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Problems and Opportunities of Interdisciplinary Work Involving Users In Speculative Research for Innovation of Novel ICT Applications

Book Contribution - Chapter

As professionals, we are increasingly finding that we have to cross traditional disciplinary and institutional boundaries, such as between academia and industry, or between science and design. We are sharing methods and tools between disciplines, but it can be easy to lose sight of the motivations and intellectual foundations of these methods, the tacit knowledge that we bring to their use, and the wide variations in how the results of investigations and interventions are interpreted. We need to understand better these divergences, identifying pitfalls, but also highlighting the creative and analytic opportunities of this approach to working.
This chapter contains many personal experiences from our own everyday work life. For this reason, it is well worth reading our biography that has been included further along in the book. The standpoints adopted in this chapter very much reflect our backgrounds as social scientists.
More and more boundaries are being crossed between institutions and disciplines in the search for innovation in the field of novel ICT applications. Companies like Intel, Nokia, Xerox, Google, Yahoo and Bell Labs have decided to involve professionals other than engineers in their research work. Although some companies have been working with multi- or interdisciplinary approaches for more than ten years, a clear methodological interdisciplinary framework for innovation research within companies has still not been defined. While the added value of bringing together different disciplines is acknowledged, why and how this value is achieved remains unclear. Hence, different companies have developed their own approaches: in one, a separate "human sciences" department has been set up; another has established multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary teams; and there are also engineering companies paying an academic social science research group or a consultant to do certain research.
There is a growing body of literature that focuses on the difficulties of work in multi- and interdisciplinary teams, citing issues of epistemological difference (Penny 2009), conflicts of identity, group membership and cultural capital (Jackson 1996; Nicoll 2000), misaligning of concepts and terminology (Leigh Star 1991), lack of openness to approaches and ideas from other disciplines (Payne 1999), power issues (Suchman 1987), structural biases and failure of management. However, these types of teams are constituted because it is recognised that their varying skills and knowledge are necessary to conduct research for innovation, in the same way as labour and knowledge is divided in most other areas of human endeavour. We, as social scientists, are concerned with interdisciplinary work involving research with "users". Our question is not only what difficulties can arise in interdisciplinary work involving research with "users", but also what ways the methods and outputs of user research can act to make interdisciplinary research successful.
This chapter is presented in three parts. First, we define some common challenges when working in interdisciplinary ways. We summarise the different forms of representations of users that are used in (speculative) innovation research. Second, we describe the challenges of a social scientist entering an engineering team and the way we are seen as a proxy for users. These challenges will be illustrated with personal observations (Laurence) made during her first months work within Bell Labs, and will be situated in a broader discussion. Third, we will attempt to formulate a way that user research can act as tool for making interdisciplinary research a success. Here the personal reflections of James on different projects he worked on are discussed. We end by giving some real-life figures of the utilization of user research methods in the Application Domain groups of Bell Labs and we round up by pointing to some starting points on how user research methods can be handed over in a way that research with users can facilitate interdisciplinary speculative research on novel ICT applications where every member has a different role to play.
Book: New Media Technologies and User Empowerment
Series: Participation in Broadband Society Series
Volume: 6
Pages: 101-122
Number of pages: 21
Publication year:2011
Keywords:methodology, interdisciplinary, design, ict, observation