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Professor William Gaver

Challenging perceptions of human values and technology

“What we are really trying to do is to open new possibilities for technology, explore and question the values it encourages and challenge what people are used to” - Professor William Gaver, Professor of Design, Goldsmiths College

“Pathways to Impact doesn’t need to be seen as something alien and outside of the research process. If it is part of that process it can help you to achieve your research objectives,” says Professor Gaver, Professor of Design at Goldsmiths College.

Professor Gaver leads a multi-disciplinary design studio that brings together designers and specialists in technology, sociology, and human-computer interaction (HCI). This eclectic mix means that over the years Professor Gaver has held grants from EPSRC, ESRC, and AHRC and has worked on cross-Council programmes such as New Dynamics of Ageing and the Energy Programme. “What we are trying to do is to design products that open new possibilities for technology, explore, and question the values that technology encourages and challenge how it is used. We want people to think,” explains Professor Gaver.

For Professor Gaver his research impact is about propagating innovative ideas to use technology in everyday life. This involves embodying fundamental research about peoples’ values and activities in designs that are highly unusual but still appealing. “We make things that work – highly finished prototypes that work technically and aesthetically and also experientially. We engage with emerging technologies. Where we speculate is challenging how people engage with them.”

Professor Gaver seems to be succeeding in this aim. One of the studio’s designs is the Prayer Companion which was developed and designed for a community of nuns. It provides RSS feeds of news and social media into the monastery giving the nuns access to up-to-date events, some major, some more prosaic, to include in their prayers. It blurs the boundaries of technology, utility, art, and religion and is now part of the permanent collection in New York’s MOMA.As well as gallery visitors, the audience for the studio’s research outputs include big corporations in the HCI community such as Microsoft, Intel, and Google. Pathways to impact for the HCI community are quite straightforward: Professor Gaver and his research team regularly attend international HCI conferences and present both their designs and field study results at these conferences. They also have established relationships with the industry magazines and publications, regularly publishing in them.

Top Tip:
If appropriate, build your pathways to impact into the research process rather than adding it at the end

The team’s approach is to work closely with users, often small groups, and communities, from the very start of the research process.

“Impact is integral to how we work. Typically we identify a type of people or community we think we can usefully design for and get to know them, visiting them in their own environment and discussing their values and everyday activities. We then design and make prototypes and give them to the users to try out for an extended period of time. This approach means that we can address basic research questions and make an impact as part of the same process,” explains Professor Gaver.

Sometimes the projects lend themselves to public engagement pathways. Material Beliefs was funded by EPSRC and led by one of Professor Gaver’s researchers, Tobie Kerridge, as part of his PhD research. It brought together bio-medical engineers with artists and designers with the aim of facilitating ‘up stream’ public engagement; allowing the scientists to think about the possible application of their technology – both good and bad – at an early stage in its development.

The interaction between the two groups generated ideas for new experimental products that were deliberately challenging. For example, one product was a remote monitor for parents to track their children at any given time. Members of the public were invited to discuss the products and the ethical issues they gave rise to with the designer and bio-medical engineers at a special event at the Dana Centre.

The event, like many of the studio’s research projects, was filmed allowing the research findings and discussion to be accessed by a larger audience. The films are used for on-line content and also as part of exhibitions.

“Our research process lends itself well to embedded user engagement. But to get beyond the small communities that tend to form the basis of our research and reach an audience that can apply it means attending industry conferences, contributing to the press, and creating dissemination materials such as films that can be used in a variety of creative ways,” says Professor Gaver.

The research that Professor Gaver and his team do is fascinating but does not fit into the simple concept of impact as an economic return that some still researchers still fixate on. Professor Gaver’s research offers a much more fundamental, subtle and complex understanding of research impact: opening new ways of thinking about people’s values and the ways that technology can support them.

Institution:Goldsmiths College
Funding council:EPSRC/ AHRC

Summary of research project

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