Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Negative Results Part II: Owning your misconceptions

I had a nice long chat with my partner in crime on the KnowWiki, where we looked at the answers to the Ten Questions, and dissected what's happened since then.

One thing you might have noticed right off is that we didn't answer "what problem are you trying to solve".  Part of the reason was that I was only working with ten questions at the time. I didn't add the "plus one" until later.

The other part was that to us, it was obvious. The really cool stuff we were putting online wasn't being used or even found by people looking for it.  That was a bug in the software we were using at the time.  I wrote about our Evil Plans before: I wanted online collections to live, and Joy wanted the collections to be a part of the Semantic Web.

What I found out over time was that if someone didn't care if their material was accessible online, it wouldn't matter if it was or not. If they did care, they weren't going to tell us about it.  They'd share it with their own monkey-sphere and leave it at that.  Not everybody wants to be a wiki editor - or any kind of system editor, for that matter.

What Joy found was that the Semantic Web was happening in an unanticipated way, like most things do.  With the normalization of hashtags as the world's informal folksonomy, material we had available was becoming part of a semantic web-like thing, independent of any metadata that we'd entered.

We'd both fallen for the hasty generalization or unrepresentative generalization: if we thought it was cool for these specific reasons, so would others. And, it followed that of course other people would do what we thought they'd do.

That turned out not to be the case.  But if nothing else, doing something was better than doing nothing.

So we did something, and it turned out pretty cool, if not in the ways we expected.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

I've caught the car. Now what? BRQ part II

I've been asked how to go about "teaching" the Questions.  The short answer is that I'm not sure.  The longer answer has me channeling my grandmother when I asked her how to season my first new cast-iron skillet: "Put food in it and cook it".  In other words, act normally.  Do what you've done before except with this new thing.

Of course it's not quite that simple.  I fried a lot of chorizo and eggs in my skillet before trying more complex dishes involving potatoes and onions and peppers (acidic stuff).  I did try "traditional" seasoning on the next pan and I couldn't discern any difference between the two after a while.

As for the Questions, I haven't "taught" them to enough people to say "This Is How It's Done."  How I lived it was by having them close by when I needed to tackle something.  I wrote about some of that in "Shut Up".

The original set of questions (I think there were seven) grew out of a need to assist people in setting up intranet sites on SharePoint.  After a year of missteps, I finally drew up a document of what a site needed to have in order to be useful: group sites had a list of members, a calendar of their meetings, and document libraries for agendas and minutes.  Project sites had announcement lists for milestones, lists of stakeholders, etc.

Common to all sites were the Operational Questions, which boiled down to, "who is going to feed this kitten and clean the litter box?"  Once I got answers back on who was doing what and where and when, I was able to organize a new site without a lot of difficulty or confusion.  The only problems that came up after that had to do with personnel changes that come naturally with turnover.  Eventually people learned to ask for a specific kind of site and do the organizing and training themselves.

The Directional Questions started making sense to me in the context of Digital collections and what was big at the time, electronic Institutional Repositories.  Repositories were to be static collections of digitized works: theses, dissertations, articles, visual performances, music.  Nothing would be expected of the user except to consume it somehow.  Having met the Internet, I didn't think that would fly for very long, and in fact it's had a mixed record.

Having people use them hasn't been easy, even sometimes for me.  They can be too broad if you're just trying to tackle something simple

If you want to "teach" or "live" the questions, I'd say print out the Official Doc on that other tab up there and keep it handy.  The Big Red Question might be the one you use the most often, and it's most useful when you make it a habit of your own.

If you find yourself with a pile of problems to solve, the Directional Questions can help you winnow them down or at least categorize them.

Once you have your priorities set, you can start in on the Operational Questions if you're starting a new site or service.  They're also useful if you have an orphaned site or service.  That is, if you haven't already killed it off with the BRQ or the Directional Questions.

TL;DR - Those who can, do & teach.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Who publicizes negative results?

Some do.  I try to learn from others' mistakes so I can make original ones.  A year after the KnowWiki came into being it was time to re-evaluate things.

Some things were very successful.  Some things were not.

Good: Scanning homogeneous collections of stuff, running OCR and crowd editing transcripts turned out very well.  This was the one area where a true living collection came to be.

Bad: Collections of varied materials caused nightmares in creating metadata and in posting things online.

Changes in the environment: dSpace became a more viable solution with upgrades and custom programming; something that had not been available last year.

Feature vs. Bug: Wikis are very easy to edit and it's possible to create a system of categorization.  This means you can do nothing or you can do too much.  A few curators ran into the problem of too many options, or as the Fifth Wave cartoon called it decades ago: Toxic Option Syndrome.

Discussions about these things (and other observations) made me rethink what the questions are really good for.  Saying that they've helped me solved problems is good; others telling me the same is good, but I can't point to this and say "this is how you solve problems".

On the whole, the questions in their various contexts can be viewed as structured Active Listening.  The BRQ is a conversation starter (or stopper, sadly).

The Operational Questions are good for making you think about how something will work.  They don't help you determine how much work you're going to end up doing.  They are mostly good for risk management if used well.

The Directional Questions still tend to overwhelm people and are best answered in a backwards way: get someone else to do it for you.  Chances are you've already discussed your problem with others.  If you get someone to answer with what they'd think you'd say, you end up with a better picture than if you sat and stared at the screen for a few hours.

I'll post more on my rethinking later.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest

This is about the Big Red Question (BRQ for you acronym lovers; BBQ was taken).  It's a deceptively simple question that's terribly powerful.  And of course with great power comes great responsibility.

Even writing about writing about it is frustrating because I had no idea where to start.  My notebook page is full of crossed out sentences because there were too many things to say.  I ended up in the ridiculous position of asking myself what problem I was trying to solve - which was of course trying to explain how to use this damned question responsibly.

I can get as meta as anyone, but that annoyed the daylights out of me.  Something I'd thought would be pretty straightforward turned into pencil scratches and erasures and exactly three two useful sentences.

Plus that little rant.

So, anyway, the useful sentences were these:

1) It's a hardware interrupt.  By that I mean any thinking or talking that has been going on is immediately stopped and all processes in your brain or someone else's are dedicated to focusing on this question.  If you're working full steam on something, a forced interrupt, however useful, is going to be annoying.  Getting past the annoyance is a key component to being able to use the question in a good way.  Not provoking annoyance in the first place is even better.  So, if you're using it on yourself, take a deep breath (or several) and ask yourself the BRQ.

If you're using it on someone else, make sure that they're not already mad enough to spit nails.  If they're annoyed by their perceived problems and/or their real ones, the BRQ can possibly calm them down.  If they're mad at you, forget it.  At that point, they need someone to listen to them and take them seriously.  Give it between five and ten minutes and then see if you can interject the BRQ very gently, maybe with, "Well, that's a big load you have.  What one thing is the biggest obstacle/problem to solve/insert metaphor here?"  If you don't have that long, schedule an appointment.

I'm getting off track. Here's the second useful sentence:

2) It forces a perspective shift without a clutch; this is jarring and disorienting.  Say you've been working all day on some code that needs to do some pretty esoteric stuff and it's just not. coming. together.  There's something missing or something not behaving the way it should and you really really need it to do what you want.  You're describing this in detail in the break room and someone asks you, "Well, why are you doing that instead of this other thing that has that function built in?"

(Side note - I got this all the time in my Digital Logic class.  I'd construct some circuit out of SSI chips and Fred would put a circle around most of it, write "MUX" or some other readily available chip, and tell me "You're working too hard."  Thanks, Fred.)

In the hypothetical break room, you might have known about that other thing and decided against it before. Maybe it's still not a good idea, or maybe something has changed to make it a good idea.  Maybe you started the day working on a short cut that's already taken you longer than the other route would have.  All of that adds up to frustration.  Now the coworker above didn't actually ask the BRQ, but it's worth asking it of yourself, if only to climb out of the rabbit hole and get some fresh air.

So, this supposedly simple question packs a lot of power.  Try to use it for good.  It's much less messy.