Author/Interviewee: Alex Thayer
Author/Interviewer: Cynthia C. S. Liem, Jochen Huber
Alex, could you tell us a bit about your background, and what the road to your current position was?
Sure! I began my career in the tech industry in 1998, when I interned at the IBM Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose, California. Back then it was called the Santa Teresa Lab, and I completed a year-long internship because I wanted to get a richer professional experience than a single school quarter would provide. I also wanted to find an internship at a company that future employers would recognize when they saw my resume.
At the time, I thought about my career as a narrative that would span decades: What story would I want to tell about my employment history 20 or 30 years later? In a sense, each job would become a “chapter” in that story. As I have learned over the years, this metaphor holds up and each chapter has a slightly different theme: from drama to comedy to Greek tragedy. After about 13 different tech industry jobs, I think I’ve got a lot of genres covered.
Eventually I began working full-time at Microsoft in 2006. It was during my time there when I realized technical writing was not my passion. I decided to “adjust my career narrative” and shift toward UX design and research. I was able to make that happen partly because I worked on a cross-disciplinary team at Microsoft: We had interaction design, industrial design, user research, and content publishing included in the same team. I worked on software and hardware projects in a variety of capacities. For one project, I helped design the physical product packaging; on another project, I collaborated with my teammates on the vision for an adaptive keyboard.
Eventually I hit the limits of what I could do professionally without returning to school and advancing my knowledge about people and their practices. I returned to the University of Washington and spent 4 years working on my PhD in Human Centered Design & Engineering. I moved with my family to the Bay Area in California near the conclusion of my PhD work, and I looked for a role with a focus on emerging technology and interfaces. I found that role at Intel, where I stayed for a year and a half before shifting to a very different research role at VMware. When an opportunity to work at HP Labs arose, I decided to make another career move after a year and a half. It was never my intention to work for different companies so quickly, but I thought about the career narrative perspective and the story I wanted to tell. That perspective helped me make my decision to change roles and work at HP.
What is the professional role of interdisciplinarity in your experience?
Because I have an interdisciplinary skill set, I have discovered that it can be tricky to find a job! As a “T-shaped” person, it’s not always easy to know how to bring my full set of skills to a specific role or organization. In my experience, companies are looking for experts who can go deep in a particular area, but who can also span a variety of topics and skills as needed. In practice, this means collaborating with colleagues who have an assortment of technical backgrounds and methodologies. In a typical week at my current role, I engage with product managers, designers, design technologists, business leaders, engineers, economists, and scientists. All of these roles have different requirements and dialects, which means I am constantly surrounded by “interdisciplinarity,” if that makes sense!
Also, because of my academic research focus on how people collaborate, it’s hard for me to imagine a world without “interdisciplinarity.” That’s how I think about the “role” of interdisciplinarity: It’s more of a fabric or texture that underpins the teams on which I work. And as a leader, I need to consider how different members of a team or organization come together and bring their unique skills and backgrounds to bear on the tasks at hand.
As a tangible example, we had a terrific undergraduate intern at HP who was working on Computer Science and Humanities degrees at Stanford. His approach to his education resonated with me since I had taken a similar Engineering/Arts path in my own undergrad education. It was fun to watch him apply his thought processes and knowledge on a team of senior engineers, designers, and researchers. I believe he was successful in his intern role because he could reframe problems or goals in creative ways.
In 2012, you successfully defended your dissertation on “Understanding University Students’ Use of Tools and Artifacts in Support of Collaborative Project Work”. Almost a decade later: what are your thoughts on today’s use of (multimedia) tools and devices at a university level?
This is a great segue from the question about interdisciplinarity and collaboration!
As a social scientist, I am excited to see how new tools and processes “come with” students as they graduate and enter the workforce. The space of design prototyping is evolving rapidly, for example, as recent grads expect to use the same tools on the job that they learned how to use while in school. My role at HP included people management, and I had a number of conversations about how to get access to the specific software and hardware tools that employees needed to achieve their vision. Some of these discussions were easy: one of my colleagues asked if he could buy an iron and an ironing board, for example. I said yes. Other discussions required more planning, like when our team wanted to purchase a laser cutter. So perhaps I am taking this question in an unexpected direction, but I do see an opportunity to bridge a gap between the tools and devices in use at the university level and the availability of those same tools and devices in industry.
To be honest, I have a lot to learn about how students are doing their work today. It’s been several years since I finished my PhD. I spent an entire academic quarter observing a class of advanced design students. When I think about how they were doing their project work nearly a decade ago, and when I think about how I saw students working at Yale a couple of years ago, it’s easy for me to see the advances in technology. Or when we took a trip to Wellesley a few years ago, I watched my young daughter play with the VR headsets and try her hand at archaeology. And yet we still love whiteboards and paper! Once university students are able to safely return to in-person learning, I’m sure we will keep using whiteboards and paper as two of our main tools for learning and collaboration.
Looking at your impressive set of published patents: your inventions draw from and actually span many different disciplines.
Thanks! All of those patents represent the work of teams: I have been lucky to have worked with amazing people who, quite frankly, did the hard work to make those patents happen. So, returning to that topic of interdisciplinarity, I can only point to these published patents because of the amazing work of my colleagues.
One anecdote stands out for me now, as I think back about my experience at HP Labs in particular. I was meeting with one of my teammates, an amazing colleague named Ian Robinson, and we were having our weekly one-on-one meeting. We were talking about tracking digital pen devices in Virtual Reality (VR) spaces. At one point we began riffing on the idea of a “low-cost” VR controller, and then we had a realization: rather than putting a lot of expensive technology inside a single pen, what if you designed a pair of objects that relied on a different VR tracking method? We could conceivably eliminate the need for some of the guts of the single object if we had two objects moving in virtual space. We stopped out meeting and walked over to our desks, hoping to catch some of our teammates. We described the essential concept to a few of our peers and that was the genesis of the “VR Grabbers” idea. Jackie Yang was a Stanford grad student who was working as an intern in our lab at the time, and he did an incredible amount of work on the project from that point on. His effort culminated in our UIST 2018 paper on which Jackie was the first author!
How do you work across disciplines?
Continuing that “VR Grabbers” story, I was lucky enough to have a stimulating conversation with a really smart person in a place that enabled us to pursue the idea. Ian and I came from different professional backgrounds. We happened to find ourselves working together and, on that project, we made the most of our different skills. My role after that initial conversation was to evangelize the project inside the organization rather than develop the prototype, for example. So, while it was great to help a team come together around an idea, my involvement on the project was quite different than it would have been if I were earlier in my career.
I said a bit about collaboration earlier, but I’d like to go a bit deeper on this topic. In my dissertation I spent a lot of time in the literature review section exploring the different types of collaboration. I am a big believer in “contested collaboration,” which occurs when a team of people come from different backgrounds and bring their specific perspectives and experiences to bear on a project. It is certainly more challenging to lead a team that engages in contested collaboration: It would be a lot easier if everyone agreed all the time! I’m not saying anything new here, of course.
Could you name a grand research challenge in your current field of work?
I recently saw the 2021 AI Index Report from Stanford (https://aiindex.stanford.edu/report/) and I thought each topic raised in the summary of that report could represent a “grand research challenge.” On the topic of “generative everything”, I am particularly curious about the future of ideas. In 2019 I delivered one of the keynote presentations at the IEEE Games, Entertainment, and Media (IEEE GEM) conference at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. In part of my presentation, I raised the question about attribution of ideas and intellectual property when we “partner” with AI. I can imagine a future where it seems less clear “who” came up with an idea: the person or the AI agent? Thinking about the “VR Grabbers” story I told earlier, I wonder how that same story will play out 20 years from now. In my capacity as an affiliate assistant professor at the University of Washington, I’m excited to continue thinking about this topic!
How and in what form do you feel we as academics can be most impactful?
I think academics need to keep doing what they’re doing. Perhaps that’s a trite answer, but as a society we need to preserve and protect the ability of academics to do their work, to ask very basic questions and be surprised by what they find. I’m not just talking about the need for basic R&D so we can find the next penicillin. I’m also talking about how companies incentivize the effort to identify and use academic work.
I also think others know a lot more about this topic, though! I’d suggest reviewing the 2017 DIS paper, Translational Resources: Reducing the Gap Between Academic Research and HCI Practice, as a useful starting point. Lucas Colusso recently completed his PhD in Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington, and he was the first author on that paper. Thanks to Professor Gary Hsieh in that department, I became aware of Lucas’ work and now I reference it with my team members when we talk about how to pursue research topics that will have lasting impact. I believe academics are the experts at generating knowledge, and in industry we can apply similar approaches on our projects.
Alex Thayer, PhD is the Head of Research for Amazon (Search) in Palo Alto. He completed his PhD in Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington, where he is currently an Affiliate Assistant Professor. Prior to joining Amazon, Alex was the Chief Experience Architect for HP Labs. He has also worked at VMware, Intel, Microsoft, YouTube, and a voice recognition startup that was partly funded by James Doohan (Scotty from Star Trek). Alex’s professional work focuses on explorations of the social-technical gap and how we make sense of people’s habits, practices, and messy lives. His academic work spans topics from AR/VR to professional collaboration to digital gaming. He has published 12 patents on medical testing, haptic feedback systems, 3D and 4D printing, immersive displays, and wearable technology. He also co-leads his daughter’s Girl Scout troop.
Dr. Cynthia C. S. Liem is an Assistant Professor in the Multimedia Computing Group of Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands, and pianist of the Magma Duo. She initiated and co-coordinated the European research project PHENICX (2013-2016), focusing on technological enrichment of symphonic concert recordings with partners such as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Her research interests consider music and multimedia search and recommendation, and increasingly shift towards making people discover new interests and content which would not trivially be retrieved. Beyond her academic activities, Cynthia gained industrial experience at Bell Labs Netherlands, Philips Research and Google. She was a recipient of the Lucent Global Science and Google Anita Borg Europe Memorial scholarships, the Google European Doctoral Fellowship 2010 in Multimedia, and a finalist of the New Scientist Science Talent Award 2016 for young scientists committed to public outreach.
Dr. Jochen Huber is Professor of Computer Science at Furtwangen University, Germany. Previously, he was a Senior User Experience Researcher with Synaptics and an SUTD-MIT postdoctoral fellow in the Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT Media Lab and the Augmented Human Lab at Singapore University of Technology and Design. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science and degrees in both Mathematics (Dipl.-Math.) and Computer Science (Dipl.-Inform.), all from Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany. Jochen’s work is situated at the intersection of Human-Computer Interaction and Human Augmentation. He designs, implements and studies novel input technology in the areas of mobile, tangible & non-visual interaction, automotive UX and assistive augmentation. He has co-authored over 60 academic publications and regularly serves as program committee member in premier HCI and multimedia conferences. He was program co-chair of ACM TVX 2016 and Augmented Human 2015 and chaired tracks of ACM Multimedia, ACM Creativity and Cognition and ACM International Conference on Interface Surfaces and Spaces, as well as numerous workshops at ACM CHI and IUI. Further information can be found on his personal homepage: http://jochenhuber.com