Saturday, February 27, 2010

Notes on using

I recently had to design a top-level topic structure for a company-internal wiki. This wiki is intended to replace a predecessor which by now has a poor signal-to-ratio, being cluttered with obsolete articles and hindered by the absence of any kind of lifecycle-management, tagging or rating features. (The new wiki is being implemented using KwizCom's Wiki Plus, but that's not what I'm reviewing here)

But designing a good top-level structure for the mixed bag of topics found in a typical wiki is, like "go forth and sin no more", one of those tasks easier said than done. So I decided to try my first card sort, using 90 page titles from the old wiki as input to an open sort. I initially considered printing the list out and cutting it into physical cards, but this turns out to be alarmingly hard to do productively, especially to any level of quality, so it was time to check automated options. I came to from comments on a great card sort article, and, since it was free, and looked plausibly polished and complete, decided to use it.

Creating the test was simple - I registered for an account, gave the test a name, and simply copied the list of items from a text processor and pasted them into WebSort.

Running the sort was also simple - simply send a URL to your candidate card sorters. (And, if you want to learn from my mistakes, give them a more compelling reason to perform the task than the fact that it's convenient for them and helpful to you). When your users visit the link you've sent them, they get the instructions you left (I stuck with the default wording):

Performing the card sort is slick and sweet. WebSort provides a drag-and-drop interface for sorting the cards, and randomises the card order for each sorter. Unfortunately the slick interface is provided in Flash, and there are some gaps between the safety, transparency and reversibility of direct manipulation and the overall user experience - there was no way for users to print screens, or to save and resume. These are irritations, I'd say that the primary function here has been very well delivered.

Reviewing the results is slightly less polished. You see a list of all completed sorts, keyed by the sorter's email address. You select one or more names and hit "Reload" to load that particular data set. Once loaded the data set can be downloaded as a spreadsheet or in various text formats. The default display is "Category Summaries". This, along with "Categories * Items" is of limited usefulness in an open card sort where users invent their own category names, since each user typically invents different names. WebSort have helpfully provided this view with a "Merge categories" button to merge selected categories, but with no "Undo" or "Save-and-resume" functionality, I found this phase frustrating (of course category merging is only an issue for open sorts, not for closed sorts - WebSort supports both types).

There is also the mandatory tree diagram (aka dendrogram) which I found surprisingly unhelpful - this may have been a consequence of the low number of responses I was dealing with, but I have seen similar reactions from others.

All in all, I'd say that WebSort.Net is an excellent way of conducting and capturing a cardsort, with adequate analysis, but let down by weak category merging.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Learning, understanding and storytelling

An interesting post in Zen Habits on how to ace exams without studying explains and illustrates the difference between learning by rote and learning by "making connections".

While Scott Young includes "storytelling to remember facts and numbers" as one of five connection-making techniques for non-rote learning, I'm interested in a deeper connection, partly in the hope of understanding my own strengths and weaknesses in this area. Metaphor (his first technique) has, after all, some kind of implicit narrative. There has to be some kind of context in which the "stage" and its "players" and their "entrances" and "exits" mean something, before I can add that meaning to my understanding of "men" and "women". The same is more or less obviously true of his other techniques, like "Explain it to a five year old" (how would you do that without telling stories?) - read it, you'll see.

So the way to learn something is to make sense of it, to connect it to the things in our life which already have meaning for us. That's what stories and metaphors do.

This raises an interesting question - can I do this for my life as a whole? Is there some connection between, say, my interest in Metaphors We Live By, and my activities in Impro, does it all fit together?

I don't know yet, but I'll keep wondering.

And wandering.