by Paula Bach on February 05, 2008 09:29pm

My last blog was about me traveling to Limerick and Toronto. I have now defended my dissertation proposal and passed. (Yay!) Here is a funny story. A week before the proposal defense I created my presentation and rehearsed it every day until the third day before when I began to get a sore throat. I don’t think it was from rehearsing the presentation or nerves or anything like that. Instead it was just a bug that was going around. Lots of students are sick at the end of fall semester. Anyway, two days before my defense I was getting a froggy voice, so I did not talk all day long. The day before the defense my voice was really raspy. The night before I worked on saving my larynx by gargling with salt water and any remedy I could find online. I woke up at 4AM the day of the defense and tried to speak a word. Nothing but a squawk came out. I had lost my voice. Because it is really difficult to get committee members together, the show had to go on. So at 9AM I stood up in front of my committee and a few fellow graduate students and began to squawk my way through the well-rehearsed presentation. It was not fun to look at the audience trying not to look disturbed at the sound of my voice.

Finally, after about the fifth slide, one committee member stopped me and asked the rest if they could just go into the discussion and skip the presentation. Everyone agreed and I listened to 5 professors, all of whom I respect a great deal discuss the merits and faults of my research. It was really an enlightening experience because I cannot think of another time when I will get five really smart people in one room discussing my research to make it better. In the end I came out with some ideas to rework my plan. The committee agreed that I was trying to do too much and advised that I choose one of the two parts. The first part, understanding FLOSS usability in general through the survey, observations, and interviews is almost done, and I have learned a lot, but the second part, designing a tool for CodePlex to support usability activities is not only more interesting, but also part of the agreement between IST and Microsoft. I came up with a new direction based on more literature I have gathered. The first exciting addition is the use of a theory to guide the design and research. I will use activity theory because it can handle people, both from an individual and social level, and artifacts. It also considers context and the dynamics of activities. Other HCI theories, for example, distributed cognition, handle people at the individual and social levels, and artifacts, but does not specifically take into account context and dynamics of activities. I am also using a methodological approach called action research. Action research is a practical approach to research where solving problems leading to intervention is a collaborative act between researcher and practitioner. I am a practical kind of researcher so this approach suited the project and me best.

I will be working with Microsoft UX people and the CodePlex team to integrate usability support for the CodePlex community site. I will also be working with a few projects hosted on CodePlex to help with the design.