Using Research to Examine Beliefs and Habits

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Sid Benavente, Ph.D., Microsoft Corporation and Dave Clark, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Introduction

Research was a key topic at September’s CIDM Best Practices Conference in Monterey. JoAnn Hackos suggested that we make many of our decisions based on long-standing practices, gut assumptions, and habits. But we also need to make decisions based on data and evidence—to practice slow thinking as well as fast. Similarly, the theme for the 2013 conference of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing will be “Beyond Belief”; the call for papers asks respondents to re-evaluate their reliance on poorly understood axioms like George Miller’s “magic number 7” (the supposed maximum number of steps in a procedure), or Edward Hall’s questionable use of “high context” and “low context” shortcuts to understanding international communication.

It is striking that professional and academic conferences are having such similar discussions at a time when, as two Best Practices panelists noted, academic and practitioner discourse within our industry rarely intersects. To practitioners, academic work can often seem abstract and disconnected from the more pragmatic interests of information specialists, and practitioner work can seem experiential and deeply specialized to academic researchers. But academics and professional communicators clearly share much in common, and the time may be right for us to form new, mutually beneficial collaborations, in which academic researchers who have the time and expertise to conduct qualitative and quantitative research can, with the help of access to workplaces and other resources, answer questions that are of interest to both sides of the field.

Useful Research

There are many questions that could be addressed by these sorts of collaborations. At the Best Practices Conference, following a presentation from invited academic researchers, participants were asked to contribute their ideas for research projects they’d like to see done. Here is just a sampling of project ideas:

  • Reception Studies. The reports we receive are often just counts of “hits.” Why do users access and use content the way they do? What are they thinking when they read the content? What is the perceived value of different kinds of content?
  • Process/Practice Studies. Many of us work in agile teams. What tenets of agile are working well, and what tenets are wasteful? How can we best integrate information development into an agile environment?
  • Content Strategy Studies. What are the best strategies for implementing scenario-based content? How can we best write for users with limited literacy? What media are best for what kinds of user situations?
  • Behavior/Habit Studies. What habits or behaviors do we rely on that are no longer viable? How do we change the habits of working reactively?
  • Metrics/Measurement Studies. How can we best measure “quality” in information design? How can we best use web analytics for measuring the success of documentation?
  • Value Proposition Studies. How can we best understand our value and articulate that value to stakeholders?

The results are already fascinating but were limited to those in attendance and were gathered on a hand-written form; it still remains to develop a more comprehensive list and winnow it down to focus on key concerns. And a key question remains: How will we fund this type of research? JoAnn suggested crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding

While the term “crowdsourcing” was coined in Wired Magazine in 2006, the recorded practice of using “open calls” to accomplish something goes back at least to the early 1700s, when the British government offered a cash prize to the first person who could provide a method for accurately calculating a ship’s longitude. Similarly, in 1936 Toyota of Japan received 27,000 entries for a redesign of their logos—and the winning entry is still in use today.

“Crowdfunding” is the term used to describe crowdsourcing efforts specifically designed to raise funds. There are many examples of crowdsourcing where a call results in the awarding of a prize (such as the Toyota call for a logos) but the first use of a call for funding was in 1997 when fans of a British rock group, Marillion, raised $60,000 to fund the group’s US tour.

There are legal issues to be considered when initiating crowdfunding. A big divide seems to exist between funding efforts which don’t offer equity and those that do. This past spring President Obama signed into law the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, which eases regulatory restrictions on small companies in that latter category. However, an interesting question is whether the delivery of potential Intellectual Property (IP) falls into that category or not, and is something we should investigate if we go forward.

Approaches to Crowdfunding

There are a couple of ways we could approach funding options. We could do an ‘insider’ model as proposed at the conference, where, for example, members of CIDM identify and prioritize research projects important to our community. The pro of this first option is that we can truly focus on the research projects very specific to our needs. The con is that we will have a limited community and a limited source of funds. Funding for many of us is very tight right now. Even for companies whose executive leadership has bought into the value of information to the integrity of the product, it may be difficult to contribute the funds.

A second approach would be to open up the funding effort to the entire world, rather than to a select audience. The pro of this option is that there is an almost unlimited audience we could ask for funding. The cons are 1) an increased level of effort—in defining potential research projects in such a way as to make them immediately appealing to a worldwide, not-necessarily-information-professionals audience (although we target projects that might not be interesting to the world at large, but could build an interested world-wide community), and 2) the websites that support crowdfunding generally take a percentage of the funding, ranging between 2 and -8 percent.

Were we to take the second approach, there are several options for leveraging an already-existing crowdfunding site. For example, Microryza is a research-based crowdfunding site. It appears to be mostly grounded in the biological and software/hardware sciences.

At their site, potential investors can learn in-depth about the research project and interact with the researchers. To get started, a researcher submits a project proposal which tells the ‘story’ and answers a set of questions (you can view them in the appendix).

There would be competition from some very sexy projects—currently what is being offered for funding are such things as:

  • Tracking Magellanic Penguins
  • Genetic Circuits for Interactive Learning
  • Searching for Antifungal Agents in Earthworms (okay, you might need to be an earthworm to find this sexy)

The projects we were able to access had funding levels of $1,150 to $15,000. There were six projects currently being presented for funding and five projects presented as having been successfully funded.

In reviewing potential sites there seems to be a fair balance between those targeting investors hoping to make some money and donors hoping to contribute to a cause without any immediate return. That bodes well for something intermediate, where our interests lie.

Next Steps

It makes sense to make sure that

  • we have identified legal issues related to raising funds in whichever way we decide to proceed.
  • we are identifying hard problems that all of us face and that none of us has solved.
  • the projects we choose are projects that will provide both short term intelligence about actions needing to be taken within the next year, as well as projects that provide us longer term intelligence on how we need to position ourselves for 3-5 years out.

The most immediate next step is to begin a discussion on LinkedIn about this article—we need you all to weigh in on the following, as well as any other thoughts and comments you have:

  • Re-address the suggested research projects collected from the conference within the context of this discussion.
  • What additional types of projects should we be looking at? How do we sell an ROI to both the funders and the researchers?
  • Does it make sense to limit this to our community or more broadly? And if we roll-out more broadly, should we use one of the already-available commercial sites?

Please turn to the CIDM LinkedIn site and join the new subgroup on Academic/Industry Collaboration. We look forward to your ideas and will have more information about the plans to move forward.

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