Post written by: Amelia Acker, FCoP Project Researcher, Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin
In preparation for my first field site visit next week for the FCoP project I’m gathering supplies, resources, and tips for the next few months of visits and synthesis. For this research project, I’m going to try a new method of inquiry during interviews that involves asking participants map out or draw their workflows. In between interviews, I will follow participants around and observe their work with emulation, metadata development, and software preservation processes. In my first field report, I reported on my role as the FCoP researcher. This second field report will cover my plans, preparation process, and some of the tools and methods I will use during my research fieldwork this summer researching the development of emulation and metadata workflows in support of software preservation.
Over the past few months, I have negotiated 3-4 day trips in June, July, and August with three FCoP cohort members and their workplaces. At each site I have a designated “site champion” who is my point-person for the visit and a member of the FCoP research project. These folks will be my entree into the workplace, facilitate collections observations, and arrange interview access with their team members and co-workers where possible. Typically, a site champion is someone that I will spend the most time with–shadowing them as they move through their day and observing their work because of their status as a team leader and connection to the project. Site champions also do a lot of work themselves in terms of building relationships and sharing information before I arrive.
Once site champions and dates have been tied down, I do a bit of work as my own travel agent preparing logistics and reservations. I have booked flights, arranged for hotels or to stay with colleagues nearby. For each city, I do research on traveling to the site itself from the airport or my lodgings. I want to ensure that I arrive on time each day, so I research public transportation options, ride-sharing or parking options nearby. I also like to make sure there is a grocery store, deli, or coffee shop nearby so I can make plans for walking, caffeine, and necessary meals each day before and after my site visits.
In addition to tying down all the logistics of where to stay and how to get to where I need to be for each trip, I prepare some goals for each individual site visit that ladder up to broader goals for building a community of practice. Because observational fieldwork is iterative, I want to make sure that I have some time to learn from each visit and implement some improvements for the second and third visits. While I have previous fieldwork experience in libraries, archives, and research labs, this will be my first time examining workflows in particular. So for the past few weeks I have been prepping by consulting with my colleagues who are ethnographers of work and user researchers that study teams in enterprise contexts. I reached out to three researchers and each of my colleagues gave me resources, tips, and ideas for pacing and questions from their previous research experiences. I read up on some of their suggestions, which included some classics on participatory workflow analysis from the CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) conference proceedings and some new digital methods pieces about studying people who work with software tools to coordinate their work.
Because I am going to do one-on-one interviews and observations about workflows and workplaces, one colleague shared with me a great a method idea that involves asking participants to map out their workflows by drawing out each stage and creating a visual artifact for us to discuss. By asking participants about each step in their workflow and developing diagrams to structure our conversations, I’ll be able to observe these flow diagrams at each site. In preparation for this interview activity, I have done some reading on data flow diagramming.
Finally, preparing for on-site interviews with unique teams involves reading up on each place and understanding how it fits within larger institutional goals and supports different preservation mandates. For example, software preservation efforts in a museum setting that are driven by exhibition experiences may have different goals for users than a special collection located in a research library. Typically I spend a lot of time reading through each site’s websites, latest news and events stories, and any other documentation I can find online. As I’m reading, I’m asking myself:
How did this site come to be?
Who founded it and how long has it been around?
What communities does it serve and what are their unique preservation mandates?
In an earlier post I mentioned developing an interview protocol that is tied to my research questions. I revisit this framework and make sure that I have memorized the research protocol, including the verbal consent script so that I can ask for consent from participants before beginning interviews. It’s always a good idea to have a back-up plan during fieldwork, so I also spend some time sketching out contingency plans in the event that participants aren’t available or access plans to the site, collections, or team members change.
Once I’ve made arrangements, finalized travel, and revisited my research questions and framework, I’ve got to gather and pack supplies! For me that is a pencil case with writing utensils and some highlighters to flag notes, a few new field notebooks, and my audio recorder for interviews. I also plan to take lots of pictures with my camera phone, so I bring a backup battery pack. I expect the workflow diagramming to happen on-site at a white board and with markers, but I’ll also bring some extra sharpies and big paper sheets just in case.
In my next field report, I will share some brief observations from my first visit to the Living Computers History Museum + Lab in Seattle Washington. Wish me luck!
Hargittai, E., & Sandvig, C. (Eds.). (2015). Digital research confidential: The secrets of studying behavior online. MIT Press.
Chin, G., Schuchardt, K. L., Myers, J. D., & Gracio, D. K. (2002). Participatory Workflow Analysis: Unveiling Scientific Research Processes with Physical Scientists (No. PNNL-SA-33676). Pacific Northwest National Lab.(PNNL), Richland, WA (United States).