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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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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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? 

Writing and Programming: More alike than you may think (Part 2)

Over the past year or so, I’ve become keenly interested in the connections between technology and the humanities. Why do we persist in separating the two?  Are they really so foreign that they can’t be brought together?  What can we carry over from one discipline to improve the other? How can we begin to blend the lines of distinction between the two disciplines to strengthen what we do as writers, usability researchers, designers, or developers?

These are huge questions to tackle, and I can’t even come close to scratching the surface. But I do have a few ideas of my own, based on my personal experience over the past 6 or 7 years moving back and forth between the two camps.

Yesterday I began a list that presents some of the similarities I’ve noticed between programming and writing.  This post is the second half of that list.

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Lendle: New Kind of Book-Borrowing

Borrow Books and Carry On


Bought a Kindle book that’s just been sitting there since you finished it? Lend it out! is a book sharing site that allows you to lend out and borrow Kindle books–for free! is based on the idea of “share-and-share-alike,” so you can’t actually borrow books unless you’re willing to lend out some of your books, as well. But it all sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me. You earn “credits” for each book you lend out. Once the credit adds up to $10, you can spend it at

Hmmm… sounds like I’ve found a way to help fund my habit!

Check out Lendle’s FAQ page for more info.


Image Source: Flickr, Adrian Short

The Beauty of Interdisciplinarity: Moving Between Two Cultures

Image source: “Interdisciplinary Crosstalk

Lately, I’ve been reading Go To: The Story of the Math Majors, Bridge Players, Engineers, Chess Wizards, Maverick Scientists and Iconoclasts–the Programmers who created the software revolution by Steve Lohr (2001).

Why on earth would an English PhD student read something like this? 

I mentioned several posts ago that my background is kind of whacky. I’ve never felt quite “at home” in any one department.  I’m like the friend who “couch-surfs” from house-to-house. I could crash anywhere and fit in for a while…but moving in permanently is out of the question. (Probably not the most flattering description, but I think it serves its purpose.)

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Robo-Readers to the Rescue: Providing Instant Feedback

Yesterday, I posted about an article published in Inside Higher Ed titled “A Win for Robo-Readers.” The article covered the findings of a study from the University of Akron, which showed that automated grading software can be used to evaluate writing for grammar and syntax.

I was a bit concerned about some of the comments in the article, but I’m actually very excited about the potential of Robo-Readers for the writing classroom.  But I wouldn’t rely on them necessarily as a grading tool. I want my students to use them as a learning tool. My hope is that eventually, Robo-Readers might be able to evaluate students’ writing for them as they work.

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Hybrid Learning: The Flipped Classroom

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we view the college classroom and the college learning experience.

I’ll admit that I have taken a few lecture-based classes that really captured my attention. The instructor talked for 50 minutes, and I sat there, mesmerized.

Actually, come to think of it, it was only one class… out of the 80+ classes I’ve probably taken in the past 7 years. The truth is, I usually hated lecture-based classes. I have an extremely short attention span, and even as a “good” student I struggled to stay engaged.

I’ve had a number of conversations with one of the professors in my department about how we might begin changing the classroom model to better fit our students. And one of the things we talked about was moving the instruction or lecture portions of class online, so actual class time could be spent doing other things.

Clearly I talk about this stuff way too much, because my family has started sending me news articles and blog posts that deal with non-traditional learning whenever they come across them. My mother sent me an infographic this morning that describes a “Flipped” classroom model that is being experimented with in a Colorado high school. Although Since I’m interested in how this would work in higher ed, I couldn’t resist posting about it.

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eTexts and Spatial Disorientation

You Are Here Comic
(Image Source: UX Magazine)

This seems to be one of my soap boxes lately. Here I am, again… climbing back up to talk about my observations about (and frustrations with) eBooks.

The text I’ve been most focused this past week,  Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice, by Janet Murray is rather expensive, so I decided to check it out from the library. A few chapters in, I realized it was probably something I’d want to refer back to over the next couple of years. So I downloaded the Kindle version.

And then a funny thing happened.  I’ve found myself using both copies. I’ll read from the hard-copy book, then highlight quotes on the Kindle version. Or I’ll skim through the Kindle version and annotate some of my highlights, then pull the book out to look at the pictures and read the captions.

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