Straddling academia and industry: How I do it


For more than 15 years, Eunice Sari has run her own user-experience consultancy while working in both academia and industry. She shares her experiences of bridging different words with Anthea Lipsett.

I catch Eunice Sari as she boards a plane to the United States to help international startups as a Google Mentor at the Google Accelerator Program in Silicon Valley. There is no drop in her workload, despite recently stepping down form her academic post at the University of Western Australia. “You’ve caught me at a very interesting moment in my life,” she says. Sari explains that she is making the most of the “wide-open doors of applied research and innovation in the world”.

“I was appointed by the University of Western Australia as a teaching-only lecturer, where research was not part of my job description, however I was still allowed to do it on my own time and with my own resources. As my heart is always on research I continued initiating and participating in cutting-edge research projects,” she says. “I received a number of competitive funding [awards]; internally as well as externally. I think my academic and industrial profile and experience in addition to my Indonesian nationality have added some values in those international collaboration projects.”

Sari has won funding from various different sources, from government scholarships to project funding, to internal university funding, as well as some industrial research contracts. However, her teaching-only position at the university did not help her to grow as a researcher.

“Successful academic research is not only about getting research funding and a publication in prestigious journals and conferences,” she says. “It is about creating an ecosystem that supports the sustainability of research impacts and a support mechanism for the growth of individual researchers.” This includes student researchers, early-career researchers as well as senior researchers, she says.

Doing research voluntarily in her own time and with her own resources, Sari managed to bring additional value to the university. She promoted the university by speaking at conferences, published her research and organised prestigious research events across the world. “A research university should be able to think ahead,” she says.

Sari was keen to encourage international collaboration, research beyond borders, applied research, community engagement and motivating mechanisms for researchers to innovate. “It was a hard decision to stand down from my academic position at the university, but I thought it was time for me to move on and realise my dream of doing an impactful applied and innovative research.”

Sari is clearly a force to be reckoned with. After she graduated from the Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan and Satya Wacana Christian University in Indonesia in 2001, she set up her own user-experience (UX) start up, UX Indonesia. Then she combined running her business with taking a masters at the University of Southern Denmark in interaction design and PhD in new media, education, user experience and technology at Aalto University in Finland and Edith Cowen University in Australia. At the same time she was teaching, doing research at universities and taking on a number of independent consulting and research projects.

She has pioneered a number of innovative projects, such as user experience for digital products and services, mobile learning, Internet of Things, service design and online communities. But she says her real interest lies in changing people’s lives with her work, and at the same time helping companies around the world boost their bottom line.

Moving on from her academic position, she is now working full-time as a chief executive of UX Indonesia in Australia and Indonesia running a number of research and consulting projects in transportation, finance and education. As the industries become more aware of the benefits of contextual user research for their products and services, Sari has been snowed under with new projects in this area.

User research is not to be confused with market research, Sari says. “User research studies in-depth the journey of users when they interact with digital products and services through different channels offered by the business.” It is an effort to understand the needs of the real users and the companies to stay ahead of their competitor, she says. “Your mission is accomplished if you are able to make a difference in the business of your clients – saving them from making the wrong decision on their business, product and marketing strategies, which can save them thousands and even millions of dollars.”

Sari’s teaching and research background means that she’s in demand by companies for research and training. One project often leads into another, she says. “I run monthly public user-experience training in Jakarta, Indonesia, which are widely attended by corporate researchers and professionals in addition to customised in-house user-experience training to meet the specific needs of companies and education institutions.”

She has been active bridging the gaps between academics and industries by founding a number of communities of practices in the fields of education and user experience. Sari co-founded Indonesia’s first chapter of the Association Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (ACM SIGCHI). Through this she developed a way of working that was friendly to academics and user-experience and human-computer interaction specialists under prestigious organisation such as the ACM.

High-quality academic publications that are specifically addressed South-east Asia, particularly Indonesia, have been published for the first time in the ACM Digital Library. Besides conferences, Sari also organises user-experience workshops, seminars, bootcamps and events to grow awareness of Indonesian academics and practitioners about user-experience.

As her work has been recognized internationally, she was appointed as an expert member of the International Federation for Information Processing Technical Committee 13, on human-computer interaction, for Indonesia and the South-east Asia Liaison for ACM SIGCHI Asia Development Committee.

Apart from her work in Indonesia, she has also been active in Australia with similar initiatives in Perth, where she spent half of her time as a part of her role as the Western Australia Representative for the Human Factors Ergonomic Association Computer Human Interaction Special Interest Group. Her recent appointment as the first Indonesian female Google developer expert in user experience and user interface has signified her role as a leading figure in the field in the Asia Pacific region.

“A research institution does not define your success in research. If you work with honour that includes honesty, trustworthiness, hard work and grit, you will be successful wherever you are,” she says. “I’m keeping my feet on academic ground too and staying affiliated with universities as an external examiner and advisor and [I am a] consultant for non-governmental organisations, doing research on digital technologies in developing countries.”

She appreciates the mix, saying that it allows her to do meaningful research and make an impact. “Research has always been an embedded part of my life. I have always worn three hats: study, research and work as a professional at the same time. As a professional consultant, you cannot make a decision out of thin air. You need to do your research, regardless. That mix of roles is important to me because it allows for the real-life application.”

Sari is also interested by the concept of “research impact”, which is increasingly important in Australian research policy but for her it has very little to do with being published in the right journals. “People talk about impact factor and are so busy getting published in high-impact journals but lots of people unless they are privileged enough to go to prestigious universities, don’t have access to those expensive journals or resources or are too busy to read all those publications,” she says. “That’s not fulfilling the purpose of my life. Please don’t get me wrong. I love reading high-quality journals anytime. I am just trying to be pragmatic here.”

“I conducted research to make a change. I have research, developed and nurtured a number of communities of practices to change and influence the way people live. For me that’s research. While the impact factor of a journal is important, the most important thing for me is how I can apply the results of my research to make the world better,” she says.

“I worked with a bunch of people in developing countries and the results of my research have impacted their life. I finished my PhD in 2012 and they still remember what I was doing and how the research has made a difference to them. That makes my life have a purpose. It is bigger than research points to get promotion to a higher rank. I do want to be a professor one day but that’s not the main goal of my life.”

Her advice for others looking to follow a similarly wide-ranging career? “Do the best you can do with honour and don’t fix your eyes on only one area. Marrying academic and industry research will benefit not just you but the people around you and leads to much more exciting and interesting research that you would never have thought of before. That’s certainly been my experience.” It leads to a “cross-pollination of ideas”, she says, rather than stagnating in one area or one perspective.

Will she ever go back to a more full-time academic post? “Because of my workload right now and travelling so much, it’s hard for me to stay in one university. But I’m making more difference this way.”

“This article first appeared in Funding Insight on October 14, 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.”

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