Saturday, 9 June 2012

Give me a little more time...

A few weeks ago, one of our PhD students, Amir Kamsin, was awarded 3rd prize in the student research competition  at CHI for his research on how we manage our time, and tools to support time management. Congratulations to Amir! The fact that it has taken until now to comment shows how difficult I am finding it to do things in a timely way. Many books and blogs (e.g. ProfSerious') have been written on how we should manage our time; it's difficult to even find the time to read them!

Some years ago, Thomas Green and I did a study of time management, and concluded that "what you get is not what you need". In that paper, we were focusing mainly on diary / calendar management and highlighted important limitations of online diaries, most of which are still true today (e.g. ways of marking meetings as provisional; including travelling time as well as meeting time; and making entries appropriately interpretable by others). In contrast, Amir is focusing on "to do" management. There are many aspects to his findings, of course. Two of them particularly resonate for me...

The first is how much of our time management is governed by emotional factors. It has long been a standing joke in my research group that you can tell when someone is avoiding doing a particular (usually big) job because they suddenly get ultra-productive on other tasks. The guilt about the big job is a great motivator! But I've become increasingly aware that there are even very small tasks that I avoid, either because I don't know where to start or because the first step is daunting. I've started to mentally label these as "little black clouds", and I'm gradually learning to prioritise them before they turn into big black clouds -- not necessarily by doing them immediately, but by committing to a time to do them. No "to-do" management systems that I'm aware of makes emotional factors explicit. Even their implementations of "importance" and "urgency" don't capture the fluidity of these ideas in practice. There's much more to managing tasks and projects than importance and urgency.

The second is how much "to do" information is tied up in email. Not just simple "hit reply" to-dos, but also complex discussions and decisions about projects. There are tools that integrate email, calendars and address books, and there are to-do management systems with or without calendars. But I really want a project management tool that integrates completely seamlessly with both my email and my calendar. And is quick and easy to learn. And requires minimal extra effort to manage. Anyone know of one?

Friday, 1 June 2012

When is a qualitative study a Grounded Theory study?

I recently came across Beki Grinter's blog posts on Grounded Theory. These make great reading.

The term has been used a lot in HCI as a "bumper sticker" for any and every qualitative analysis regardless of whether or not it follows any of the GT recipes closely, and whether or not it results in theory-building. I exaggerate slightly, but not much. As Beki says, GT is about developing theory, not just about doing a "bottom up" qualitative analysis, possibly without even having any particular questions or aims in mind.

Sometimes, the questions do change, as you discover that your initial questions or assumptions about what you might find are wrong. This has happened to us more than once. For example, we conducted a study of London Underground control rooms where the initial aim was to understand the commonalities and contrasts across different control rooms, and what effects these differences had on the work of controllers, and the ways they used the various artefacts in the environment. In practice, we found that the commonalities were much more interesting than the contrasts, and that there were several themes that emerged across all the contexts we studied. The most intriguing was discovering how much the controllers seemed to be playing with a big train set! This links in to the literature on "serious games", a literature that we hadn't even considered when we started the study (so we had to learn about it fast!).

In our experience, there's an interdependent cycle between qualitative data gathering and analysis and pre-existing theory. You start with questions, gather and analyse some data, realise your questions weren't quite right, so modify them (usually to be more interesting!), gather more data, analyse it much more deeply, realise that Theory X almost accounts for your data, see what insights relating your data to Theory X provides, gather yet more data, analyse it further... end up with either some radically new theory or a minor adaptation of Theory X. Or (as in our study of digital libraries deployment) end up using Theory X (in this case, Communities of Practice) to make sense of the situations you've studied.

Many would say that a "clean" GT doesn't draw explicitly on any existing theories, but builds theory from data. In practice, in my experience, you get a richer analysis if you do draw on other theory, but that's not an essential part of GT. The important thing is to be reflective and critical: to use theory to test and shine light on your data, but not to succumb to confirmation bias, where you only notice the data that fits the theory and ignore the rest. Theory is always there to be overturned!