Secondary Comp: Brainstorming Questions

I mentioned in a post from yesterday that I’m getting ready to take my secondary comp exam this semester and on qualitative research methods, and my focus is on workplace research. At Georgia State, we work with our exam director to help us craft the questions we’ll be answering for the exam.

The secondary exam is made up of 3 questions. In a 72 hour period, I’ll answer each question in the form of an 8-10 page essay, using the sources from my reading list.

So far, these are the common themes of questions I’ve come across during my reading and in my conversations with my director. Now, of course, we’ll need to narrow the list down to 3 questions, not 5, and each question will be a bit more concise. But it’s a start:

Question 1: Design a study to examine the production of new media texts. What would that look like?

Design a workplace study. Outline and justify choices for the design of the study. What kind of data are you collecting, how would you collect it, and how would you analyze it? Describe the role of the researcher.

Question 2: What does workplace ethnography look like? Trace the notion of workplace ethnography.  In what ways has it changed and evolved? Compare and contrast current techniques for data collection and analysis using digital methods that we did not have in the past. What has that done for the way we structure research and interact with participants?

Question 3: How can I repurpose the same techniques used in writing process research to understand the kind of work processes of interface designers and/or user experience designers?

Within the context of usability and based on what we know about process and what we know about writing products, how do we create a usability model that looks at the production of “texts” created by interface designers and/or user experience designers?

What do we know–theoretically and procedurally–from usability, writing process research, and digital writing research? What are the focuses,  what do they do, and how have we created these methodologies and what are the limitations of what we’ve created? [Looking back over my notes, I’m now not sure what I was hoping to understand by answering this question…]

Question 4: What sorts of methodologies and methods have we, within Technical Communication, supported in the past that have led us to where we are today? Within the scope of Technical Communication that has embraced usability and user experience explain our development from a research prospective? (Will probably have to narrow the scope of this question even further in order to write a solid exam answer.)

What are the connections between Technical Communication, in terms of method/methodology, to other parts of the discipline?

Question 5: In the context of Technical Communication and digital writing, how are our methods of research changing or how do they need to change? How are our preferences for research and tools changing?


Designing a Research Project is Like Shopping–but worse.

Image(image source)

I’m approaching the last few hurdles of my PhD. Calling my secondary comp exam and the dissertation “hurdles,” however, is a pretty sad comparison. It’s like telling Aries Merritt “I’m sorry. We’ve switched out your 42-inch hurdles. You’ll now be jumping over the Empire State Building. Good luck.”

But I digress.

I’m scheduled to take my secondary comp exam at the beginning of April. My focus for the exam is on qualitative research methods (specifically workplace ethnography), which will help gear me up for my dissertation prospectus and eventually my dissertation work. (Yeah… that big nasty D-word.)

One of my comp questions will essentially give me a jump start on the methods section of my dissertation prospectus. Sounds simple, right? All I have to do is figure out what kind of research questions I want my dissertation work to answer, then go about telling my committee what methods I intend to use to answer them. Yeh…it’s only simple if you’ve never tried it.

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UXPin Design Tool

Pretty cool new tool by UXPin. You can use it to collaborate, create wireframes, and keep track of design iterations.

What I love is that you can also use it to help people understand your design process. Although this is nice for clients and stakeholders I think it’s especially useful for educating your design team and keeping everyone on the same page.

…because written Standard Operating Procedure Manuals and Best Practice documents are soooo last decade (and nobody ever read them then anyway).

Persona by Mariner – Tool for User Research?

A little blurb popped up in my inbox this afternoon advertising Persona, a new software release from Mariner. (I’ve used MacJournal from them before and love it.)

Persona by Mariner

In essence, Persona is a program that helps writers develop and maintain characters for their stories:

Persona is based on this concept: by categorizing characters into archetypes, you can know their background, which in turn shows their motivations, and then allows you to predict their behavior. (My emphasis)

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Users Don’t Know What They Want…Or What They do

We’ve heard it time and time again: People don’t know what they want. We’ve heard it from usability experts and UX designers…

To design an easy-to-use interface, pay attention to what users do, not what they say. Self-reported claims are unreliable, as are user speculations about future behavior. (Jakob Nielson, First Rule of Usability? Don’t Listen to Users)

You can’t ask users outright what they want. You get theoretical answers. You don’t get the answers that result from real choices in real situations. You don’t get the truth about how people think and work. (Robert Hoekman, Designing the Obvious)

The “listen to your users” produces incoherent designs. The “ignore your users” can produce horror stories, unless the person in charge has a clear vision for the product, what I have called the “Conceptual Model.” The person in charge must follow that vision and not be afraid to ignore findings. Yes, listen to customers, but don’t always do what they say. (Donal Norman, Human Centered Design Considered Harmful“)

We’ve heard it from Apple…

You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new. (Steve Jobs, quoted in “The Entrepreneur of the Decade“)

And we’ve heard it from pop-culture (thanks, George, for reminding me of this example):

[Homor’s half-brother] Herb decided his company needed a new car that would appeal to the “average” American. Despite the many objections of Herb’s employees, Herb encouraged Homer to follow his instincts in creating a car that American consumers would want to buy. Homer took charge of the project after Herb encouraged him to obey his gut when it came to what kind of car he wanted. Motors. (Simpsons Wiki, “The Homer”)

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How to: “Quote Dumping” With Kindle

In my last post, I mentioned that one reason I like reading with my Kindle app so much is how easy it makes it for me to manage my highlights and notes. I’m currently preparing for my primary comprehensive exam in November (yikes), and this feature helps me streamline my research and studying process.

I once painstakingly tried to copy down all quotes (along with citation information) I thought might be significant and useful for the future. And, more often than not, I was too tired/rushed/lazy/[insert appropriate adjective here] to do this while I was actually reading. This meant I either had to go back to the text and filter through all my highlights when I needed them, or I didn’t return to the text at all. (I’m ducking my head in shame.)

Total waste of time. And time is the one thing in my life I cannot afford to waste.

Now, all I do is highlight key passes in the Kindle app (either on my iPad or Mac), log into my kindle account online, and view all my highlights on one page. Once I’ve finished reading a text, I copy all the highlights into a document and file it away. Quote dump complete.

This also saves me time note-taking. Rather than taking detailed notes on every text I read that I use later to refresh my memory, I pull up my quote dump document. Skimming through my highlights gives me a very good idea about what I’ve read. Now, I save note-taking for annotation only: personal comments, flashes of brilliance ideas, criticism, or questions.

Just for kicks, here’s my entire process…

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We Don’t Buy Products. We Buy Experiences.

Whole foods, Audi, Starbucks, MoleskineWhole Foods. Audi. Starbucks. Moleskine.

Each of these brands develop and sell vastly different and unrelated products, but it’s not just “stuff” they market to consumers, it’s experience. There’s no doubt that Whole Foods is more than just groceries, Audi is more than simply automobiles, Starbucks is more than just coffee and pastries, and Moleskine more than stationary.

Whether we’re motivated by a personal attraction to elegance and quality or enticed by the cultural and societal status these brands signify, we still place a premium on the experience they provide. The experience embedded into these brands is why we pay $2 for a grande coffee at Starbucks when we could brew it for $0.47 at home or $10 for a Moleskine notebook instead of buying a $1 notebook from The Dollar Tree.

Even Stanford University President John Hennessy alluded to the draw of experience in an interview with Salman Khan about the future of credentialing in higher education. When asked if Stanford would ever consider implementing a completely online learning model for undergraduate, Hennessy quickly replied no”:

“We require our [undergraduate] students to live in a community for four years. And we believe that’s an important part of the [education] process…Will fully online learning be an experience that we feel is equivalent to the on-campus experience? That will be the question.

In other words, a significant portion of what these students (err–their parents) are paying for at these elite institutions has nothing to do actual classroom education. Of course I acknowledge that more prestigious universities attract high quality professors and can afford to provide student’s access to exceptional resources, etc… But my point is that students are not paying for the quality of the information being delivered (you can pretty much find all of that online, free of change); they are paying for the community, the culture, the experience.

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Is Web Usability Persuasive? Let’s ask FedEx.

Can web usability be persuasive? Honestly, I hadn’t really thought about it up until a few weeks ago. We think of great writing and speeches as being persuasive. . .but usability?

J. Anthony Blair in “The Rhetoric of Visual Arguments” (a chapter from Defining Visual Rhetorics, edited by Hill and Helmers) takes on the question of rhetoric, argument and persuasion in regards to images. He explains that historically, rhetoric, argument, and persuasion have all been connected to “verbal phenomena” (41). Ultimately, Blaire concludes that “arguments” can only be assigned to words not images, because images “cannot provide reasons for accepting a point of view” (44).  Although visuals can “[supply] grounds for beliefs, attitudes, or actions,” visuals arguments cannot be a substitute for verbal, and the two work best when combined together.

So what does this have to do with usability (and FedEx)?

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He’s Uneducated: Rethinking Our Models of Learning

Dilbert Comic - He's Uneducated

This comic is several weeks old, but I keep pulling it back up again and again. In just three small panels and in about 30 words, the strip speaks a pretty clear message of how the idea of education is shifting.

The more I thought about the comic, though, the more I realized we can actually read it two different ways:

  1. The interviewee is trying desperately to use the appropriate (yet empty) buzzwords that give him the credibility he needs. But to the Boss, it’s being translated into a completely different message: I’m a high school drop-out who failed three times at starting my own business. I’m not competent enough to make it through the formal education process, so I just try patch together the skills I need here and there. Instead of going to school, I went online and signed up for a few free courses, and printed off the completion certificates myself.
  2. Or, we can take what the interviewee is saying at face value: I was bored with high school and found it irrelevant because I spent all my time outside of class reading and learning about the things that actually interested me. I skipped my last year of high school and started not one but three successful start-up companies with a few of my buddies.  Although much of my knowledge is self-learned, the online course I’ve completed are designed and taught by ivy-league instructors from institutions like Stanford, Yale, and Duke. The technology field is constantly changing, so I continue to work and learn, diving into projects and learning the skills I need to be successful with those projects.
Regardless of our interpretation, however, Pointy-Haired Boss (that’s right–he doesn’t actually have a name in the Dilbert comics) is less than impressed, and he ultimately determines that this guy is uneducated.

Which leads us to the question: What is education? And how does that idea of “education” determine a person’s ultimate success?