13:51 11/06/2004 Mathemagenic: Mathemagenic
on personal productivity in knowledge-intensive environments, weblog research, knowledge management, PhD, serendipity and lack of work-life balance...


  Friday, July 28, 2006

  Lessons learnt from helping family members to install and use technologies

Last few weeks I had quite a few experiences with setting up technology (mainly Skype and Flickr) for my family members and helping them to learn how to use it.

Helping your "hardly computer-literate" relatives is a great source of insights: about problems that non-geeks have with tools, about mental models they construct, about good strategies to help learning or ways to solve problems that you mom could have when you are not around.

Which brings me to two thoughts:

First, it would be a great case of teaching about all things "user-related". What if anyone who design or develop tools, especially those intended for a different target group then themselves, should be asked to make sure that their parents use one of their own everyday communication tools. This would require:

  • finding which tools would be useful and for that purpose - e.g. now my mom wants to use Flickr to "talk in pictures" with my in-laws since this would solve the problem of talking in different languages
  • find a way to install and configure those tools according to the user needs - e.g. I was very surprised while configuring Flickr for my mom and my mother-in-law that both of them were so worried about someone stealing their photos that I had to set it up as "no prints" and "no downloads" for anyone outside of the family.
  • find a way to explain how to use the system and to make sure those instructions stick long enough for the system to be used - I'm actually thinking of making a set of screenshots explaning Flirkrc functionalities in Dutch and Russian and sticking those somewhere easy to find.
  • find a way to troubleshoot when things go wrong - e.g. I was happy that I registered my own email as an alternative and kept earlier admin emails when my mom lost her Flickr password. Another example includes my brother who was so tired of visiting my parents and sister for admin work that he configured remote access to their desktops.

Those who manage to succeed (measured as consistent use of the tool by parents within half a year), would get  "Basic user studies expert" title, lots of insights, fun of seeing their family "geekyfied" and have an extra reason to come visiting if troubleshooting on distance doesn't work or their parents want to learn how to use one more feature.

The second thought is a bit more scientific. I wonder if there is any research on this aspect of relationships between geeks and their family/friends - strategies of supporting someone else's encounters with technologies and lessons learnt from it. Didn't do any proper search, only saw some hints to that as a very side issue in The long term fate of our personal digital belongings (.pdf). This would be such a great source of insights with lots of technology design/technology introduction implications (itching to do some of that myself, but probably should try not to get distracted :) 

And a funny side-not observation - I always thought I was much into workplace uses of technologies research, but it seems that my personal experiences get me more into home and family stuff. Interesting...

More on: family 

  System administrator appreciation day and invisible colleagues

Our IT guys send an email with a gentle reminder that today is a System administrator appreciation day. A quote from the web-site:

A sysadmin is a professional, who plans, worries, hacks, fixes, pushes, advocates, protects and creates good computer networks, to get you your data, to help you do work -- to bring the potential of computing ever closer to reality.

So if you can read this, thank your sysadmin -- and know she is only one of dozens or possibly hundreds whose work brings you the email from your aunt on the West Coast, the instant message from your son at college, the free phone call from the friend in Australia, and this webpage.

Friday, July 28th, 2006, is the 7th annual System Administrator Appreciation Day. On this special international day, give your System Administrator something that shows that you truly appreciate their hard work and dedication.

Having read a lot on invisible work and coming from working environments where lots of things I had to do myself I'm starting to realised how much "overhead" or "infrastructure" work can be easily taken for granted. Secretaries, sysadmins, information specialists and many others internally called "support stuff" keep me working on what I do best, providing a space where I'm not bothered with many "non-core" small things. I go to them only if things break or I need an extra something. If things work their efforts is so invisible, that they can easily become non-existent.

Just an example: talking to a collegues running our information center I realised how much work she has to do "behind the scenes" to make sure that I can access all those papers from online databases. I find something, click and access the source not knowing that that the only reason I can do it is that my IP address sits in some contract that gives us access to some database. I don't have to bother about contracts and databases, budget and legal negotiations, technical details - I can just get the paper and continue to work on my own stuff.

So, once in a while it could make sense to think about your "invisible colleagues" and do something to let them know that their work is important for you - appreciate your sysadmins, worship a librarian or give flowers to a secretary.

  Wednesday, July 26, 2006

  Nancy White on blog communities and more questions

Nancy White has a great series on blog communities. Too much to summarise, so you have to check for yourself (titles of 2-5 are mine, but based on the content):

A few thoughts:

I'd also think on platform-centric communities (e.g. "LiveJournal community", although I wouldn't define it as a community and would talk about LJ subcommunities). Those have many elements of community-centric blog communities, but do not necessary have "other" tools or share a common focus. They may emerge out of coincidence of sharing same space (similar to the communities that could emerge from people living in the same neighbourhood) since making cross-platform connections are likely to be more difficult than connecting inside the platform (and some platforms actually lock people inside with no RSS, obligatory registration and other tricks).

Something else - what happens when a weblog belongs to multiple (type of) communities at the same time? During the meeting in London where Nancy presented those ideas and I commented on that, someone suggested that my blog is a center of blog-centric community. I don't believe so, but let's imagine it's true. My weblog is also part of several topic-centric communities that do not necessarily overlap (e.g. KM community and internet/weblog research community).

Dina touches another side of it:

Reading the whole series, Nancy raises many issues which I struggle with.  I think some of us straddle all three types of blogging -- I am a blog-centric blogger with Conversations with Dina, a topic-centric blogger with a loosely-knit communities around social media, ethnography, qualitative research; and have been and am a community-centric blogger with Worldchanging (GULP - no posts there for ages from me) and all the Help blogs.  Would be interesting to see how my behaviour and interactions vary depending on where or what I am blogging.

  Tuesday, July 25, 2006

  Automatic translator for Skype chat and familyskyping project

A few weeks ago we had a very special incident. My mom thought that I was around home computer with Skype logged in as Robert and started a chat. In Russian.

Of course, it wasn't me next to it, but Robert himself. He went to an online translator, figured out what my mom was saying, got his reply translated and posted back. First my mom thought I was making fun of her typing strange Russian, but then she had to believe that she was chatting with Robert. Both of them were very happy and very proud that they found a mode for direct communication despite of speaking different languages.

Thinking of opportunities that this discovery could bring (=not having to translate back and forth between family members :) I thought that it would be great to find an automatic translator for Skype chat. I found one -  ULRTMT - Universal Language Real-Time Message Translator, which is in difficult to install beta. Haven't tried it yet, but already happy since these times things develop fast.

On a side note - it took ages to get my mom on Skype and she is still learning ins and outs, but I'm so much happier now. Between other small victories is having my grandma talking to me (wearing "I look like those guys from Spaceship control center" headset) and giving her a video tour of our house in real time.

Now, there are a few more things before my familyskyping project brings real fruits: get other family members on Skype, make sure my mom finds their webcam and my brother installs it, configure properly for my new Bluetooth headset so I don't have to change the settings manually...

More on: family life Skype 

  OneNote for recording and coding qualitative data (+ more on tagging metaphor for flags)

Last year I experimented with using OneNote to record interviews: it allows to record audio syncronised with notes. The main reason is that I don't have resources (and to be fair don't see the need) to make full-text transcription of all interviews, so I use notes plus audio combination to work on the data. 

Specific advantages of OneNote in this respect:

  • My notes include key phrases, issues and emphasis, so I can easily recover the contents of the interview even without having full-text transcription (I actually transcribed one of the interviews, only to realise that it didn't add any new insights on the data for myself). 
  • I can go directly to an interesting note, click a button and then audio starts automatically - this is a very easy way to retrieve specific fragments in case I want more details.
  • I can edit notes (e.g. in cases when I want to have a full-text quote) and add more notes without destroying the audio link. It's not perfectly synchronised, but works well enough for connecting right paragraphs to corresponding audio pieces.

Specific things you have to keep in mind if you want to use it this way:

  • Make sure you have an external microphone. I didn't have it, so sometimes the audio quality doesn't make me happy. Fortunately, since using OneNote was an experiment I had a back-up audio recorder, so sometimes I have to use that audio and miss the advantages of syncronisation.
  • There is a way for automatic transcription of (close to perfect) audio into notes (another reason to have an external microphone). I haven't tried it out yet, but if it works it would provide interesting opportunities (e.g. good quality automatic transcriptions would allow concentrate on meta-level in note-taking).

Now to the coding. I didn't want to port data from OneNote to any external qualitative data analysis system, since those I checked wouldn't allow to use audio or would break the connection between audio and notes. OneNote has some basic "coding" functionality, but unfortunately this is not enough for what I want.

I thought of coding the data with OneNote flags: flags allow to mark fragments of text and then retrieve it as summaries (makes sense to read this post if you need a better understanding of how it works). I guess OneNote flags were not intended for a use in a way I envisioned for them, so not surprising I have a long list of issues that don't make me happy. Anyway, I'll write them down - who know what inspiration the developers might need for the next version :)

What I miss:

  • Flags
    • User defined icons (or keywords/tags) to remember easily what is behind certain flag (it's a bit difficult to remember what did I mark with blue/yellow/green geometrical figure :)
    • Ability to define keyboard shortcuts for all flags I want (currently only nine flags have predefined shortcuts, to add others I have to go via a couple of menu levels - quite annoying). Alternatively, I could think of a general flag shortcut that would allow me to select a flag from existing ones or add a new one (and I really would love to add text (tags :) as flags).
    • Ability to flag section of text (e.g. one sentence, one word) instead of a whole paragraph as it is now. With pieces of interviews heavily flagged my summaries become too long and unreadable.
  • Flag summaries
    • Ability to see context (e.g. page name) in front of a flag if I go for a summary across different pages
    • Ability to see summaries for specific flags only.
    • Exporting flag summaries (e.g. in a table format with page name : flag : note - I'll find a way to port it into more powerful tools)
    • All kind of advanced stuff (e.g. ability to look at co-occurancies and relationsips between flags, see below for more).

In general, I believe that the whole idea of flags and summaries could grow much further then what is there now. Current functionality supporting flags seems to come from an idea of someone using just a few to mark important fragments or action points - it definitely doesn't scale beyond that. I'd think about flags in OneNote as tags - in a way those are used in del.icio.us, Flickr or blogs - not necessarily social, but definitely a way to organise, retrieve and analyse your own digital bits.

In that respect it would require a flexible flagging (tagging :) system, probably with text-based flags, and a set of tools to retrieve and display slices of data per flag (or combination of flags). Don't know how much it is implementation-wise, but ideas and examples of how it might work are out there in the open (and I'm prepared to work out a couple of scenarios on how this thing might work).

More on: methodology OneNote PhD tools 

  Monday, July 24, 2006

  From email to blogs: challenges of changing the channel

Another turn on 'E-mail is where knowledge goes to die' and that blogs could solve the problem, but it's not easy to 'sell' to managers (Andy, thanks for the pointer). And a very good comment by Tony Karrer:

Iíve seen a few other places that advocate this, BUT, how do you address the fact that email is relatively more of a push technology. In other words, in todayís corporate world, someone is more likely to read an email than an update to a web page.

Given my own blogging experiences I believe that this issue has to be taken seriously. There are a couple of reasons for that:

First, email serves many functions. Next to being a tool for communication, it could work reminder for to-dos, organiser of work and even turn into habitat at work (for those who want more - look at email management research and studies that touch email as part of personal information management research).

Suggesting that (part of) email communication should be replaced by blogging without taking into account those functions is likely to break existing personal information management practices of people. This could result in decreased personal productivity next to increased organisational productivity with questionable net gain.

Second, before we discuss increased organisational productivity as a result of (part of) personal email archives available on intranet we need to make sure that those bits will actually be found and used by others. And this is not that easy...

With email you have to deal with mainly with your own inbox. It's already much of an email overload, since next to those really important 'to do' emails you are likely to have 'FYI' emails on things that might be interesting, 'corporate spam' (saw the term recently, don't remember where) that you may not need at all, but someone in a company thinks that you need, personal emails and lots of other things. Or, using distinctions in my previous post, it includes things that don't fit that are often difficult to process.

Now just imagine that next to your own mailbox you have access to mailboxes of others. The amount of things that don't fit increases dramatically. The good side of it that it's a source of unexpected insights, it's searchable, it's archived company-wide forever. The bad thing is that we are not equipped to deal with it.

Now to my personal example. When I started blogging I loved it. Reading others brought all those unexpected insights and relationships that improved my work dramatically. However, it also brought heavy information overload that I wasn't prepared to deal with. Having many (more than I could ever imagine) bits of potentially useful insights with no immediate way to process them made me feeling stressed and lost. I am a bit better now, but it's still not working well and I still envy Ton who not only wrote about need for new information processing strategies, but also figured out how those could work for himself (check his posts on filtering, tools and routines).

So, I'd suggest that before evangelising blogs as an alternative to email we should figure out how people in a company are going to process increased amounts of available and potentially useful information when it comes out from hidden email archives. Otherwise we risk of moving a big chunk of information from email that at least read to a company-wide intranet that many people learnt to ignore (unless that important document is announced by an email from CEO).

  Things that don't fit

Some time back I wrote about knowledge which is not part of existing workflows. Now I'm struggling with finding more fine-grained distinctions.

First, a few of related categories:

  • Stephen Covey's classification of tasks into an urgent/important matrix: important things do not have to be time-sensitive in a short-term (=it's important to do something about one's professional development, but it's not necessary to work on it today).
  • Hot / warm / cold information in personal information management studies (I remember seeing it in Documents at Hand: Learning from Paper to Improve Digital Technologies, but can't check right now if the authors referred to another source regarding it). It indicates the degree of need for a piece of information (e.g. document) in relation to a task performed right now.
  • Filing and piling strategies (e.g. here) in respect to organising/archiving pieces of information, where piling often means "I may want to access it later, but don't know where exactly I should put it".

Now, the dimensions regarding knowledge/information that I consider important:

  • Relevancy: it's relevant - I don't know - irrelevant
  • Time-sensitivity: I need it  now - as soon as possible - when I do so and so - one day soon - one day
  • Ability to categorise: it's belongs to a task/project - theme - "I feel it's important, but I don't know where it belongs"

Hmm, I thought that by writing it down things will become more clear, but it doesn't work that way :))). Another try, now in a matrix:



May be relevant


Things that fit

I need them and I know what do to with them

Things that don't fit

If I only knew if/why I need them I would know what to do with them

Don't know

Things that don't fit

I need them, but I don't know what to do with them

Things that don't fit (OR I don't know things*)

I don't want to let them go because they may be relevant, but I have no idea what to do with them

*This comes from a frequent expression of my husband, who would often suggest to buy "I don't know juice" or  to eat in "I don't know restaurant" when I'm sure that I want something, but not sure what and how...

The reason I want to bring it in is simple:

  • it's things that don't fit that make knowledge work so complicated and so full of unexpected discoveries
  • we often don't have good tools to deal with things that don't fit, either because those require definite judgement on how far those are relevant and/or ability to process them in a useful way

Examples of things that do not fit:

  • coffee-table rumour from a colleague about management decision that affects the project I work in
  • an article which is interesting, but I don't have a place to cite it right now
  • all those enterprise 2.0 blog posts that pop-up in my RSS reader
  • an article about new English language standards for the pilots of international flights that gives examples of plane incidents that happened due to lack of shared understanding

  Thursday, July 20, 2006

  Telling your boss about your blog

Robert Scoble comments on the story of a UK blogger in France being fired for blogging.

As usual, the things I find interesting are not on the topic, but around it - this time it's about the role of a blogger's manager:

If your boss doesnít know youíre doing it, that should set off alarm bells right there. Talking online WILL get back to your boss. Unless you are so freaking careful to make sure you stay anonymous (like MiniMicrosoft, Microsoftís anonymous blogger, has so far). This person obviously didnít stay anonymous enough. Itís why I donít advise anyone try the anonymous route: either be straight up with your boss and everyone, or stay off the Internet. 

[cut half of the post]

Anytime you are identifyable with your company youíve gotta be professional about your behavior. Itís why at Microsoft we said the policy was 'be smart.' That roughly translated to 'donít piss off your boss.'


Of course, the point is where to draw the line: telling your boss about all your activities online doesn't make sense and the boundary between blogging about personal life and work is often sooo blurred...

  Take-aways from UK trip

Recovering from the heat and intensive human contact of Cambridge and London. Next to the time with friends and a tiny bit of sightseeing we went to Microsoft Research Socio-Digital Systems group, e-mint event on communities and blogs with Nancy White and Headshift.

Some things to remember:

Hmm, this post seems to escape categorisation...

More on: blog research travel 

  Thursday, July 13, 2006

  The coat that has a human story behind it

Via Hugh MacLeod I come to English Cut, a weblog of Thomas Mahon, "bespoke Savile Row tailor", which is a facsinating window onto a very specific practice. Apart from lots of insight on good suits and work of people who make them there are a couple of quotes that caught my attention.

On gut feeling in drafting patterns:

...we all prefer to have figures and defined points to work with. These had been obtained by a scientific method, so they had to be right, Right?

Wrong. Because what I found out 'the expensive way' was that there were times when I had drafted a pattern, checked and double-checked it, and although the measurements were exact, something still looked wrong.

I was blinded by science, not creativity.

This is something everyone in this or any other business has experienced- a gut feeling that you wanted to listen to, but logic wrongly forced you to ignore. Then sadly youíd proceed down this path, and as soon as you saw the results at the suit's first fitting, you knew your gut was right all along, and you have to kick yourself.

Often when creative matters are involved, 'practice makes imperfect'.

And another one on human touch:

OK, Iím sure youíve gathered by now I want everyone one to wear hand-made. I donít care if itís from me, from Savile Row, the guy in Chinatown or the big department store in Chicago, I'm partial and I'm biased. If enough people buy hand-made, that way we're going to keep the craft going. [...]

By choosing to buy the most humanly-touched products we can afford, or at least striving to do so, weíll not just benefit the craftsmen out there. It will give you the impassioned knowledge that someone, somewhere, has added a little of their character into your suit. No machine can imitate this. It's what makes the coat, Bespoke or otherwise, truly unique and frankly, that's what keeps the customers coming back. Yes, the fact that their coat has a human story behind it makes it seem more special to them.

Funny enough I was about to write another post, saying that I always start reading PhD dissertations from an acknowledgements page, not from introduction or conclusions - for me personal story of an author has to come first and then the rest could follow.

  Tuesday, July 11, 2006

  When they read what we write: respondent identification

While reading a research report for the study where I was one of the respondents I realised that even while my quotes were identified with a nickname there would be quite some number of people who could figure out it was me if they get to read the whole thing...

This is something I has been struggling in my own research as well. Simple: when I report on interviews with bloggers shall I add a (nick)name to every quote/fact?

On one hand, it dramatically improves readability of the research results - readers could reconstruct what different characters were saying and how different aspects of their story connect to each other. On another hand, this is exactly something that compromises their privacy: sometimes you don't need a name to recognise that the story told in the research report is associated with a specific person.

Sometimes you don't need the whole story. In one of my interviews with Microsoft bloggers I brought in an opposing opinion of another respondent ("some people say so and so") to get into a discussion on why differences were there. The respondent immediately identified the name of the person I tried to hide...

This could be just an exception, but I'm pretty sure that if I let quotes to be accompanied by nicknames (=allowing to trace that they belong to the same person) then many of the personalities behind them could be easily identified by their peers (and I'm not talking about the fact that I can't quote anything from the respondents' blogs - that gives them away immediately).

It doesn't make a big issue when "the field" you study and "the academic audience" you write for are far apart, so the chances of someone from the field reading the results of the study is low. However, it's not the case with my research - a weblog reveals personality and the blogosphere is interconnected enough, I choose to study lead users who often have an interest in the results and I actually find important reaching them - the chances that my respondents or people who can identify them read the results are pretty high.

And, while I'm strfuggling with my writing choices I have a book suggestion for those who feel like diving into these issues further: When They Read What We Write: The Politics of Ethnography. So far this was the best to put my own experiences and thinking into perspective. I will blog it one day (if I'm bad this will not happen before writing the related section of my dissertation :)

Related from another angle: Weblog research ethics - 1, 2 3

  Wednesday, July 05, 2006

  My pattern-recognition techniques

Just a quick reflection on what I (often not thinking about it) do to increase chances of recognising patterns in a mess. Not scientific at all :)

I try to experience the field prior to the whole pattern-recognition exercise (or I get into pattern-recognising for the fields I'm familiar with). Knowledge (often tacit) of how things are/could be creates a bigger picture where new messy data have to fit - contrasting "prior" and "new" helps to see patterns.

I increase the mess by adding variety, more sources, more data. I guess once my brain can't cope anymore with processing the volume it starts clustering things together - and those often turn into patterns.

I decompose to elements: I identify some basic elements/characteristics of the phenomenon and try to figure out more about them. Somehow having details worked out often brings them into a whole picture. 

I search for metaphors in other fields. Especially in the times of being totally lost, I look beyond the field. Usually this means reading unrelated, but interesting books, talking to strange people, taking strange courses... I guess in this case my brain is still working on the original problem in the background, so it finds a way to translate it into whatever other strange field. Once I see the parallels I try to work them out, often finding missing links.

And I talk to people. Articulation of implicit bits and pieces mixed with unpredictability of someone else's mind and fun of a conversation do wonders.

More on: articulation emergence 

  Tuesday, July 04, 2006

  Blogging as boundary practice

I've been thinking for a while on weblogs as boundary objects (and bloggers as boundary subjects :). I don't think I'm 100% on classical definitions here, but don't be angry - I need to play with the idea to see what comes out of it.

Also: you may want to read Denham on boundary objects here and here

My interest in blogging pretty much defined by the fact that weblogs cross boundaries - this is where the most of fun lies and the most of troubles occur. So, when conceptmapping some PhD thinking today I came up with this branch (I have to admit that this is not a generic case, but reference to my own research):

So, what shapes my own blogging practices (these are different angles of the same thing):

Contexts where blogging has to fit: my personal practices (e.g. those of dealing with information, technologies or time), practices of people around me (e.g. norms of communication) and practices of the organisation I work for (e.g. regarding confidentiality).

Communities I belong to (this overlaps with the previous category - have to think what to do with it). Those shape at least two aspects - themes that run through my blog and ways of doing things. Theme-wise I'm influenced by topical communities (e.g. KM vs. learning vs. technology), but there are also differences at the level of doing (e.g. researchers vs. practitioners).

Another way to look at blogging is it's position on the edge between public and private - it has elements of control and safety of my own space and exposure of being in public.

Finally, research-wise my weblog is used in several ways: blogging is a way to participate in the communities I study, it's an instrument for collecting and analyseing the data and it's a publication medium. Normally those things would be separated (at least by time, space and audiences).

Semi-related earlier posts (the list is mainly for myself since suprisingly I don't have a tag where those things would be collected):

  Monday, July 03, 2006

  PhD supervision: a bit of trust, a bit of imagination

This Japaneese ad video that came from Alex makes me thinking of other cases where the big picture is not visible instantly... PhD research for example :)

How can you encourage your PhD student?
A bit of trust, a bit of imagination

More on: metaphors methodology PhD 

© Copyright 2002-2006 Lilia Efimova Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

This weblog is my learning diary. Sometimes I write about things related to my work, but the views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.

Last update: 7/28/2006; 11:40:33 PM.