Weeknotes SE02E23/24

A large pencil pine is on the right of the image. In the foreground is a spiky plant with spiky red flowers that have not yet opened. In the middle ground is low scrub with a lake behind. In the background rises hills. The sky is partly cloudy.

This is another one of those odd little weeknotes where I just share one thread of an idea. Hope it sparks joy, or some more threads of thoughts for you, and me.

I’ve been on leave this week, out of range of phones and internet in the middle of a world heritage area in Tasmania, and just enjoying silence — such as it is in the middle of Tasmania. Nature is both an amphitheatre of silence in the expansive wilderness and a cacophony of sound. A perfect place to remember just how blessed we are to be alive. To be more aware of the ways in which we are meaningless and yet our actions and intent meaningful.

So, this post is on contemplative practice, and on seeing the small things that matter. I’d already started writing before I even went away because the week before had already put me into navel gazing contemplation. One of those crossroads kind of weeks. The extra contemplation time just solidified the thoughts roaming round my brain.

Last week at work, now that we had the right policy environment (data, information, legal and privacy all lined up) I start to create little frames for researchers to gather and store their research. It’s one of those slow pieces of work that reap the big rewards down the track but are very very hard to prioritise in the day-to-day. I’d done so doggedly and slowly throughout the preceding weeks and months. It was totally unnoticeable, but equally totally necessary to any progress being made.

At the same time, I’d also been thinking about the spaces we inhabit, and the ways in which we make those spaces safe — for ourselves, and others.

This week just gone was the anniversary of a particularly harrowing time for me last year, and a week I leaned heavily on the reflexive practices I learned at that time, and also in the years prior from my dear friend and best-researcher-I-ever-knew Penri O’Rourke.

I imagine it is helpful to describe what that practice looks like — I tend to try to externalise things to keep it a learning opportunity for me to do and be better, and concentrate on events and flows between individuals — to think about agency, authority, and autonomy and the relational aspects of that to try to identify what needs to change (here’s something I lean on a lot). In addition, I guess the past year taught me a lot about meaning making, and the role that words play in that, especially with regard to the beautiful, living thing that language is.

Last October, after my mother died suddenly in a car accident, I turned to poetry as a kind of safe frame, somewhere to stand in the midst of all the crumbling happening in my life. This podcast was one of the reasons for that. In it, Gregory Orr says:

We ordinary people, in our daily lives, we experience enormous amounts of disorder and confusion. It’s inside us. It’s in our past. It’s in the unknowable future. And we just navigate our lives with this kind of interplay of disorder and order. And what poetry says to us is, Turn your confusion, turn your world into words. Take it outside yourself into language. Poetry says, I’m going to meet you halfway. You just bring me your chaos. I’ll bring you all sorts of ordering principles. — Gregory Orr

In the podcast, Orr describes the same fascination for words and their meaning making that I felt growing up. He says, “Words make worlds”. I’ve described this previously as I learned about and developed in my metadata and taxonomy knowledge and experience.

As a mum, I’ve watched as my children create their worlds with words. If you’re a parent, you’ll know the progression: first, children discover their agency with much delight and repetition to see what happens, where are the boundaries? How many times can I say NO? What can I say NO to? That’s two year olds for you.

Then, ‘what that?’ with much pointing. You name the whole world. If you’re lucky you get to name it and move on. If you’re not, you also get foot stamping because there’s not the words to describe, ‘no, not the scenery, the leaf! The leaf!’. If you’re really lucky, you get ‘what that?’ and ‘NO!’ :)

Then it is onto being three, and ‘why’ comes.

‘we’re going to the park’

‘why?’

‘because it is a sunny day’

‘why?’

‘because it is spring’

‘why?’

‘because there are seasons and in spring the weather is sunnier than it is in winter.’

‘why?’

‘because the sun is closer to the earth.’

‘why?’

sigh….you may have already answered ‘it just is!’, if not, I applaud you. I also bet you just learned a bunch about the earth because your three year old demanded you make meaning for them now that they have the words for the world. What does it mean?

There’s a reason ‘what that?’ comes before why. We gift words to each other to give shape to the world. To make it knowable. To act as a frame for the why.

My late father had a love affair with language. As a child, he’d not teach me how to spell a word, rather, how it was born. At the time it drove me round the twist. I realise now it instilled in me a sense of the story of words, how we make them just as much as they make us. The roots of the words tell us stories about ourselves and if you listen hard enough, they also are windows to deeper meaning. Here are a handful of examples:

  • Courage: cour (from the French, heart)-age (Latin — belonging to) — to do something from the heart.
  • Compassion: com (from the Latin, with) — passion (also from the Latin, pati, to suffer) to suffer with someone
  • Forsake: (from the German farsahhan object to, oppose, refuse, deny; give up, renounce

To my layman’s eye, there are reasons some words are Germanic in English, some are French, some are Latin. In the end it speaks to who conquered who, but also to class, and finally, to the power of the people who get to write the written word. The fact any Germanic words persist at all is gifted to us by Norman kings, who chose not to outlaw the language of the people. I suspect they may have known it to be a fool’s errand, because language is a community’s survival mechanism — we know this in the way preserving language is seen as an act of defiance, of self preservation the world over. Tragically, most often that defiance is needed to guard against the all conquering nature of the British Empire, who most surely did not pass on the same beneficence (CW for the link: racism, terrorism and genocide discussed) with regards to languages of the peoples whose lands they took.

But even individual people can shape the world. Think of Shakespeare, who contributed 1700 words simply because he was the first to write them, and because his words have been carried through in both plays (the stories we tell ourselves), and text.

Words, and through them, stories, are our most precious gift we give to each other.

Reader: This is certainly a contemplative practice Brigette (or at least the contemplation of words is evident), but what does this have to do with user research and your own work?

One of the challenges of building a user research library, or a repository, or an insights repository, is that our industry has no words for what we do. Or rather, that our words are lacking the story of what we do, who we are as a discipline. It inhibits us from creating standards, from having consistent ways of teaching. It stops us being able to effectively push back on unsafe practices for researchers. It allows us a lot of space to explore, but I do wonder when we might start to make maps for people who come after. I definitely think there’s a huge role for our many global communities to work on this together. In fact, the ResearchOps Community has done a lot of that work over time, and the user research taxonomy that the community has been developing over the past couple of years is one of those much needed steps towards creating solid frames for us to stand on and shape the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

In the meantime, we see people all over the world working hard to define things — especially in the field of user research libraries, repositories, and insights repositories. What is an insight? What is a finding?

The question we’ve asked ourselves in the Research Repositories project in the ResearchOps Community is: What parts of our work do we want to sit still for long enough that we can consider that they need to have their story told? There’s more work on that forthcoming and I personally can’t wait.

Personally, one of the things I’ve long worried about in making a library, is the taxonomy we use to make it.

Our words make worlds. Who am I to make a world?

Library taxonomies, vocabularies and glossaries are so hidden and so critical in how people who use them understand what they see, how they find, what searches work best. User research is generative even when we are evaluating — we generate meaning and insight from what we’ve learned. What we say matters, because our words determine the actions of others. How can a librarian or taxonomist be sensitive to the meaning being generated whilst also creating a framework for that meaning to be discovered and understood?

In creating the frameworks for researchers to gather their research, and for people to consume that research, the balance is incredibly tricky between lightweight enough for researchers to add their work easily and have space to communicate that meaning making, and yet complex enough that the user experience for research consumers takes less effort than we currently demand. I’m anxious with the weight of knowing that I’m not just creating a frame, but also defining and creating other’s capacities for meaning making by virtue of what I choose for them to see. The whole time we did that in my previous role, I was attuned to the weight of that, and anxious to not be a barrier to that generative practice for researchers. I think in some ways, that hesitancy undermined the work. I think I was lucky to work with others who were more experienced, and therefore less hesitant.

The other day it occurred to me that I could be looking at it the wrong way. Artists, painters for example, have clearly defined terms for their tools, their methods, their processes, even for their styles of meaning making — these boundaries are not barriers to creativity. At art school, I learned the boundaries so that one day I might be able to break through them. The act of creating something new didn’t break the old, it only made something new.

It occurs to me that the delight of defining terms and making frameworks actually helps researchers by creating space for the craft in the world. It is a part of the craft of research operations in setting new standards — for legitimising practice and process with researchers.

I realise that to many, research operations is just a way to scale. For some, it is a way to create efficiencies and reduce rework. For me, it is a deeply cartographic experience. Giving shape to what we do, why, how, when, where, with whom. This explains then, the tiny thrill of excitement I had the week before last, as I added a small (but will grow) taxonomy of user research to our term store. The thrill in not just making a list of terms to choose from, but setting them out within our departmental systems. Defining their meaning. Assigning classes and subclasses for the craft. I’m even more excited to find that soon we will be granted the right to make a department wide taxonomy that others can access and use.

Some interesting ways this will help us is that we can reuse terms across the department — we can build a bridge between how the department understands what it does via the terms they use, and what the people we serve understand what we do via the terms they use. We can be intentional about the worlds we create, and silently, unnoticeably, rethink how we might understand ourselves in the future. We can find connections we didn’t know we had between our different types of work, and build from what we already know. Those connections, the ways others call on the terms we define will help us democratise knowledge across the department. That’s my hope, and that’s my current thrill that happens in the quiet spaces in my brain as I’m sitting there, adding words to term stores, defining them, making places for user research within the lexicon of the department.

Some notes on making and defining terms:

I note that my hesitancy about creating frames for researchers to gather, store, and share their research, and the associated work of choosing and defining terms is unfounded — I hope that came across.

Firstly, the beauty of Term Stores (in SharePoint) is that they are hard-wired into the system you’re building your library in — you change a term, and it changes everywhere. The system is referencing the URI generated as you made the term. That’s not true of the IA of the front end as such, but is true in the metadata and anywhere you’ve used the system to call upon the term rather than adding a random word into a column etc. That means starting is what matters. Like any good language system, it will evolve over time. That is, if it is a living, breathing library, not just a place documents go to die.

I’m so grateful to the architect of the previous library I worked on, John Pearson, for teaching me this.

I’m so grateful to the people of the Australian Government Linked Data Working Group for teaching me about the importance URIs, and vocabularies, and particularly to Dr Nicholas Car, for teaching me the joy of integrated sets of ontologies and vocabularies, and the very particular way they make the world, and enable broad systemic change.

I’m grateful to Associate Professor Rosetta Romano for teaching me about ontologies, and boiling oceans, and the power of just starting.

I’m grateful to the people of the ResearchOps Community, the ResearchRepos Project leads and researchers, and to the people who gave and continue to give their time to the work of that project. It’s been a program of work in the end, and we’ve produced a lot of new knowledge and a series of guiding principles and tools already — more to come.

All of that is to say that even as I choose words and define them at work, I’m not working alone, even when I am working alone.

Secondly, of course, the work within DAWE has not been done by just me, and so of course, it is a joint project. I spoke about ‘I’ in this weeknote, because this was a reflection on the act of doing the defining and adding the work to the system, and the reflection itself, which of course, starts as a solo thing. There are already a lot of people to thank and express loads of gratitude to — from across the department — lots of folks just granting us space, and being interested in what we’re doing, and just extending trust to us. Lots of collaboration happening across different types of data and in different contexts, so that together, we can create a consistent story of us. Also specifically, lots of thanks to Chris Brew, Alzbeta Totova, Hannah Mattner, Helen Jones, Stephen Dempsey, and Bill for working on our small taxonomy. We’ve only got a handful of classes and terms together so far, but it is a small, yet powerful thing.

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researcher, counter of things, PhD student, public servant…into user research, information architecture, ontology, data. Intensely optimistic.

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Brigette Metzler

Brigette Metzler

researcher, counter of things, PhD student, public servant…into user research, information architecture, ontology, data. Intensely optimistic.