Monday, 19 August 2013

Footprints, Skeletons, and other Telltale Signs

One of the tricks I'm told that authors try to do as they develop characters for novels is invent deep back stories, intricate details which may never appear in the actual novel, but nevertheless inform the character's actions.  The incident with the clown and the candles at the 7th birthday party.  The aversion to sesame seeds, etc. etc....

When I began to investigate ICT for conflict management, I was mostly thinking about the software I had worked with on laptops.  The interface layout was a primary concern for me and it was as if I was approaching my analysis like I was dissecting a painting.   In fact, there are many scholars who treat 'space as meaning' in this way.  As my project developed, I came to center more on mobile technologies, and their interface layout is dramatically different, often starkly minimal.  However, I believe the underlying logic of the original software for the desktop program still guides the structure and organization of the mobile version in the same way as the novel's character is guided by previous experiences kept invisible to the reader.  Colleagues who play devil's advocate push me try to imagine another way in which information could be organized.  They ask me to say precisely how the current system is inadequate.  I can't at the moment.  This is in part because the current system comes from my own culture and makes sense to me.  However, I think my experiment can demonstrate that sense-making as captured by narrative flow, scene conceptualization, isn't universal.

Is it possible to track backwards, to recreate the logic of the desktop experience from the mobile one?  For the mobile software I've been working with, it's not super sophisticated, so it hasn't been designed for mobile-only.  Generally, it reads like a survey, gathering information in a step-wise fashion from structured questions which try to streamline answer choices and simplify the user's need to type or scroll around.

Does the simplification, the invisible backbone of the desktop version driving the organization of information gathering actually end up driving the narrative instead?

As I analyze my initial findings, I am grouping participant responses with a few questions of my own.  Or rather, after reading the responses through a few times, the things that jumped out at me can best be captured with the following questions:
(The next step is to look for what doesn't jump out, what conforms, or what may even contradict my hypothesis.)

  1. Did participants tend to identify the scene (a video they watched) as an argument, fight, theft, or 'other' in the preliminary description.
  2. Did this change between step 2 and 3 (after interaction with mobile survey)? How?
  3. In which language (English or Acholi) did they give more details? Or equivalent?
  4. Participants seemed to include details from their personal lives to give structure to the ambiguous scene… examples? Frequency?
I used two surveys, one contained one open question and participants could just type in a similar manner to sending an SMS and the second version was a structured survey with multiple choice questions, open format, and yes/no questions.  It was patterned after the type of ICTs I expect participants to interact with more and more in the future.  

So far, I have noticed that some participants who have the open format do not change their description throughout the three description stages while a few who interacted with the structured survey changed their version of events.  For example, two participants who first described watching a fight later said it was a robbery because this was one of the multiple choice options or narratives that presented throughout the structured survey.  Some participants told me afterwards they could see what I wanted them to say.  (To be honest, having watched the video perhaps 200 times, I have no idea what is going on in the scene, so I didn't have a 'true' narrative in mind among the choices.) 

The complicated game of psychology is partly the result of a population that has been inundated with researchers.  While my work is unfamiliar and participants were generally curious and positive about wanting to participate, the survey questions that touch on theft, violence, or conflict may trigger a connection to the type of research to which they are habituated and thus associate with certain objectives.  This is exactly why I wanted to conduct an experiment instead of interviews.  To avoid the guessing game.  The posturing and manipulation for responses.  Often the intention is to please me, the researcher, but in the case of an experiment like this, a comparison of the thought stage of language production, of conceptualization of scenarios which manifest in specific ways bilinguals cross or mix their languages.  I am reasonably confident the experimental design guards their responses from this kind of manipulation because they are unaware of what I am measuring.  

That's not to say we don't discuss it.  Some of the most valuable insights for me were gained during the discussion about the context and purpose of my research.  Participants asked some important questions.  However, I maintain that the quantitative more than the qualitative will be the more valuable outcome (and more novel aspect) of this research as a first step toward how culture can be considered as a variable in design.