What is my PhD? (Part 1)

“You can have information or you can have a life, but you can’t have both.” – Douglas Coupland

I’ve had a “Research” section present on my site for quite some months now, and I recently realised that I haven’t put much effort into updating it (to be specific, I’ve put no effort into updating it). Thankfully, the effort reflected here does not reflect the actual effort put into my PhD. So, without further ado, I present a summary of what I’m actually working on, PhD wise. Hopefully this will assist in illuminating precisely what I’ve been doing when I have complained of “thesis” or similar.

Captain Planet: Our world is in peril


The world of Personal Information Management (PIM) is in turmoil! There are numerous powerful tools for managing, storing, accessing and sharing information, but we still lose documents, scribble information into paper margins, write on sticky notes and generally make a mess of our desks. Technology is transforming everyday activity, and generally bringing about improvements in a variety of areas, but PIM is still fraught with danger and difficulty: misplaced information, forgotten information, the stress of finding and retrieving documents, and the sheer challenging of managing one’s information across multiple mediums or platforms.

This stress impacts everything from our work performance to the quality and happiness of our lives. Information is, at an ever increasing rate, being created, transmitted, and managed through technology; paper-based tools and other important physical artefacts, such as the venerable sticky note and paper notebooks, are still being relied upon extensively. It seems that technology is being adopted as a drop-in replacement rather than an evolution of existing practices, and the potential information processing opportunities provided are squandered.

Recent developments, such as the renaissance around tablet computing brought about by Apple Inc.’s iPad have muddied the situation further, with the dominant interaction patterns being based upon the assumption that the tablet is a digital piece of paper. Touted as everything from a magical creation to the saviour of the paperless office, the iPad is being used as little more than the skeumorphic reincarnation of the manila folder while the hype machine glorifies it as a revolution in information access and management — all the while without telling us exactly why it’s a revolution.

The Research

My research focuses on the problems faced in the acquisition, organisation and retrieval of information and documents by office-based information workers.
Many past studies have shown that users employ a variety of strategies to manage the wide quantity and range of document types on both their personal computers and in their office paper management. These different strategies have been studied at length, and much design activity has taken place designed to improve the integration of documents and the personal computing environment found in offices.
However, very little attention has been given (at least since the pioneering work of Thomas Malone) to the strategies, tactics and needs of people managing paper documents — and little in the way of a systematic contribution to information management/HCI knowledge has been made relating to cross-medium PDM or PIM. The limited attempts at a contribution that have been made typically lack a deep empirical grounding and solid evaluation.

PIM is serious business

It also seems that large amounts of personal information sits well beyond the reach of existing studies. Information is scrawled on paper, emailed to oneself, instant messaged to a friend or stored in disparate text files on a tablet computer — this orphaned information, often referred as information scraps, can range in type from an idea, to a reminder, to a phone number, and it’s rarely accounted or in any sort of PIM system or tool. This underclass or personal information is, often by its very omission from previous studies, looked upon with disdain — we know very little about scrap management, and apparently do so proudly (past studies proudly observe that their theory and system design accounts for only genuine personal information, not that represented by scraps).

My work aims to reveal how, and why, disorganisation occurs in both the electronic and physical personal information management (PIM) spaces, between mediums and with information scraps. The work discussed in the thesis will employ a selection of ethnographic methodologies in order to deepen our understanding of PDM and PIM, and in particular to create an understanding around the area of fragmented document management across multiple mediums (i.e. PC, iPad, paper, phone, email and so on).

In the next part of this post, I’ll explain how I’m conducting my research, and perhaps how the problems of PIM can be addressed.

Part 2 coming soon. Please note this isn’t intended to be a highly academic summary, as such it lacks references and the like. Contact me if you’re interested in more formal information on my work.