Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Nicolai Brodersen Hansen for the “How I Work” series. Nicolai holds a PhD from Aarhus University, Denmark and specializes in Codesign and Participatory Design design processes with a specific focus on materials and materiality. He recently joined TU Eindhoven as a postdoc where he is working on empowering citizens through smart technologies using both co-design and urban prototyping strategies. Also dabbles in Human-Computer Interaction and should spend more time programming.
Current Job: Postdoctoral researcher at the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), the Netherlands
Current Location: Eindhoven and Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Current mobile device: Sony Xperia Z5 (I know, embarrassing)
Current computer: MSI GS63VR Stealth, a really highpowered windows laptop that feels like a gamer machine
Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us
I am a Postdoc at Eindhoven University of Technology, researching empowerment through smart technologies, materials and creative design processes.I finished my phd in Interaction Design and Participatory Design from Aarhus University in Denmark september 2016. I am employed for three years as a Postdoctoral researcher here at the TU Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and my job is to drive and develop the agendas of a new research project focusing on empowering citizens through smart technologies, or to put it in another way, finding new bottom-up approaches to involving citizens in ie. politics, urban planning and product development through technology. A good example is how facebook for instance has allowed people to mobilize and organize around issues they care about locally, but I am also keenly interested in how we can involve people in the design processes of the now very technologically advanced products they use.
What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
Evernote and Zotero are so integral to my academic workflow that its not even funny. I also use Atom, a hackable text editor… for some reason I like having barebones text editors for writing. I have recently taken up Trello too, which I really like, especially for its ability to add forwarded mails to a todo-list in Trello. Just forward a mail to a special email address, and boom, its on your todo – I think that highlights how I think about tools… they need to be lightweight but also integrated so that I don’t have to switch modes or keep double tabs etc. For heavy writing I love scrivener too.
What does your workspace setup look like?
I alternate like crazy and like sitting in new places… however I seldom have the opportunity to work at home, given how I have a one-year old son and that just doesn’t allow for off hours work for me. Apart from that I have two workplaces, my main one being at Industrial Design at TU/e where I am employed. We are currently in the process of moving to a new fancy building that is under construction so I currently inhabit the Play-Lab, where lots of fancy VR stuff goes down too. It’s a bit of a mess using a lab as an office, and I think I am constantly disturbing work there or vice versa, but it’s just three months until we move to the new building so I will suffer it for now. I also have a seat in an open office at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam in Amsterdam where I work some days of the week. The project that employs me is mainly with Amsterdam partners so it makes sense to split my time between two cities.
What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Let’s get honest, I suffer from pretty bad anxiety most days, so I always always second guess and overthink. To combat that I need to let go in the moment and just do the thing… one good trick I have learned is to jump right in and not overthink it. Just look at whatever is in front of you and resolve to spend 5 minutes on it, right now, no thinking further, just get going and resolve to spend five minutes on it. That little mindtrick helps me a lot since I don’t have time to plan and fear and guess, but just hack a bit on it. As they say, every paper is written one word at a time.
How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
Trello is probably my answer right now, along with google drive. As you can tell I use more or less the cookiecutter things, but I am also a firm believer in the best tool for the job being the one you know how to do the job with.
Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
I have a kindle that I sometimes read academic books on.. however I am the kind of guy who has a workflow so integrated with zotero and pdf highlighting that I kinda prefer screenreading unless I am doing the famous medium-shift trick where you write something on a screen, and then print it out and read it again and change it and back and forth, until you are satisfied. This change of medium allows me to ‘see’ the text in a different way I think.
Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
I really don’t think I am a very outstanding as an academic, but you can drop me in the middle of a bar fight and I will make five friends before the night is over. In other words, I am good at networking and that will take you quite far, even if you need the writing and researching skills to back it up. Typically I will be the guy who knows everyone and that makes me good to know for setting up collaborations. I am also quite a wiz at picking up a working knowledge of almost anything very quickly.
What do you listen to when you work?
This is terrible, but I like to listen to either ambient soundscapes (example here) or if I am tired and just needs to get fired up, some symphonic metal like Nightwish, Epica or even, gasp, Within Temptation. This is getting awkward isn’t it?
What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
So, of course I try to read a lot of academic papers and being very well-versed in Participatory Design, I keep up there, reading skimming a lot of what comes out. I did a literature review on Participation in Design too, and I feel like I should revisit it, since it draws on data from 2002-2012 and a lot has happened since then. Apart from that I just switched jobs to this new project which means that I have to read a lot of new things on play and games.
In my private time, I like to read sci-fi or fantasy, preferably anything from the Warhammer universe OR very serious history books like the memoirs of panzer generals. I was never very good at reading what most people would consider good literature, although I have dabbled a bit in a bit of Dostojevsky when I was young and depressed.
Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
So, I am quite extrovert I believe most people would say, but it is of course way more complex than that – I love talking and being with people but it drains me a lot. So in other words, if you want me to do some work, you gotta offer me a secluded space and some solid chunks of time, something I currently struggle with finding. The easiest way to kill my productivity is actually sitting me in an open office and throwing lots of impressions at me. I guess I loved writing my dissertation actually, sitting there and fighting at 2 am listening to for instance this: … all alone. Bleeding and just typing my little heart out in glorious solitude.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I have a small son and now you are just being mean aren’t you? It’s bad trust me. Anyhow, I typically go to bed at 10 pm, then get waken up once or twice by the son before 2 am, then the night shift pulls in and we go like that until dawn where I wake up at 6:30. I am definitely sleep deprived these days and it’s hurting everywhere including my budget for energy drinks and pain killers. Don’t be like me kids.
What’s your work routine like?
I TRY to focus on one or two easy tasks a day and one hard. So tomorrow for instance I have a poster for a accreditation meeting, a status report for the project etc. All easy enough. Apart from that, I want to formulate a research experiment or two for some of our partners – not so easy. I am also writing a paper for the Digital Games Research Association conference together with my colleagues.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Get enough sleep. I still don’t follow it. My own best piece of advice is that contrary to popular belief, in academia you can polish a turd: given enough bad writing about a subject, you will eventually be smart enough to write something GOOD about that subject. What you can’t do, is think and think about a subject and then write something good. So just sit down and write some bad stuff, you might not even show it to anyone. And then, after a while, it turns out that within all of those pieces of writing about a subject that you know quite well (you are a researcher remember?), you will be able to re-write something fantastic.