Quick update

February 20, 2013 Leave a comment

time-machine_00261205If I had a time machine, I’d jump back to the second half of 2012 and switch my enrolment over to part time.

Okay, so I’d probably do a few other things as well – trying to circumvent the world wars, that sort of thing. Trying to keep up a full-time writing load while working full time was far too optimistic though, even before Ariadne was born. That has made for some administrative complications this year, which have taken up some of my time recently.

This week, I’m writing about technology adoption: specifically, the features of social media technologies that help them spread so rapidly, and the characteristics of small business managers that can help or hinder their adoption of new technology. It’s one of the major chapters for my thesis, and has me geeking out over Diffusion of Innovations all over again.

It’s been a while since I last wrote about qualitative analysis software, though I have wanted to revisit that topic in some more detail. In the meantime, others have picked up where I left off. Jen’s post over at Investigating the Imponderable has some updated information tools like Dedoose, Atlas, Ethnograph or HyperResearch – if you visit this blog for data analysis news, check it out!

It’s also worth noting that NVivo 10 will have a native Mac version available later in 2013. If you’ve been struggling along with virtual machines or dual operating systems until now, that’s great news! I’m looking forward to trying it out in a future  project, but it will arrive a few years too late for me to use in my current research.

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Collecting qualitative data from online communities

January 24, 2013 1 comment

Tsunami Evacuation Route signage south of Aberdeen WashingtonThere seems to be a tendency among new online researchers to assume that you need a way of capturing all the things in order get an understanding of what’s happening in an online community. This is a post looking at some reasons why that might not be the case.

Imagine that you’re setting out to produce an ethnography of the head office of a multinational firm. You select your target company, negotiate access, and go in for your first day on site. When you arrive, you’re shown into a room that is utterly overflowing with paperwork: huge piles of interview transcripts, reports and meeting minutes tower over the small desk. As you look through them, realisation (and a growing horror) dawns on you: you now have a ‘perfect’ image of everything you had intended to study. Every word of every conversation has been recorded, every document and email ever produced has been dragged out of archives, and all you need to do is make sense of it all. Easy, right? Well, no. Of course not.

A more typical approach would be to find ways of immersing yourself in the day-to-day operations of the company, spending some long stretches embedded in the organisation, finding and reading through relevant documents, and interviewing people of interest. You’d try to make sure that you saw a variety of activity: don’t only visit on casual-clothes Fridays, or you’ll draw some odd conclusions about the place. Visit in the quiet periods, but also spend time there during deadline season: the end of the financial year, that sort of thing. Your job is to see enough to understand how and why things work the way they do, filter that through the set of experience and biases that make you into the researcher you are, and communicate what you saw to those who read your work.

Some of those traditions are born out of convenience (or physical limitations). You have a finite amount of time that you can spend in the company. You can’t be in three different meetings at once. You won’t hear every conversation at the water coolers. So, you pick your opportunities as they arise, based on your (emerging) understanding of what’s important to the story that you are going to tell. This meeting is important, as it will help you see who opposes X. That conversation is not important, because you’ve already heard enough about Y.

And while you do it, you write notes. Copious amounts of lovely, lovely field notes. Writing them helps shape your understanding of what you’re observing, and aids recall later on.

So, should online communities be handled differently? You often won’t be bound by the same limitations: you can access every aspect of communications that you weren’t online to witness at the time they were posted. You can pull an archive of hundreds of simultaneous conversations. In our hypothetical scenario, you really can walk into that room and get buried alive under a pile of archive documents.

Last year, I spoke with another grad student who was looking at a group of online forum communities. She had written some software that automated the search-and-archive part of her work, and was using it to gather vast amounts of qualitative data: in the order of several hundred thousand conversations, and millions of words. The software was working fine, and the disk space was filling up. Her biggest question was “what happens now?” Ultimately, you need to analyse whatever you collect, and finish your dissertation before you die of old age…

I don’t think that “I can do X” should mean “I must do X.” Many of the same research decisions that are made regarding face-to-face ethnography are still just as valid when the interactions you’re observing take place online. Qualitative data still needs to get filtered through one or more humans, with their skills, training, biases and limitations. Magnifying the volume of data going in won’t solve your problem, unless your problem requires that volume – and if it does, there is a good chance that you should re-think your choice of methodology.

More data does not always mean that you’ll produce better answers to your research questions. Going overboard on data collection is easy: once started it’s fairly simple to replicate, and feels very productive! You’re not a data collecting machine though: you’re here to analyse and interpret that data, and then do something with the results. Making decisions about what to cut (and why) can be hard, but it gives you a project that can actually be finished.

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I’m back!

January 16, 2013 4 comments

I’m back! It’s been a very, very long time since I updated this blog, but in my defence things have been more than a little busy over here. I’ve been reading (and responding to, where I can) the many comments that still come in on my two posts on choosing qualitative research software for Mac users, and those have prompted me to get back into the habit of writing in here.

Last April I began working for Symphony3 – a consulting firm based in the Melbourne Docklands, where I’ve worked on social media projects for local, state and federal government clients, private industry and non-profit organisations. It’s been a hell of a ride: I’ve learned a great deal, and been able to directly apply many of the things I’ve explored in my PhD research. As part of that job, I’ve been maintaining blogs, twitter and other social media accounts for many different clients, which hasn’t left me with any energy to keep my own site up to date. However, in 2013 I will be looking for work elsewhere, in an attempt to get better at juggling my work-life balance to accommodate the newest development in my life…

2012-12-15 12.01.17Last October, my wife and I had our first child. Since Ariadne arrived, there have been some huge changes in my life: my priorities have been completely rearranged, and I’ve had to think about what kind of a parent I intend to be. That’s been a big shift: previously, I’ve been a huge advocate of doing what you love, in whatever form that takes (which inevitably seems to lead to a live to work attitude…). Looking at my own childhood, though, one thing that I can’t avoid is noticing how often my father (working 70-80 hour weeks) wasn’t around outside of family holidays. If I hadn’t spent a few years working with him after I moved out of home, I probably never would have got to know him very well at all.

I’m not prepared to squeeze my time with my daughter into short bursts of ‘quality time’ late in the evening and on a big holiday each year: that’s a great approach for those who want it, but it’s not how I want to spend the next stage of my life. I’m not sure exactly what I’ll be doing to pay the bills over the next little while, but I’m hoping to find something that lets me fit work in around my family, instead of the opposite.

Along the way, balancing consulting work and a new baby in the house left very little time for finishing off a thesis. My PhD has been stuck in an “all but dissertation” holding pattern for the past few months: I’ve jumped through the various hurdles regarding completion seminars and all that, and just need to finish writing the document so I can submit it. I’ve been on leave throughout January to achieve just exactly that, and have been writing like a mad thing since December 24th.

I’ll no doubt write a lot more about that over the next few months, in addition to going back and adding to the series of articles on qualitative research tools. If there’s a topic you’d like to read about later in the year, please let me know! I’m looking for suggestions about what to cover in this blog. In the meantime: thanks to all those who’ve left comments on earlier posts in this blog! It’s good to be back again.

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What’s in a name?

February 20, 2012 2 comments

I’ve come back to my methodology chapter, after burying my head in papers on social capital and social network theory for the last month. I never did end up getting any feedback on what I wrote in the last draft, but the break has given me some more perspective on my own writing. In short: not entirely terrible, but there’s a hell of a long way to go before it’s decent.

One of the sections that I’ve struggled to write about is the “ethnographic” research methods that I’ve used. I’m wary about using the term, as it carries a lot of baggage – I don’t want to be jumped on by old-school anthropologists insisting that a real ethnographer needs to spend six years in a Kenyan village, and that online observations are fundamentally different…

I found a copy of Robert Kozinets’ Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online by random happenstance while in the library last week. The books I went there to find are more traditional resources on ethnography, but it’s been fascinating comparing them with the newer book.

In many ways, ethnography seems a good label for what I have been doing: I’ve spent the past two years embedded in the online communities that each business manager has joined, trying to understand how those communities work from the perspectives of the participants. In some of these I’m more of a traditional observer, in others I definitely participate to a larger extent. Particularly in Twitter, I’m using it myself (to keep in touch with people, contacting people before/after conferences or meetups, finding out news) while following all the different ways that each business manager is using the service. Access into some communities implies participation – profiles are public, and anything that you subscribe to/like/follow/etc gives those you’re watching an opportunity to watch you right back, or start up a conversation.

Kozinets argues that there’s a need for the newer label, as some areas are significantly different between “offline” and online ethnographic research. That blurry area around what constitutes participation and observation is one. Most of your data is natively digital: transcription errors aren’t a problem when you have every word used by the participants. It also affects the volume of data that can be used: depending on the source of the data, you could well pull the entire history of interactions between your study participants. That quickly turns data collection into much less of a problem than data management: it’s easy to get absolutely buried under reams of data that may or may not actually help you answer your research questions.

There are a few different names floating around. RMIT is starting its own centre for “Digital Ethnography.” Ethnographic online research, netnography, webnography and network ethnography have all been used as well. They may all be intended to mean similar things, but it’s difficult to tell exactly what any given author mean without reading their entire study.

Much like the quip about a language being “a dialect with an army and a navy,” successful methodologies are often jargon with a marketing department. In the case of netnography, the originator is a Professor of Marketing, backed up by many MBA students… since first mentioning the term on Twitter last week, people have started contacting me out of the blue, with links to Prof. Kozinets’ presentations and course material, and the term has already got a lot of traction. Being able to concisely express a set of shared understandings (approach, methods, standards) is what good labels are all about. So I’ll most likely adopt it to describe what I’ve been doing so far: observing and learning about communities that operate largely online, by embedding myself in them over a period of months or years.

The “monastic phase”

February 8, 2012 2 comments

Supriya mentioned in today’s meeting that I’m entering the “monastic phase” of my project, now: the final six months, where it’s pretty much expected that every waking moment will be filled by working on or thinking about my thesis. I think it’s an apt description – though other aspects of life will keep grinding relentlessly onwards, as I don’t have the luxury of taking six months off from the world.

I’m spending today working on my data analysis, using Dedoose (which I wrote a bit about over here). Over the past few months, Louise has been using it extensively for her Masters thesis, and now it’s my turn to get to know what it can do. So far, it’s been very easy to use: it works on my Mac, allows simple tagging/coding of text excerpts from interview transcripts, and has some nice visualisation tools for exploring the data. It’s quite laggy on my computer, though (running in Firefox 9.01 & OS X 10.5.8, on a fast university network). I also find that I need to use a separate mouse, as the left/right click commands sometimes don’t respond to the touchpad. Still, it’s far simpler than running a virtual Windows environment, with two different operating systems slowing everything down.

Despite needing to spend most of my time hiding under a rock, I’m going to a public talk that danah is giving at RMIT tomorrow evening – it’s called “Privacy in networked places,” and there’s a bit of info about it here. I almost missed hearing about it, as the university departments can be terrible at publicising their events. Fortunately, I’ve now discovered that we have a Digital Ethnography research centre over in Media & Communications, and will try to go to all their events in future. Hopefully I’ll be able to meet some of the ARC Creative Industries and Youth & Wellbeing CRC people while I’m at the seminar, too.

Smart Services: 2011 annual conference

December 1, 2011 2 comments

Longs days and little sleep make it likely that I’ll forget important details from the 2012 CRC conference, so I thought I’d write a few quick thoughts while they are still in my head…

I flew up to Sydney early on Tuesday morning, for a day of student training workshops with the other research students. Student numbers seemed down a bit on previous years due to a few scheduling clashes (ANZMAC in Perth, OZCHI in Canberra) but we still had 34 PhD students in attendance.

The major theme behind this year’s workshops was “creative leadership”, with sessions run by Ralph Kerle from the Creative Leadership Forum. We also heard from Paul Boustead about his journey from CRC researcher to director of the Interactive Voice group at Dolby, a keynote from Stuart Anderson (Sydney Capital Partners), and some advice from Natalie Chapman (Gemaker/Smart Services CRC) on idea evaluation, protection and commercialisation.

I enjoyed Ralph’s session on the FourSight thinking profiles (built on Gerard Puccio’s work at Buffalo State University). Despite having a very biased group (almost all PhD students, engaged in some kind of technology research) we were relatively close to the global norms: slightly more Ideators, and a good mix of Clarifiers, Developers and Implementers. The FourSight archetypes are an interesting tool for looking objectively at team composition, and examining the strengths and weaknesses of groups and individuals.

Natalie’s session seemed more relevant to the CRC researchers than the IP workshop we saw a few years back: covering some of the same ground, but in a more accessible fashion. People asked questions about their own work or that of their colleagues, and saw the range of options available when trying to take an idea to market. It’s not always about patents or copyright! There are lots of tools available, and situations where each might be the most appropriate.

Late in the day, we tried a group exercise where teams of eight students proposed a series of business ideas, picked one, and worked through a series of stages: identifying what IP would be involved, ways of protecting it, a pathway to commercialisation, and a description of the product and business model. My team had plenty of ideas, but struggled a bit on the details of how to mange the interim stages – possibly because we’d ended up with a team almost entirely filled with ideators, and lacked the developers or implementors who would work on those areas. I love team challenges – another reason why I need to finish my damn PhD already, as the endless solo work is wearing me down…

Wednesday involved the formal start of the conference, with research presentations, a great keynote by David Harrison from Freelance.com, and the student poster sessions. The room layout did no favours to the students: poster sessions were held during meal breaks, with the food in a different room. Few people made it to the far end of the main room where I was based, so the opportunity for conversation was pretty limited. I think the 2009 conference was the closest to a format that really worked in that regard – while those sessions were far too long, at least we spent all day talking instead of hoping that someone might come over for a chat. Still, the few conversations I had this year were all valuable.

An oft-mentioned research strength in the CRC has been our combination of technology and user research: understanding user motivations and behaviour, in order to design better products and services. While that’s broadly true, I think that we still have a ways to go on that front: the CRC contains sharply contrasting research groups, and “social” research is obviously not a priority for some. For me, that was probably the only sour note in the conference: talking to people with bold, world-changing ideas that risk going nowhere at all, because their products require widespread adoption from a group of poorly understood potential customers. I firmly believe that the users of a technology should be placed right in the middle of the design process: understand what they want, how they will use the technology, and why they might not use it in the way you had imagined.

Ignore the users and you risk them ignoring your technology: regardless of how great its potential benefits might be. Having seen a glimpse of what those futures might hold, it would be a shame to see them never realised.

Where do we go from here?

November 23, 2011 Leave a comment

My CRC has been good to me, over the years. Apart from providing the scholarship that makes my research possible, they also incorporate student training workshops into each year’s conference. I think it’s important to develop a broad range of skills, to avoid graduating and forever being the brunt of jokes about “experts,” who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing at all…

Previous workshops have covered research commercialisation, media and presentation skills, ‘pitching’ business ideas, and managing intellectual property. This year, one of the workshops leads into a speed-dating style networking event when the industry partners arrive on Day 2. Warren sent an email to all the students yesterday, with a few pointers:

Give thought to where you want to be in 5 years, what you need to do to get there and what type of people/skills can help you along the way. Your 5 year vision may or may not have anything to do with your current areas of research: you may desire a total sea change or you may see yourself running a company or climbing the ranks of the academic world. Whatever you choose you will need to gather people around you with the right contacts and skills to help you get there. Your pitch should articulate your vision and also what you need to get there so that other people excited by your vision can see where they might assist, and if you are lucky offer to help you achieve your goals.

It’s a question that I’ve been asked a lot, during the past few months: “What comes next?” It’s not something that I find easy to answer: there are many things I’d like to do, and even more uncertainty over which ones will be available to me.

My goals are quite generic, and don’t require any particular industry or specialisation: I want to use the skills and knowledge that I’ve built over the years, but one of those skills is the ability to learn new things as needed. I want to be challenged. I also need a job where I can balance work and life: I’ve worked around the clock for years, and no longer enjoy it. I’ll work damn hard on a project that drives me, but outside of work I need time to spend with my family.

I woke at 5am today, with the tiniest beginnings of a business concept in my head. Since then I’ve been scribbling down notes and thinking through the questions that will eventually shape a business plan. I enjoy the planning process, and have something that I think will make it through the many hurdles between idea and reality. Importantly, it taps into skills that many of my closest friends share and take for granted, but aren’t actually all that common. Taking skills that people have a passion for and finding ways to apply them in other areas fascinates me. It also helps to find a niche. An important piece of advice that has stuck with me is that a small business doesn’t need to be all things to all people: it should find a niche, and own it. When developing a hobby into a business, it’s important to know where to draw boundaries: My business does X. I also do Y and Z as a hobby, but those are not the focus of my work.

If the concept has legs, it will help me reach those generic goals: more than anything, I love the range of challenges that a small business throws at you. If not, then preparing a rigorous business plan should help identify problems before it’s too late to change direction. Either way, it has an important (if counter-intuitive) secondary function: helping me to get my thesis finished. Starting a new project adds to the workload, but you always work faster when you’re preparing to move into what comes next…

Listing, listlessly

October 6, 2011 1 comment

I’m not very good at making lists.  Actually, scratch that – I’m great at making them… I just have a terrible habit of making lists that can never be finished. This is a quick post about lists, and what goes into a good one.

1. Make it accessible. There is no use setting goals for your workday if you leave them at home. That productivity app might be awesome, but it is useless if your phone goes flat. Synchronising lists across a bunch of web apps is a great idea, unless you need to rely on a shaky internet connection to read them.

2. Make it achievable. All my failed lists have one thing in common: nebulous, subjective tasks that will never be objectively finished. Sometimes I start with them. Sometimes they hide further down the page. Regardless of where they live, they don’t belong on the list. “Refine chapter X” and “Read more on theory Y” are important, but without a bit more detail they quickly move from being milestones to millstones hanging about your neck. A good list helps you to get things done. It shouldn’t just add another layer of guilt about what you haven’t been able to finish yet.

3. Make it important. Finishing things is a nice feeling, but unimportant stuff doesn’t belong on that list – it obscures the important stuff, and helps you to avoid doing the real work. I’ve started putting the most immediate and important jobs up front, and the important-but-not-urgent stuff further down the list. I tend to enjoy doing the not-urgent stuff a bit more, and often do it first… that’s fine, as long as you keep momentum going to tackle the urgent jobs in time.

I find the Urgent/Important designation very useful, too. If something is in neither category, it shouldn’t be on the list at all. Urgent/Unimportant jobs don’t deserve much of your time or emotional investment: they are things required by others, and don’t have much worth to you. Get them out of the way, and save your energy for the things that matter.

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Another look at Qualitative data analysis for Mac users: Dedoose

August 17, 2011 82 comments

Technically I’m not meant to be looking at data analysis right now: it’s writing month, and the last thing I need to be doing is getting lost in data. However, the Qualitative Data Analysis Software for Mac – A Brief Look post that I wrote last September is still getting a huge amount of traffic every day, and I thought it was time to write a quick update.

What’s changed? Lots. I recently discovered a tool called Dedoose. Like the other tools that I’ve come to rely upon (Zotero for managing references, Scrivener for writing) it’s not an incremental upgrade that adds bells and whistles to an existing product. I like things that are built with a researcher’s workflow in mind, instead of a list of features that you need to work around. It’s also browser-based, so can be used from almost any computer with an internet connection.

The main advantages that I can see are:

  • Cross-platform (so I can use it on my Mac without needing to buy and install Windows and Parallels or VMware Fusion! That already saves me a few hundred dollars)
  • Online data storage, so I can access and work on the project from any computer, and have online backups available if my computer crashes.
  • I’m hopeful about it having a more intuitive interface than NVivo 9, as a shallow learning curve was one of their design goals
  • For projects involving multiple people (i.e. most things except a PhD), it’s a product built around collaborative tools, rather than bolting them onto an existing product
  • Lots of visualisation tools (which can also export to various formats). I think visually, and that will help me to understand what’s going on within and between my different case studies.
  • Licensed by the month, and at competitive rates with other options on the market.

For me, the downsides are:

  • Storing my project data online will require an ethics variation form, as my current ethics approval requires me to store digital copies on RMIT servers. However, Dedoose uses encrypted storage so the variation should be a fairly straightforward bit of paperwork.
  • Requires an internet connection. My home internet has been increasingly flakey over the last few months, and I don’t like my productivity tied to whether Virgin Broadband has decided to work that day.
  • Less support available in the university. It has two black marks against it in an RMIT context: it’s new, and it’s not NVivo. There’s a very established NVivo community here, and a lot of organisational resistance to change. However, there seems to be a lot of online support, so I can teach myself how to use it.
  • No local copy of the project, but you can export your data whenever it’s needed.

I think that a PhD project is a good place to start trialling it, as I don’t need to convince a group of co-workers to give it a shot. There’s a 30-day free trial available, and I’ll see how I go from there. If it works well, I’ll look into using it for collaborative projects later on. I’ll keep you posted.

Have you tried it out? Any experiences to report, or things I should look out for?

First draft, one week on

August 11, 2011 1 comment

It’s been a week, so I thought it was time to post a quick update.

Forming new habits and breaking old ones is hard. I started off making lots of progress, after an initial burst of writing at the GSBL ‘Shut Up & Write‘ meeting last Monday. If I’m in a conversational kind of mood, I can write very easily – between working at home and running forums over the last decade, writing feels more natural than speaking. But the type of writing is beginning to change as I make progress.

At first, there were lots of loose ends to tie up, or half-formed ideas to follow. Those are perfect for a regular, short timeslot dedicated to writing a lot, like the 25 minute ‘pomodoro‘ sessions that I’ve been using so far. It’s relatively surface-level thought, and they read like a blog post. No real surprise that Jonathan has been using it successfully to draft his Research Whisperer posts so far…

But that initial source of ideas is beginning to run out. It’s not that I have any shortage of ideas to write about. The problem now seems to be that I’m running out of low-hanging fruit to pick, and all the different concepts that I’ve begun working on in Scrivener have begun to get more complex.

Perfect material for a PhD thesis, right? Sure, but now I’m being hit with that familiar emotion that every thesis writer seems to encounter: wondering how the hell I’m going to know enough to do the writing justice. There are worlds of theory out there that I only know the tiniest bit about, and whenever someone says “Oh, so you’d be using something like X then?” I feel that sudden panic. I’ve never heard of that one before. Should I be using it? Do I need to start another literature search, and teach myself that area from scratch? Is it going to be a gaping hole in the thesis that examiners spot immediately? It’s a quick road to madness, I think.

So, plans for the next week:

Throttle back, and write at a more steady rate. This is more of a marathon than a sprint, and I need to find a steady rate that I can sustain for the next five months. I think that 800-1,000 words a day is an achievable goal… at the moment I’m aiming higher, but as the depth and quality of the writing becomes more important, that word count will change.

Find time for a second wind, or ways to help me stay on task later in the day. Early starts have been good, but I’ve been going write-write-write-crash and losing productivity in the afternoons. What I want to do is write, find one area I need to follow up on, read a bit, and then write again before going home.

In the next few weeks, I will need to work on a complete chapter instead of disparate chunks. I read a comment on Twitter about how supervisors need to start seeing completed chapters at some point, because those will make any gaps in the argument much more visible. I agree, but that’s probably another week or two away.

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