Friday, December 12, 2008

Reading :: Designing Collaborative Systems

Designing Collaborative Systems: A Practical Guide to Ethnography
By Andy Crabtree

Designing Collaborative Systems has favorable blurbs on the back by Graham Button (XEROX Research Centre, Europe) and John A. Hughes (Lancaster). So it shouldn't be a surprise that the subtitle "a practical guide to ethnography" really refers to the particular strain of ethnography that Button, Hughes, and others such as Lucy Suchman use: ethnomethodology. As Crabtree explains in Chapter 3, "the term ethnography denotes neither a unified method nor a coherent school of thought. Rather, and as Shapiro makes clear, the term ethnography is a gloss on various and different analytic formats" (p.87).

In fact, as is typical of ethnomethodology, Crabtree argues strenuously that ethnography should not take an analytic format as a starting point (in a footnote on p.87 he singles out activity theory on this point), and he even objects to research protocols in general: "What is seen through research protocol, is not a reflection of cooperative work, but a function of the methods applied and the theorizing done by the researcher in applying them" (p.49). Instead, he urges researchers to "set aside his or her preconceptions and instead be faithful to the phenomenon, exploring and inspecting Work Organization as it is observably 'put together', constructed and assembled by the Organization's staff in their real time collaborations" (p.50). Therefore, he says that the first phase of investigation is Exploration, in which the researcher should "start anywhere, with any person that looks approachable and least likely to be bothered by the presence of a researcher, and collect as much material as possible of whatever sort is appropriate" (p.51). The researcher then proceeds to Inspection (in which categories emerge) and Analysing.

It would be easy to get caught up in the family fight among competing qualitative traditions here -- I'm not in the ethnomethodology camp, although I can see its appeal -- but instead let's talk about how Crabtree develops these ideas. In Chapter 2, Crabtree takes us through ethnomethodological data collection and analysis, discussing its philosophical and methodological suppositions along the way. In Chapter 3, he discusses how to apply ethnomethodology to work studies. Then, in Chapter 4, he introduces us to participatory design and its methods, along with some history of its development and controversies. Finally, in the Summary, he provides the purpose.

Yes, in the Summary! Crabtree answers the question that I had been asking the entire way through. After all, the text seemed too advanced for people who were just coming to ethnomethodology without a social science background, such as students or working software developers. On the other hand, the discussion of methods and methodological underpinnings seemed too elementary for those with qualitative research backgrounds. The material seemed too vague and too background-heavy for a how-to, and too practice-oriented for a methodology text. It didn't situate the methodolgy well among other methodologies. It tended to show more than tell, with large sets of data displayed in the later chapters but rather thin discussion of how to collect and analyze one's own data. So who was this book supposed to reach?

Here's what the Summary says:
The purpose of this book has been to sensitize the reader to a discrete ensemble of practical strategies and methods for the study of work and the use of ethnomethodologically-informed ethnography in the creative process of design. The book took its departure from the requirements problem and the inadequacies of HCI formats and methods for describing, analysing and representing the design space. ...

... The format articulated herein is practical rather than theoretical in character and is intended to orient the analyst to important features of the workplace or factors to be taken into account when observing and describing work and undertaking analysis of the design space. The primary orientation here is to cooperative work. ... (p.165)

And that's as clear an answer as we get.

So to whom would I recommend the book? Graduate students who are conversant in qualitative research, conversation analysis, or ethnomethodology and who want to apply these skills to cooperative work.

The future of mobile phones in a global recession?

I started thinking about this question recently, when it became clear that we were heading into a recession (at best). How is it going to affect workplaces, especially technology-centric work, and the consumer space, which has enabled so many of the changes we are seeing in knowledge work? And in my personal life, would I give up my mobile phone?

Along those lines, I was interested in Tomi

Loopt comes to Android

Finally, a major location-based social networking service comes to Android. Reviews are good. Has anyone else had experience with Loopt?

"It's an inauspicious time to decry helpful, even vital democratic initiatives in favor of ideology ..."

That's Chris Dannen of Fast Company, complaining that "President Bush has expressed disapproval of the free nationwide Wi-Fi proposal being considered by the FCC and Congress." He explains the proposal in this way:

The legislation, which is before Congress now, would require whoever buys the chunk of wireless spectrum being auctioned next year to set aside a quarter for no-fee service to rural areas that don't have broadband access.

The spectrum being auctioned, called the Advanced Wireless Services (or AWS-3) spectrum, is being vacated by television broadcasters, who must switch to wired digital broadcasting in January by federal mandate. That leaves a new swath of "white space" free to be leased by the highest bidder.

Without getting into the proposal itself, I want to point out this instance in light of the principle of universal service.

As I discuss in Network, the idea of universal service first meant simply the ability to place calls from any phone to any other. Later, it meant total market penetration: close to 100% of people who wanted phone service could obtain it. But in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it began to take on a new meaning, as a universally obtainable slate of services. Common services, such as call waiting, can be considered part of basic service once they achieve a certain level of market penetration. So the slate of services that define basic telecommunication is continually evolving; today's innovations become tomorrow's basic service.

The exigence for this? "[T]he assumption that access to up-to-date telecommunications is now the material basis for individuals' participation in democratic society" (Spinuzzi 2008, p.108, italics in original). We still pay a luxury tax for telecommunications service, but that service is now considered vital to our democracy. That's what jumped out at me about the quote above, which sounds passable now but would sound completely ludicrous in 1983.

Monday, December 08, 2008

G1 review: Cooking Capsules

One of the most interesting and unique applications for the T-Mobile G1 is Cooking Capsules, which is essentially a cooking show for your phone.

If that sounds bizarre, let's keep in mind that the G1, like the iPhone, is more like a handheld Internet device that just happens to have telephony as one of its features (in the G1's case, not a particularly central feature). The G1 is a lifestyle device, and cooking certainly fits into people's lifestyles.

So back to Cooking Capsules. The application currently has six recipes, each of which has a two-minute video, a shopping list, and step-by-step directions in a tabbed interface. So you watch the video to get a sense of how the recipe is put together, use the shopping list in the store (why not?) to select your ingredients, then follow the directions as you cook. If you learn more easily by listening, you can revisit the video at any time. And if you have trouble doing sums in your head, the shopping list has a slider so you can make anywhere between two and eight servings. (The default is four servings, and the video and recipe directions don't change, so you'll still have to figure out the quantities at some point.)

The videos are nicely put together. They don't have stellar production values, but they are nicely done, and they look stunning on the little G1 screen. The two sets of recipes (Indian and French) have different intros and engaging music that will get stuck in your head. To keep videos under time, the producers make liberal use of Baz Luhrman-type video speeding through potentially boring parts (such as pouring liquids). I noticed some pausing and stuttering in the video stream, but only sometimes -- usually around dinnertime, which makes me think that perhaps the CC servers were in heavy use at that point.

Shopping lists and directions are both nicely clear. Both allow you to check off items. In fact, I was really impressed with this setup, which offers a lot of potential for delivering instructional materials.

So how did it work? I botched my chana dal (I rushed the simmering a bit), but the dish still turned out passably. I'll have to try another dish soon. My guess is that after the first of the year we'll see a lot more recipes - and we'll be charged for them. Fair enough.