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How Bob manages his conversations

The value of persistence: A study of the creation, ordering and use of conversation archives by a knowledge worker by Christine A. Halverson, IBM T.J. Watson Research in HICSS’04 proceedings

This paper argues that designers of Computer Mediated Communication Systems (CMCs) need to pay attention to the storage, organization and retrieval of conversations. It presents an ethnographic study of ‘Bob’, an expert consultant to consultants in a large organization, and examines the ways in which he fashioned what he calls his “external memory pack” from the thousands of conversations he has had via instant messaging, email, and other forms of CMC. Particular attention is paid to the way in which he organizes, searches, and weaves together conversations to achieve his ends. We conclude by outlining the design implications of his use.

If you need an example of personal information/communication/contact management and of a blend of tools used for it read this one.

My main takes:

  • Good as an example of the role of personal information management in knowledge work
  • Justification of a single individual study :)))
  • Awareness as a result of e-mail reading – “Having read them he often remembers when he read it as much as what he read, or where.”
  • Use of saved communication for reconstructing events.
  • Coexisting of short-term (~goal focused?) and long-term (~learning?) conversations
  • Interplay between personal and public spaces
  • Visual representation of Bob’s conversations and use of tools
  • Going from e-mail as habitat to a blend of multiple tools
  • NoteTab light (free powerful editor)

Main question that bothers me is a suggestion to study lead users to guide future product designs. I don’t say that we don’t need studying early adopters, I believe that we have to remember about the chasm between them and the majority. To be fair, the author does not forget about it:

Bob is unusual in many ways: his technical skills and willingness to search for and cobble together many technologies, a job for which performing that overhear makes sense, and perhaps for not making notes on paper. However, he is not so unusual that we can not see their seeds of a possible future there for all of us. Bob’s example opens our eyes, not just to having conversations, but designing in order to support doing something with them later: that is, the storage, browsing and retrieval of conversations. Right now, Bob is going to great lengths in order to do so. That need not be the case in the future.

To be fair, from many papers I read, I like most those very similar to this one: ethnographic research on how people work, clear, practical, with clear literature connections and descriptions of methods used (usually these papers come from R&D labs of hightech companies and not from academic research 🙂 Next to all these qualities, the paper about Bob is full of humor :)))

What does it mean to be a consultant to consultants? Do you fly twice as much or dress twice as nice? Are you twice as smart? Or perhaps you know twice as many people? At least in Bob’s case, it may mean that you have twice as many conversations, and you save them.

Archived version of this entry is available at http://blog.mathemagenic.com/2004/02/28.html#a1098; comments are here.

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