Fluffy frameworks


Scaffold, by kevindooley on flickr

I gave a brief presentation at the 2010 Science Communication conference yesterday, talking about the work that I did with the Sanger Institute on professional development in science communication.  You can download the report here.

The very concept of a framework was quite worrying to some people, for all sorts of reasons.  In bureaucratic-leaning organisations, things on paper can often take on a life of their own.   Personally I like frameworks because they help organise my thinking, but they shouldn’t stand alone.  They are not the Thing Itself, they are support for the Thing.   I am now pondering a picture of a fluffy, marshmallow-like framework.  A see-through skeleton perhaps: fine and strong, but not terribly visible to the naked eye.

Adding beauty to market research

go on, do something different!

I’ve been reading various posts about market research and social media, which tend to focus on the usual self-hating stuff about the market research industry’s vulnerability.  I agree, pretty much:  some of the space that research took up is now being eaten away by other specialisms (data mining,  search engine optimisation, and web analytics), while the rest of what’s rightfully ours is taken by DIY tools such as SurveyMonkey.  (Can QualMonkey be far behind?)

Personally, I would argue that MR agencies have neglected to develop certain 21st-century skills in-house.   Market researchers tend to focus on data collection and analysis technology like Confirmit or SPSS  (if you’re lucky).

Things market researchers don’t bother with:  design.  Graphic design, web design, information design, whatever.   Design is right down at the bottom of the pile.   You buy it in, or you manage without it.

Researchers writing presentations huff over the latest critique of death-by-Powerpoint and insert a couple more company-approved clipart images into the 80-page deck.    Somewhere, a designer is weeping.

So.  If it were up to me,  I would not only run shedloads of training on statistics and experimental design, but I’d include these:

  • Essentials of graphic design
  • Digital photography
  • Photoshop
  • Using stock image libraries
  • Web design and an introduction to CSS

And if I were running a big research agency, I’d invest in some graphic designers and programmers to create some nifty and beautiful interfaces for running surveys and online communities.

Why shouldn’t people expect loveliness in a survey?

What skills would you like to see?

Explaining yourself, without Powerpoint

I spent some of this week running training for young scientists on how to present scientific ideas to non-expert audiences.  This particular piece of training runs regularly, but because the people have different needs each time, and the context is altering, it always feels a little bit different.

One of the main things we try to do on the course is remove Powerpoint – participants have to deliver a talk or activity without any Powerpoint whatsoever.  I tend towards Edward Tufte’s view of Powerpoint: I use Powerpoint an awful lot but there’s something about its style that can easily dull your thinking. The folk on the course are allowed flip charts, if they want (I’m not that cruel) and any props they like.    

It works pretty well, I think, because it breaks people out of the normal presentation rut.  It also marks out the difference between presenting to scientific peers, and engaging with a lay or student audience. At the same time, the removal of Powerpoint can be pretty anxiety-provoking for the participants.   Some people love it, some people hate it.   

What people produce under pressure is constantly fascinating.   There are some great, wild ideas that come out of the process: complicated games, plasticine analogies, virtuoso talks worthy of David Attenborough.   I always maintain it’s the quiet folk who are great to watch:  freed up to act,  people who are a little bit shy or a little bit unconfident can produce the most interesting and thoughtful  stuff.   It’s easy to overlook talent, when it whispers rather than shouts.