I found Colin’s blog today.1 And then I found this post essentially asking, for not the first time, whether the academic community has “lost its way” because we don’t invent things that people use anymore2

This isn’t a complete thought, but I was reflecting on this a month or so ago as I tried (not for the first time) to separate what I do at my desk every day (or most days) from what colleagues and friends that I know that work at Microsoft, Facebook, Google or even smaller outfits like Sentilla do at their desks every day. What makes what I do “research” as opposed to what they do (“work”)?

To me at least it seems that the clearest separation emerges from considering the role of the “consumer”. To put it simply, I think that the job of someone working at Microsoft is to do what consumers want. That doesn’t mean always giving them what they want, since you can certainly lead the market and people aren’t always good at describing or predicting what technology or design will really please them. But that should still be at the front of your mind. It probably isn’t for most engineers that aren’t customer-facing, but someone else is there or there’s some structure encouraging them to pay attention to these things.

Me? I don’t think much about consumers. At all, really. Not about “consumers”, per se. To avoid getting into trouble, I should be fairly specific here. I think a lot about the goals and desires of the people that are using my contributions. Are these users “consumers”? You might be able to make the case that they are, but it seems different to me somehow. Maybe because we interact differently? I don’t really know.

OK, this rapidly morphed from a “deep thought” to a “I have no idea what I’m talking about” post. Wow. Sometimes its good to get these things out onto paper, just to find out how little sense you make once they get there. Sheesh.

  1. 1. Which I'll start reading along with a few new additions: Successful Researcher, A Gentleman's C, and FemaleScienceProfessor. []
  2. 2. The post should be read in its entirety, since my reduction of it is probably neither complete nor accurate. []