Do Justice to Your Data

I met with my advisor two weeks before a major conference deadline. It was a Saturday. She had a coffee in her hand, and she was telling me how some other students had so many things to write in their paper:

“I guess this may due to culture. You know, both of them have so much to say. The finding section is already 9 pages and it’s only one-third of all the findings!”

I listened closely and replied that I never had so much to say. It in fact sounded pretty weird to me that people wrote so long. My advisor continued to say, data had to go through the researcher to be visible and I might affect those data. I was stunned. Yes, I know as a human being I’m not the kind of person who can talk on and on. I feel more comfortable when I can keep silence. However, for writing an academic paper, I know I have to write and I will certainly make sure that I offer as much data as it requires. But my advisor said:

“Yes I know. But still, your data will go through you. They are expressed in the way you express.”

I suddenly realized her point and yelled: “OMG I feel so bad about my data! They are suffering just because I don’t have much to say!” Since then I know I have to do justice for my data – these are great data which have value in themselves. They should not suffer because of me.

Interviews

I guess it’s fair for me to say that my June and July have all been spent on interviewing people: I did sixty-eight interviews in total. Some of them were short, some of them were long. I have never talked to so many people during any summer in the past twenty-five years. Interestingly, neither have I ever answered so many questions in two months.

I interviewed people who were old, who were young, who were men, who were women, who lived in rural villages, who grew up in urban cities. I asked them how they used their mobile phones, what they did with WeChat, how they played around with emojis and stickers, how they learned farming knowledge, and how they communicated with their children abroad. People answered my questions. Some of them answered in hasty, so I often had to repeat my question. Some of them were super talkative and energetic. They led the conversation, while I had to find my own way of asking them questions, if possible. Sometimes people were quite nervous when hearing the word “interview”, so I ensured them that there would be no provocative questions and they were all protected by the law in the U.S. (people laughed when they heard this). A common reaction that I got was that people felt they had nothing to offer: “I don’t know anything. I don’t really use smartphone/WeChat/emojis. I don’t know how to use them. You probably should interview that guy, he knows more than me.” When I said I would love to know why they didn’t use those things, they were usually more confused – anyway, why does one want to know why other people don’t know a certain thing?

I interviewed people in days and at nights. I visited them by walking, by motorcycle, by car, by bus, by subway. In rural villages and the small town, I simply went and visited without bringing anything other than my notebook and pen. Instead, people offered me watermelons to eat generously (because it was summer). Occasionally, they even invited me to lunch or dinner, and they were sincere. For urban citizens, I paid for their coffees, milk teas, juices, snacks, etc. Basically, I paid for their time so that they could answer my questions. In the city, it was not unusual for me to spend more than half an hour to get to the location for interviewing. However, in rural regions, all I needed to do was to walk or hop on a motorcycle – it wouldn’t take me more than ten minutes to greet someone in person. Because of the interviews in rural areas, I was able to do some exercise by walking. Because of the interviews in urban areas, I was able to enjoy various beverages.

Was I nervous? Was I afraid of anything as a first-time interviewer (an interviewer, how dubious!)? Certainly! While most of the time I was confident and well-prepared (in my opinion) to both ask and answer questions, I became infinitely nervous when people asked me this question: “So, what are you doing these interviews for?” There was a more intimidating version of this question: “What’s the meaning of these interviews?” I worked hard to try to calm myself down by blattering whatever I could think about at that moment: “… You know… I’m interested in how culture affects people’s use of technology and how technology affects people’s lives… I study how you use your mobile phone so that I can improve these phones…” People were confused. They twisted their brows and lost in thought, trying to translate my nonsense into human language. Later I became tired of explaining my “research objective” to people: “I need to write a paper. It’s my summer homework. That’s why I have to interview you.” People were more convinced by this answer: “Wow, you still have to write a paper? You study so hard! Why not just send out some questionnaires or get some data online? Take a break young girl!” My latter answer worked better, because people were more open when they knew this was for my homework, not some mysterious research projects.

I have to confess that I was tired of traveling around and talking to people from now and then. But, I always felt happy talking to people and listening to them sharing their thoughts and feelings with me. Here was a new person, somebody I didn’t really know about, yet he/she was willing to communicate with me. Sounded like magic. Each of them had an individual world with them. I was fortunate enough to visit sixty-eight different worlds in two months, and I was pretty satisfied that I now had a chance to understand the larger world through so many diverse lenses. For some of the worlds, if it was not because of the interviews, I would never be able to imagine them. Communication is indeed beautiful.

Reflection, on I2S Competition and groupwork

My team, Eating Right, won both Ideas Track Runner-Up and Best Poster awards in the 2016 Ideas to Serve (I2S) Competition held at the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Institute of Technology on April 8th. This competition is intended to encourage current GaTech students and recent alumni to think about how to create a better world through feasible and concrete ideas. During the night of the 8th, all the finalist teams presented their posters and gave a 1-min pitch to the audience. I was so happy to see that there were so many projects that cared about issues of global relevance, not only in the United States. Initially, I didn’t really expect us to win anything, since I didn’t know if people valued this kind of work. However, it left me feeling deeply encouraged, because people did care, and they were even willing to spend money on this.

Just to give you context: our team, Eating Right, aims at creating a mobile app that will provide valuable and trustworthy dietary information for diabetes affected households in India by presenting entertaining cooking show videos. Our project started in October 2015( as a collaboration between Georgia Tech and the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (India) ) , and Jasmine started working on it then. After one month, I, a Human-Centered Computing PhD student, joined the team. Recently in March, two more Human-Computer Interaction students (Sam and Tanisha) came on board.While Jasmine and I focused on the research aspects, Sam and Tanisha brought design expertise to the team. Prof. Neha Kumar advised us from the onset and helped us communicate with collaborators in India. All of us, including our professor, are women.

What makes teamwork impactful in our case?

  1. People. All four of us have sufficient background in Human-Computer Interaction design and research, which makes it easier for us to communicate. Although we have similar backgrounds, we do hold diverse skill sets. Sam and Tanisha were originally from India so they can speak different Indian languages and draw on their understanding of Indian culture. Jasmine had done fieldwork in India, and could anticipate the challenges we might face later. I am a researcher who has read a lot about ICTD and have a deep understanding of how to approach this research using human-centered design. Together we are advised by Prof. Kumar, who is an expert in ICTD research. We are also supported by our collaborators in India, who offer first-hand data about users and valuable inputs for our research and design outcomes.
  2. Work ethic. I believe this is important in every field, not only in teamwork. Nevertheless, to keep a good work ethic can be really challenging when there are too many things going on at the same time, which is often the case for a graduate student. We face this challenge bravely and deal with it professionally. We rely on emails to communicate most of the time and all of us are very responsive – to emails, text messages, or phone calls. Because we are invested, the project is able to make steady progress. We stick to deadlines as best we can. If we cannot keep our promise, we let all team members know.
  3. Coherent understanding, all the time. We communicate in timely fashion to make sure that everybody is on the same page. This not only covers work assignments, but also high level objectives. For example, we do believe that user research can make a difference and design should be based on specific contexts and users’ needs. Communication sounds tedious and time-consuming sometimes, but it can foster understanding, which allows the entire team to work more effectively.

These bullet points above address some things that good teamwork should include, but they are not enough. What I find amazing in the Eating Right team is that we are all open to making mistakes and we learn through failure – the working environment we create is a safe learning environment, not a competitive one. When one of us says something that sounds not so right to others, others will ask questions and start a discussion. No one is offended. For instance, I’m not familiar with Indian culture so I have tons of questions (I know some of them must sound naive to Indians). My teammates are always willing to explain whatever detail I’m looking for. I try to do the same. I believe, because of this positive learning environment, people’s skills are leveraged, good work ethic is acknowledged and followed, and a coherent understanding can be nurtured.

Certainly, we are all motivated and passionate about this project from the bottom of our hearts.

I used to be a believer of individual work, but my experience in the Eating Right team changed my mind. When a team works well, productivity will be high, and everybody on the team can learn. It is amazing when teamwork presents its power, and I hope to experience more awesome teamwork in the future. Of course, to make this world a better place, you need a team, or maybe a larger team. 🙂