Planning user research and creating sample data sets (9th December)

Following our meeting in York in November, I arranged to meet with my partners in Bridlington and Flamborough to plan how we produce the two pieces of research we had discussed in York. The purpose of this meeting followed my original rationale – that we would meet locally following meetings with all the groups present to feed back to those unable to meet in York and to plan local initiatives. One of the problems with this model, which became evident quite early on last summer, is that those who are invested in the project have been good at attending the central meetings and that the additional attendees at the local meetings are not regular participants. For this meeting, our hosts had done a great job of getting more people to attend, but this meant we ended up spending a large part of the meeting explaining what the project is about. It also meant that we had people who didn’t have a well-developed understanding of the project participate in planning our research, which in this case proved distracting.

At our meeting in York, I shared that Jo had identified that we didn’t actually know much about many of our users. While we know quite a bit about members of heritage groups, we know less about teachers, tourists and younger people, who we have all identified as target users. Jo suggested that we do some research to find out more about their interest in heritage and digital habits in order to flesh out their personas, so we can make better informed design decisions. Ultimately, the goal is to create a product they will find useful and engaging. We had also discussed that in order to take the design much further, we would need to create sample data sets. While I had imagined users would upload short statements about what they consider their heritage to be and why, I knew that many people would expect longer pieces of descriptive text or stories. In order to be able to design more realistic mock-ups we need to know what kinds of contributions users will want to make. screenshot-2017-01-23-10-27-28These two things then, sample data sets and user research were what I had hoped we would be discussing and planning during this meeting. We had discussed both at our meeting in York, and my impression was that there was agreement that these were worthwhile tasks that we would be tackling together. I was quite excited about this, because I thought it would be an opportunity to do some truly participatory research. I might have to do most of the draft design myself, but we would work on user research and sample data sets together.

I am not sure whether it was because of the composition of the group (including new participants), whether I’d misread the response at the meeting in York or whether some participants had changed their minds, but at this meeting these research tasks were met with scepticism. This caught me off-guard. I had expected we would be discussing how we would do the research, not discussing whether or not the research was necessary. It is safe to say that, surprised as I was, I didn’t make the most compelling case for the necessity of this research. This led us down a path of discussing whether we could use survey data from visitors to a local museum as a substitute for doing our own user research. Again, in my mind, it was clear to me that this would not be sufficient, but I don’t think I did a good job of explaining why. Toward the end of the meeting we were able to discuss how we might find out more about teachers as potential users. We weren’t able to agree on questions to ask local teachers, but a guest participant did say she could get us some Historic England research relating to heritage and school curricula, which might provide us what we needed – or at least help us ask the right questions.

A parallel meeting in Pontefract had to be pushed into the New Year, so further research is on hold until that meeting is held, but this meeting in Bridlington certainly provided much food for thought:

  • Firstly, I think it is a reminder that less can be more – I still think using local meetings to feed back to those unable to attend central meetings is useful, but it is probably more productive to have smaller numbers than to try to bring in new people to every meeting.
  • Secondly, it brings me back to expectations – is it unrealistic for me to expect my partners to participate in conducting user research and creating sample data sets? I hope not. I know the continuing struggle to get more people involved is frustrating, so I hope that by clarifying that we can do this work ourselves it will seem less daunting. On the other hand, I wonder whether the sense that this is my project automatically creates an expectation of that I do most of the work and that my partners contribute by attending meetings. I don’t mean for to imply that I am feeling any bitterness about this – if it is my project, then it is only fair that I do most of the work. I had hoped it would be our project – but again that may have been unrealistic.
  • Thirdly, it makes me re-consider roles, responsibilities and expertise. At this point in my career, I suppose I can claim to be a professional researcher. I know that data is useless unless it is relevant. I wanted us to plan our user research together, but what does that mean exactly? Even if this was a project where everyone felt equally in charge, research of this kind is something some of us have been trained to do and others have not. This doesn’t mean that we can’t work together, or that we shouldn’t be able to talk through things toward an aim of consensus. On the other hand, it may mean that it is an area where I should be more assertive and feel less conflicted about attempting to influence the direction that consensus takes.
  • Finally, in relation to whether this is my or our design project, I wonder whether this was already decided when I pitched my idea. My intention was that this would be a pilot and that we would spend the majority of our time working on ideas my partners came up with. I underestimated how long everything would take – so the pilot has become the project. As I mentioned, I decided I should be prepared to scrap this project so we could focus on our work instead of my work, but we have now come too far and become too invested. It does make me wonder though, whether no matter how open I am to incorporate my participants’ ideas and change mine, this project is doomed to remain mine simply because I pitched the initial idea. Maybe the only way a project can truly become ours, and have the collaborative dynamic I have been seeking, is by it beginning as yours. If I was participating as a citizen in my spare time it might be different, but if I am participating professionally and you are not – for a project to be ours, maybe it first must be yours?

Co-design progress and managing expectations (5th November 2016)

Jo’s consultancy with the project ended in October, but the next meeting with my partners was pushed into November. This meeting was a chance to present what Jo and I had come up with, get feedback and do some planning together. I had blogged about some of the progress we had been making, but I had not had the chance to speak with my partners about them. So in addition to sharing our mock-up design drafts, I also needed to share that we should do some user research and that I had decided I should be willing to scrap the designs if we had ended up in a situation where we were working on my rather than our ideas. This was supposed to be a project about working together in new ways – not about me using my partners to create a digital product I thought would be useful.

Having spent some time catching up and communicating the concept of paper prototyping, I began by presenting the personas and scenarios I’d fleshed out for our users. This caused some alarm in the group because it was felt we had already dealt with this – we had discussed personas way back in our first meeting together in July. The expectation was that we had moved on from this and would now be looking at draft designs. While assuring my partners that we did have something for them to look at did calm these concerns, the momentary panic reminded me of the expectation of progress. My partners are investing time and energy in the project and want to see something come of it. For me, the process of working together may be what is the most important, because that is the focus of my research, but for my partners, perhaps not surprisingly, it seems to be more about the product.

Going over the mockups I had prepared proved a really useful exercise. Having something tangible as a reference, however rudimentary, proved really helpful for discussing expectations of what the platform would look like and how it would function. One of the things I really wanted was to provide users with tools to intuitively explore uploaded content. One of my pet peeves problems with similar platforms like Know Your Place, is that they rely exclusively on a pin-on-map interface. It is really useful for professionals doing desk-based impact assessments, but not that great if you just want to explorescreenshot-2017-01-20-15-33-31.
I played around with a couple of visualisations that I’ve copied in above. The right half is a network matrix that attempts to show how different entities on the site are linked. Seeing it laid out in this way let my partners engage directly with the design process and express that this feature was confusing and unhelpful. It initiated a really helpful conversation of what we want and don’t want this platform to be like. The left half is an attempt to give an overview of what people find important about a place. It is a way of organising information that is adapted from Janet Stephenson’s Cultural Values Model for landscapes. I had been very unsure about including it, but I left it in because I felt very strongly that we needed a way of communicating what is there at a glance. While I think the headings need more work, they get at the fact that places are important because of what is there, physically, the things that go on there and because of the things we know, remember or believe about a place. In the end, this feature was one of the ones my partners were the most positive about.

From the beginning, the idea behind this digital tool has been that people should be able to share what they consider their heritage to be and explain why it is important to them. As a result, it is a platform for capturing and communicating opinions about heritage. That said, an early concern raised by my partners was that the platform should aim to impact how people interact with heritage in person, not just online. There has also been a concern about the role of fact or truth as opposed to opinion. Seeing what the platform might look like, opened up the possibility for clearer conversations about expectations of the type of information that would be available on the site. While I’ve been quite stuck on the point that I believe that heritage is mostly about opinions, the point was raised that we want people to be able to direct users to places where they can learn more – like other websites, libraries and museums. Web addresses and opening times for institutions like these are arguably facts not opinions and a clear desire for there to be room for this kind of information on the site was expressed. In the current context of threats of closures, encouraging the use of cultural institutions was seen as especially important.

As I’d mentioned in my previous blog post, I was increasingly concerned that this co-design project was not achieving what I had hoped. I had hoped we would be designing together, but recently it had felt that my partners were simply a sounding board – consultants rather than partners – for my research project. I was concerned that I was using them to push my agenda and that this project was turning into the kind of participatory project I am critical of. As a result, I felt it was important to mention that if my partners did not think this was a worthwhile project and that we should be designing something else together, we could scrap all these ideas and work on something they thought was more worthwhile. This idea that we would throw away all the work we had already done was met with dismay. It was also mentioned that ‘this is your project’ (my PhD). I really can’t blame anyone from reacting in this way, but it did add to my concerns. I set out to sustain community heritage groups through co-design. That was what my partners signed up to be part of. I am committed to seeing this co-design project through and I still think we can come up with a really useful product, but I had hoped we would end up truly designing together. This may have been unrealistic. These kinds of expectations should obviously be discussed at the beginning of a project, but back then I don’t think any of us thought we would be making mock-ups like these ourselves. Now it has taken me back to considering roles and responsibilities. I think it’s great that we can take more control over the design process, but it is time-consuming, especially in the beginning. It raises new requirements and introduces expectations we had not discussed. Ultimately, it brings me back to considering what I should expect of my partners and what they should expect of me. Which kinds of participation are useful, reasonable and realistic – and in which contexts?