Topsight (Austin UXPA)


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A presentation on Topsight I delivered to Austin UXPA on August 6, 2013.

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  • Hi, everyone. I’m Clay Spinuzzi from the University of Texas at Austin. My research involves how people work in technologically mediated workplaces. And to study that work, I do several things. I gather copies of documents and other tools they use in their work. I typically take photos of their work layout. I interview them about what they do and what challenges they face. And finally, I shadow them—I follow them around as they work. And when I explain that last part, I always have to add that I’m not trying to be voyeuristic. In fact, I’m genuinely interested in the problems people encounter on a daily basis in their work and how they solve these problems. In fact, I admire how people are endlessly inventive and innovative as they work through the problems they face in the workplace—specifically problems involving understanding, circulating, and acting on information.So I’ve conducted several qualitative case studies studying how different people work: examples are software developers, traffic safety workers, telecommunications workers, office workers, freelancers, people at coworking spaces and people in an Internet startup. In each case, I try to achieve topsight into their work.
  • Topsight—the overall understanding of the big picture—is hard to achieve in organizations. There’s too much going on, too many moving pieces. But without topsight, we have a hard time figuring out how information circulates, where it gets stuck, and how we can get it unstuck.Topsight is hard to get—but you can get it. I know: I’ve been achieving topsight into various organizations for the last 15 years. Along the way, I’ve developed an approach in which I gather clues, confirm details, model social interactions, and use all of these to systematically achieve topsight. In this presentation, I'll overview the Topsight approach and discuss how UX practitioners can use it to better understand user requirements. In other words, what do they do, and what do they need in order to do it better?First, let’s talk about some complicating factors that make topsight more important to achieve than ever.
  • When I started conducting workplace studies, I sought out environments in which people used digital technologies. But lately I haven’t had to make that a criterion—because now EVERYONE uses digital technologies. In fact, work in general is changing, and in fairly radical ways. It’s not just the fact that we all have mobile phones in our pockets. It’s not just the fact that we’re all receiving email and most of us are on Facebook. It goes deeper than that.
  • First, literacy is changing: people produce and consume knowledge in all aspects of their lives.Writing is perhaps our most useful and flexible tool, making its way into nearly every aspect of our lives—saturating our lives to a degree that it has never done before. Nearly universal literacy means that the overwhelming majority of elementary school students learn a basic level of reading, writing, and textual problem solving. And that’s a big deal. In 1870, 20% of people at or above the age of 14 were illiterate—unable to read or write in any language. By 1979, that number dropped to only 0.6%.Source:, in 1870, the degree ratio for high school was 0.02%—only 2 of every 100 students graduated from high school. In 1970, the degree ratio was 77%. (By 2000 it was a relatively anemic 70%.) literacy is a big part of our toolkit. When we face a problem, we often reach for a textual solution. Even if we are in “low literacy” fields such as carpentry.Writing, which began as a hacked-together accounting system, developed many more uses as the population became more literate. The dropping costs of writing technology—including pencils, pens, and paper—made writing easier to spread, as did the burgeoning postal system. Writing became incorporated into more and more trades, fields, and disciplines.And as information and communication technologies (ICTs) came online, and as work changed, the number of genres multiplied. For instance, the business memo evolved from business letters which were deployed within an organization. Email evolved from business memos (and you can still see the traces of the older genre in email headers: to, from, date, subject). And so on.
  • increase in literacy is paired with other changes in how we work. In 1800, over 40% of US jobs were agricultural. In 1870, about 60% of US jobs were manufacturing jobs. Now both of those classes of work are trending downward, and we see a spike in knowledge-based and creative work (CC), and routine low-wage service work (LWS). Agriculture and manufacturing are still important, but they’ve been systematized to the point that they are remarkably productive without a large percentage of workers. Instead, high-paying jobs are concentrated in knowledge work, work that involves analyzing and transforming knowledge. That is, work that uses those important literacy skills.(But let’s note that even the LWS jobs require literacy—more literacy than the average farm worker had in 1870.)Alan Burton-Jones: "In 1900, less than 18 per cent of the total workforce in the USA were engaged in data- and information-handling tasks. By 1980 it had risen to over 50 percent. ... On present trends, over 80 percent of the workforce are likely to be involved in information-handling tasks by 2020, of whom a higher proportion than at present are likely to be engaged in knowledge-building and decision-making activities" (pp.8-9)Part of the reason knowledge work has spiked is that it has the infrastructure to do so—we are suffused with information and communication infrastructure wherever we go.
  • Last December there were 6.7 billion active mobile subscriptions; these reach 4.3 billion unique human beings, 61% of the planet's population; and 5.6 billion of these subscriptions use texting—more than use voice calls. subscriptions are on the rise across the globe, especially in China, India, and the rest of the Asian Pacific region. (see right), by January 2013, 4/5 of these connections come from the developing world—subscribers in the developing world accumulate prepaid SIMs to cope with limited rural network coverage, while those in the developed world are accumulating multiple connected devices (smartphones, tablets, Chromebooks). upshot? People can work from anywhere (home offices, coffee shops, coworking spaces, etc.)People are accessible 24/7 (sometimes to their chagrin)Virtual teams (collaborating across locations and time zones)And that means that people’s work and information requirements are changing. It’s easier to circulate information, but that information can cross more paths and contexts than ever, across more platforms and media.
  • Along those lines, social media are changing too.Social networking provides a social layer that connects people, both within their own organization and across organizations. Other publicly available online services such as Google Docs, Basecamp, and Facebook allow teams to collaborate, coordinate, and communicate easily—once again, both within an organization and across organizational barriers. In fact, we're seeing an increasing number of studies examining how these additional layers affect work. These change how we work, but also how we intuit each other's moods and availability, how we see each other's contextual activity, and how we manage collaborative complexity. They even change how we structure our organizations, making it feasible to make them smaller, nimbler, flatter, and more distributed. They provide an always-on switchboard for working groups.A social layer. Ambient awareness. That doesn't mean that this social layer is unproblematic. It can be very problematic. But it's pervasive, and it's going to continue to have a big impact on how we work and interact.
  • For all these reasons, work is changing. Here are just a few trends:Shedding noncore assets. Over the medium term, companies have been shedding noncore assets since the 1970s, externalizing and outsourcing the things that aren’t part of their core expertise. This trend started with outsourcing functions such as office cleaning, equipment maintenance, and security. But it’s moved into white-collar work: companies that may have once employed graphic designers, technical writers, and marketers are increasingly contracting this work to other organizations. Working across organizations. And that means that for specific projects, different organizations have to pull together, learn swiftly how to work together, and understand each other enough to collaborate on complex projects that span organizations and disciplines.Projectification. In other words, some of this work is increasingly “projectified”: the focus is on the shared project, not the department. The project is attacked by a transient team of specialists.Virtual organizations. And these specialists aren’t pushing a plow around, they’re pushing bits and bytes. So they can often work in different locations and perhaps even in different time zones. Work becomes “smeared” across time and space.Hyperconnectivity. That’s made possible when team members are connected to each other during all waking hours—say, via internet-enabled mobile phones and tablets.So we see changes in how we organize work, how we collaborate with other organizations, how we team up, how we focus our work, and in where and when we work. Those changes mean new user requirements, diffuse user requirements, and new challenges for addressing them.
  • I’ve been researching these trends for some time. My first two books describe them for academics. But my latest book, Topsight, outlines how professionals such as UX professionals and technical writers can investigate the context of work. A field methodology for obtaining topsight.
  • The methodology—and the book—has five major parts. We’ll discuss just a few of these today.
  • First, designing and conducting a field study. In a field study, rather than relying on interviews, surveys, or lab-based tasks, we systematically shadow people in their actual work—trying to capture their routines but also the contingencies and dynamics they encounter in their everyday work. There are plenty of field-based UX methodologies, such as contextual design and rapid ethnography, and Topsight is definitely in that tradition—but with some differences.
  • For instance, in Topsight, we examine work at three different levels. (discuss)
  • To get to these levels, we apply different methods. (discuss)
  • Once we systematically observe and interview enough people, we have to analyze what is happening. And we also do that at three different levels.
  • Let’s start at the meso level, the middle level, where we “live.” This is the level of tasks, the level of which we are the most conscious.Work at the meso level involves specific, conscious goals. When you see someone reading a report – and you ask them what they’re doing, they’ll probably respond on this level: “I’m reading a report.”The meso level is oriented to shorter timescales: minutes or hours. Think in terms of tasks or goals that they are using this tool to accomplish.Finally, at the meso level, people can encounter disruptions called “discoordinations.” Think in terms of day-to-day difficulties in relating two or more pieces of information together. I provide three ways to map out what’s happening at the meso level.
  • First, map the information resources people are using: the texts, conversations, videos, and other ways that they use to convey information. These can be as formal as printed reports and as informal as sticky notes. Notice that people typically relate these together—they often combine several different pieces of information to complete a particular task. When they are missing one of these, they have to figure out how to route around that damage.
  • Next, map the sequences in which people hand off (transfer) pieces of information. People don’t just use information, they convey it. And if you can map regular sequences, you can begin to detect parts of the sequence where they regularly encounter problems.
  • Third, you relate the resource maps and handoff chains together for each person and each unit. When you do this, you can start to see innovations that individuals or units have introduced—shortcuts, informal tools, hacks that substitute for more unwieldy or less effective solutions.
  • So much for the meso level. The macro level is generally unconscious. When you see someone using a piece of information– say, reading a report – and you ask them what they’re doing, they’ll probably tell you, “I’m reading a report.” They probably won’t say: I’m improving shareholder value. But at the macro level, that’s arguably what they’re doing.The macro level is oriented to long cycles of activity, typically on the order of months, years, or longer. Finally, at the macro level, people can encounter disruptions called “contradictions.” Think in terms of large-scale differences that build up across activities—differences that cause repeated problems.
  • To get to these large-scale contradictions, I suggest mapping out activity systems. An activity system is basically a way to dissect the context of the organization, to get to why they do things this particular way and how the parts of the activity work against each other. What are they trying to accomplish over time? What tools and rules do they use to do it? How do they divide the labor, and what stakeholders are interested in the process?
  • And more than that, any activity is linked to other activities—especially these days. For instance, we have all taken a piece of software (say, Excel) and used it for something for which it was not intended. When we do that, we set up potential contradictions between our activity and that of the software supplier. Activity networks help us to map out those differences.
  • So that’s the macro level. But we can also think of the micro level: the habits or reactions that we use second-by-second, without thinking about it. These are operations that people have learned well enough that they no longer think about them. Examples include touch typing, double clicking, and shifting gears. The micro level is generally unconscious. When you see someone using a piece of information– say, reading a report – and you ask them what they’re doing, they’ll probably tell you, “I’m reading a report.” They probably won’t say: scanning the letters from left to right, then using my finger to turn the page.The micro level happens on the order of seconds. Finally, at the micro level, genres can encounter disruptions called “breakdowns.” Think in terms of habits that almost always work, but that misfire in a particular instance, causing the person to stop focusing on their goal and start focusing on their operations.
  • Work at the micro level is hard to capture, simply because there’s so much of it. But we can look for breakdowns—points of the work at which people make small mistakes and have to repair them. Think in terms of typing the wrong letter, canceling out of a dialogue box, or shifting into the wrong gear. By looking for these sorts of mistakes and how people recover from them, we can map out where the breakdowns cluster—and begin to determine what parts of the work aren’t working.
  • As I said, Topsight involves understanding the big picture. So, now that we’ve looked at work across these three levels, we have to put it all together, relating these levels to each other.
  • That brings us to our last analytical model, the topsight table. Here, we look for disruptions we’ve detected at each level, then relate them to each other to better describe a single issue. Once we can do that, we can move toward recommending a solution.
  • That’s the whole point, right? Turning our insights into a written recommendation or a slide deck that can elegantly make the case for a new course of action, a new solution.
  • But I won’t cover that last step today. I encourage you to take a look at Topsight for that.Questions?
  • Topsight (Austin UXPA)

    1. 1. Topsight A Guide to Studying, Diagnosing, and Fixing Information Flow in Organizations Clay Spinuzzi 1
    2. 2. Topsight is… • An overall understanding of the big picture— especially how that organization circulates information • Something that develops over time, like insight • Hard to achieve in organizations • A “diagnosis” 2
    4. 4. Literacy is changing 4
    5. 5. Classes of work are changing 5
    6. 6. Mobility is changing 6
    7. 7. Social media are changing 7
    8. 8. … So work is changing • Shedding noncore assets • Working across organizations • Projectification • Virtual organizations • Hyperconnectivity 8
    10. 10. Understanding changes in work 10
    11. 11. Getting to topsight • design a field study at your organization • conduct the field study, collecting solid data • navigate the data you collect • analyze the data to uncover systemic issues • write a solid recommendation report that presents your findings and recommends ways to solve those systemic issues 11
    13. 13. How can we understand an organization? Level Focus Characteristics Timescale Aware? Disruptions (Symptoms) Macro Activity Culture, history; social action, social memory Year, decades No Contradiction Meso Goal Tool-in-use; tactics Minutes, hours Yes Discoordination Micro Operation Rules, habits Seconds No Breakdown 13
    14. 14. What goes into a field study? • Observations: How are people circulating information? • Interviews: Why do they do what they do? How do they interpret it? • Artifacts: What texts and innovations are they using? • Other: System monitoring, prototyping, ??? 14
    16. 16. At the Meso Level Level Focus Characteristics Timescale Aware? Disruptions (Symptoms) Macro Activity Culture, history; social action, social memory Year, decades No Contradiction Meso Goal Tool-in-use; tactics Analyzed via: • Resource maps • Handoff chains • Triangulation tables Minutes, hours Yes Discoordination Micro Operation Rules, habits Seconds No Breakdown 16
    17. 17. Resource maps 17
    18. 18. Handoff chains 18
    19. 19. Triangulation table 19
    20. 20. The Macro Level Level Focus Characteristics Timescale Aware? Disruptions (Symptoms) Macro Activity Culture, history; social action, social memory • Activity system • Activity network Year, decades No Contradiction Meso Goal Tool-in-use; tactics Minutes, hours Yes Discoordination Micro Operation Rules, habits Seconds No Breakdown 20
    21. 21. Activity systems 21
    22. 22. Activity networks 22
    23. 23. At the Micro Level Level Focus Characteristics Timescale Aware? Disruptions (Symptoms) Macro Activity Culture, history; social action, social memory Year, decades No Contradiction Meso Goal Tool-in-use; tactics Minutes, hours Yes Discoordination Micro Operation Rules, habits Seconds No Breakdown 23
    24. 24. Breakdown table 24
    26. 26. Topsight table 26
    28. 28. 28