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Posts Tagged ‘attention-utility tradeoff’

my dissertation turns 10

January 15, 2010 Leave a comment

In 2000, I got married, got a job, got a dog, got a new car, got a house, and … got a Ph.D. Amazingly and quite happily, I still have all of those things and will happily chat about any of them, but I want to spend some time here on the Ph.D.–in particular, that giant dissertation document that I churned out.

So who actually reads that thing? Well, I know my advisor, John Stasko, did…and used it to soak up many pens worth of ink. I still occasionally unpack a box or open a drawer that contains a marked-up chapter. I’m pretty sure my committee did, at least parts of it. I had one Ph.D. student who did, though most of the others look away and change the subject when I bring it up. Sometimes I pretend there’s others out there who’ve read it.

Oh yeah, I’ve read it. And I still occasionally read it. My dissertation had some implementation behind it (yes, I could code a little bit), and some minimal–but really cool–field work of a sort, but its primary contribution was empirical. Yes, I waded through the IRB mine fields, sat in labs while participants struggled with my animated widgets (when I was lucky enough to have them show up), poured over results with Richard Catrambone, and spent many hours writing it up.

I recall being frustrated in my early years with all the qualitative research out there, most of which seemed undirected and meandering to me. I found “undirected” and “meandering” to be highly unsatisfying–please just go ask a question, find an answer, demonstrate its correctness–so I simplified the complex interfaces of my early years to a handful of animation techniques, such that I could explore them along what became the attention-utility tradeoff and claims-centered design that was highlighted in later papers.

One of my committee members, Mark Guzdial, said he occasionally looks back on his dissertation and wonders why he didn’t do more with it afterward. I feel like I did more with it, but had to ignore (at least thus far) other roads not traveled. One thing that makes me smile: many of the results from my studies have been “rediscovered” by major networks and highly-regarded web sites 6-8 years later, reflected in the ways that they ticker and fade and blast info at us. So maybe if I’d played my cards differently, I could have parlayed my dissertation work into a nice ESPN job where design cool sports widgets all day long (hello Chris Allgood!). And perhaps it’s a flaw of academia (or just me?) that the results weren’t disseminated in a more accessible manner. But it’s nice to be right, and I’m glad the meanderers finally caught up with me ;), and maybe I learned something for next time when my students are crafting dissertations. And that has made all the difference.