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I'm currently working on a DPhil in HCT at the University of Sussex. This section of the website is for an on-going 'learning diary', for me to write my thoughts and notes on various courses and my thesis.

Entries in process (8)


Inbox zero and tech-task lists: getting things done

Inbox zero has seemed totally unobtainable to me for a long time. I am the kind of person who can easily collect over 1000 emails in a work inbox, although I do try and keep my private one down to a dull roar down at around 300. I've tried filing things, but then they just get missed. So I signed up for this course more in hope than expectation if I'm honest, thinking I could do with the help but not really expecting it to stick.

The course (led by the supremely over-achieving Martin Eve - I swear he has more hours in the day than normal people) introduced the idea of using an email-based todo list (producteev.com) to clear out your inbox. His reasoning is quite simple and straightforward, but was a connection that I have never made: any mail I leave in my inbox is actually a todo item. That's why I miss things when I move them to a different folder. The emails hang around forever, because I never get around to putting any kind of date on the todo item or defining what it is I have to actually do - they just sit there, making me feel vaguely guilty and think things like 'Oh, I must get around to...'.

I can honestly say this has been a totally revolutionary idea to me. I'm now aiming to spend half an hour first thing going through my mail (I don't get a lot of new mail now, fortunately, so this includes going through some of the backlog) and clearing things quickly as I need, or if they need longer than a minute or two sending them to my todo list and filing the email somewhere practical. Emails that don't have anything for me to do but I want to keep for sentimental reasons (e.g. from family) I file, so I know where to find them. (Actually, even with the family ones I've been adding a reminder to reply. Is that bad?)

It's working a treat! I'm down from 350 to 16 emails in my personal account, and 500+ down to 209 in my uni account. This is a triumph! I've even got round to doing things like reading papers that people have sent me (or at least filing them in the right place so I can find them later), deleting reminders that are well past their deadlines, and filing project-related stuff appropriately! I'm not sure how long this will last - I haven't quite got into the habit of adding in non-email related tasks yet, and my estimates of time scales are currently pretty rubbish - but it's a great start.

Strange how a small shift in conceptual viewpoint can make such a big difference! 


Dreaming of questions

A couple of weeks ago I had a meeting with my supervisor, who asked me where my research was going (probably not unreasonably!). After I'd burbled at her for what felt like an age about all the different stuff I was reading, she sat back, and did the "hmm" noise, that I know means I've not exactly done something wrong but she's about to suggest something. 

She suggested that I had a few different angles going on, and that maybe I needed to focus some more. She then suggested a way of getting that focus: write my dream thesis abstract. Basically, I had to imagine myself at the end of my DPhil, and write down what I did (in general terms), what results I got (assuming it all went well) and what that meant. 

So, I sat down and tried to remember where I'd started from on my reading odyssey. 


(This is how I think best. Pen, paper, arrows, circles. It works for me.)

From there, I came up with a short little abstract. I emailed it off. I waited. I was told to put more detail in. I thought a bit harder. I wrote a longer abstract:

"I looked at group communication in small, newly-formed groups in a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) environment.

I did a study to examine elements of communication style used in the group formation stage, including use of paralanguage (e.g. smileys), in-world vs. external references, self-disclosure by individuals and the development of shared terms. I concentrated on text chat amongst the groups in both 'social' mode and when they were 'on-task' e.g. conducting a raid. I looked at how those communication styles contributed to the formation of group norms around the way that the group played together. I used these results to formulate some design guidelines to facilitate the group communication and ran a smaller study testing these in an online game environment written as part of the project.

My results demonstrate that group communication in the early stages of group formation are affected by the design of the interface and can be positively affected by design decisions taken to increase the salience of the group identity. The design decisions I made were to include a clear group-name next to the individual's own in the screen, in a similar font size. I provided a separate group chat window, which could have the colour changed by any member of the group to indicate that they were now 'on-task'. Some groups used this feature frequently, whilst others only turned it on if a group member felt the level or tone of chat was inappropriate.

A successful group is one that was still active at the end of the study period. The successful groups formed hierarchies ranging from formal to informal, but in all cases the members had developed clear roles in the groups. They had a collection of group terms, and understood how the rewards of team activities (such as raids) were divided amongst the group members. Many of them had standardised the level of paralanguage used, although different groups used different amounts. Many groups also established clearly different patterns between social and on-task communication styles, often with a marked increase of abbreviated terms and the proportion of in-world comments.

My original contribution is to look at online group communication in a visual but not video (MMOG) environment. "


Today I had another meeting with my supervisor. Apparently that one was fine. So from there she wanted to work backwards to a research question. We batted it around for a while, asking what kind of question would actually be interesting. After a bit (not that long actually, it was an hour meeting in total), we came up with a question that actually, I rather like. The wording may change, but at a basic level I am asking: 

Given that there are benefits to working in groups in online games, what kind of interface elements and design help groups to form and work/play together?


It feels good for me, more informatics than sociology, and less nebulous and woolly than some of my other ideas. I can imagine a shape for the next two years coming from that, and while I don't expect my dream thesis abstract to come true it has definitely been a very useful exercise. 

Also: what a relief! Not having a specific question has actually been bothering me quite a bit. I know that's not etched in stone, but now I don't feel quite so much that I'm making up the question as I write the answer. Bring it on!


A question of balance

As the weeks pass, it feels like I'm getting more and more different chunks of stuff to be working on. I've got the game project to write code for. Then there's the reading for the DPhil. And the writing of some sort of literature review. And the game project website, and (although guiltily this keeps getting shunted to last on the list) the research group website. On top of that there's the task of doing the whole 'raising my profile as a researcher' - which this blog is now forming a part of, and finding the right conferences to aim to attend, discovering the interesting people in my area, working out what 'my area' is, etc, etc!

I am finding that it is difficult to work out a priority. The project obviously has the big external pressures, and correspondingly it has clearly defined tasks and obvious milestones and progress indicators. This makes it temptingly easy to spend a large proportion of time on. There's a whole raft of tasks, each of which can be satisfyingly ticked off as complete when I've done them and shown off to other people. 

In contrast, the work on the DPhil is nebulous. It takes as long as I have to give it. The more I read, the more there is to read. There is a lack of feedback that I have completed tasks, and the tasks sometimes don't really feel like they are achieving much. Still, it's easy to spend all my time on the reading at the expense of the game project.

If I favour any one thing, I end up feeling rather guilty about the lack of progress on the others. For example, this week I've been working on the project website (although it still isn't up - I need to chase people again for webspace), so I haven't been working on the game code. Since I finished the website, I've been trying to get on with some reading and writing up what I've read. I've also thrown in a bit of blogging, thinking about the conference I'm going to in July (my first academic conference!), and today I've been to a lab meeting (with an interesting presentation by one of our research group) and a presentation by a visiting academic. Most of that has next to no visible outcome, so I feel like I haven't really achieved very much this week and I'm feeling a little guilty about that. 

One of the books I've been reading (and I think I have at least three work-related books on the go - another source of guilt!) is 'Reality is broken' by Jane McGonigal. She lists feedback as an important part of any satisfying process, and while I'm not sure I agree with gamification as a concept I think that is an important observation. I think I'm going to try to make myself some feedback systems - not points or prizes or anything, more a list of what I've done. I don't want it to take too long to do (and I don't think I want to go as far as a time-sheet), so I'm going to try breaking down the DPhil tasks and keeping a tally of them each week. I'm also going to ask my partner to kindly listen to me give a summary of what I've done each week, and maybe make appropriately encouraging noises. 

It may not make me a better time-keeper, or help me prioritise the work any more easily, but it might just take away that feeling of not really having done anything or getting anywhere. Worth a shot, I reckon!

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