OZCHI Zeitgeist: Tell a compelling story

OZCHI 2010 was last week. I was one of the technical chairs, meaning that I was responsible, along with my friend and colleague Stephen Viller, for the managing the peer review process and the production of the proceedings. Rather than live-tweet the conference, I thought I’d try to provide a summary of what I thought seemed to be the overarching themes of the conference. This is the first of three posts.

We had the privilege of having the esteemed John Seely Brown give the opening keynote. JSB’s keynote touched on several themes including learning, engagement and expertise. All highly, if often peripherally, relevant to researchers and practitioners of HCI, UX, Design or whatever your preferred name is for this thing we do. I can’t say I learned anything that will change my research, but that is not the function of a keynote. I did, however learn some new ways to express what I’ve been trying to articulate in other arenas. I was inspired. And I learned that there may be wider implications of my current thinking than what I was previously aware.

On later reflection, I realised that JSB told a great story, or set of stories that were woven together into an arc. The best paper presentations I saw managed a similar feat. Instead of describing their method, results, findings and conclusions, the best papers told a story about a process of doing research, how a method was used, the ways in which the analysis took place, and situated the findings and conclusions in a larger context.

Each year at OZCHI the Gitte Lindgaard award is given to the best paper presented at the conference. It’s not the best presentation, but the best paper, according to the review scores, which was best presented. This year the award went to “What’s My Name Again? Sociotechnical Considerations for Author Name Management in Research Databases” by Dana McKay, Silvia Sanchez, Rebecca Parker. Here’s the abstract:

Managing names in bibliographic databases so that they have a one-to-one match with individual authors is a longstanding and complex problem. Various solutions have been proposed, from labour-intensive but accurate manual matching, to machine-learning approaches to automated matching which require little input from people, but are not perfectly accurate. Researchers have a particular interest in name management: they are often authors, and receive academic credit based on their work and need correct citation records. However they are also searchers and have an interest in finding all the works by other authors. There has been little work on the tensions between these two needs, nor on how researchers manage their own identities with their choices of name. This paper reports on a study of researchers that investigates both their relationships with their own names, and what they would like from research databases when they are searching for specific authors.

The presentation, given by Dana McKay, was great. It was a story about the research, woven together with short stories about particular cases that arose in the research.

It’s really hard to give a great presentation, as McKay did. Often research can be quite dry, especially if it’s described in a way to emphasise the competence of the researcher. Being able to tell an engrossing story about research is as much of a skill as being able to do research. In some ways we’ve been spoiled by the great talks at  TED and Steve Jobs’ keynotes. Just because giving a great presentation looks easy doesn’t mean it is. And just because a great story seems to flow naturally from point to point, it doesn’t mean it started that way. There’s as much craft in communicating (parts 0f) research as there is in doing research.

This isn’t to say that OZCHI is the only place to see great research presented in a compelling way, just that, after the first day, sitting on the train home, I was struck by the quality of what I saw.



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