the areas of ergonomics, haptic feedback, or tangible interfaces. But more broadly, mechanical engineers offer the reminder that humans (and computers) still primarily exist in a physical world.