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What I wish I told my undergrads this morning.

2016 has been one of those years where you consistently wake up to bad news. We’re no longer able to ask the question: What would Bowie do?

I’m in my first year of teaching undergraduate sociology and criminology students. I’m green, they’re green, but we’re learning and growing our knowledge and skills together. And although they don’t see it, I see their progress and their passion coming through.

We meet on Wednesday mornings and usually it goes smoothly and people learn things. But this morning I missed a trick. I missed my Dead Poets Society moment. But when you’re in your first term of teaching, it seems like you need to have time to prepare yourself for those moments. Perhaps when you yourself are not so green.

So here it is: my Dead Poets Society moment via blog post (And I’m writing this during my office hours, so technically, I’m still teaching. Missed trick averted) and I hope this is applicable not just for sociologists and criminologists, but everyone.

Dear Students,

I’m sorry I made you read a bunch of undergraduate ethnographies in this morning’s  workshops. Instead, I should have told you why it’s important and why it matters that you do this. Indeed, why it matters that you’re here.

I should have let you harness your anger and frustration and incredulity at a toxic political environment that has made life uglier, scarier and more perilous for you. As women, as BAM students, Muslim women, as LGBTQ+ students, I see you all and how the current societal situation threatens you directly and indirectly. I see those who are visibly scared, I see those who makes jokes of the situation by way of dulling the pain.

But this is why you’re here. This is why you’re sitting in my sociology and criminology class finding out more about how to do research. You want to know why these things are happening, you’re angry and you want to change the world. And I want you to change the world.

Here’s the thing we academics don’t tell you nearly as often as we should: you aresociologists, you are criminologists, you are political scientists and you are media critics and scholars. There aren’t any special qualifications or exams that magically certify you in these professions. You need some theory behind you, some know-how in research and writing, a stack of curiosity and away you go. That’s why you’re in my class, to gather and refine all of those things. You are not just students. My role as your seminar tutor is to be a sociologist who is a bit further down the road to  encourage you, teach you the skills and knowledge you need and give you advice on how you might want to approach your research. Occasionally I’ll get stroppy when you don’t prepare for class but that’s usually because as teachers we want to use the short time we have with you each week wisely.

So here’s application part: we need your voices, we need your curiosity, we need your experiences to speak to the societal problems we find ourselves in during this weird, weird year and well beyond.

You can make a difference by being observant, by being critical, by being brave. Stay angry but stay reflexive. Always be asking why. Always be willing to dig deeper into the things you can’t comprehend, but accept the complexity; it will serve you well in discussing the nuances of society. Use your time here during your undergraduate career to refine your thoughts and your knowledge. Test out ideas, go with your curiosity. Your job for the next few years to become the best sociologists, criminologists, critics and scholars this world needs. And know that in these years, we have your back and are cheering you on.

We need your anger and curiosity. If you’re a sociologist, we need you to go all C. Wright Mills on this, and look deeply into the personal, individual problems that speak to public issues at a societal level. Or perhaps do a feminist, queer or postcolonial reading of current society. If you’re a criminologist, investigate how groups are vilified and criminalised and profiled. If you’re a political scientist, examine populism, examine it hard. If you’re a media scholar, get stuck into truthiness and the post-fact era, fact checking and the ways that media operate.

But we need you to be you. Like a wise man (ok, a cartoon character) once said, ‘Remember who you are.’ This is precisely what makes your voice important and speak volumes to your own communities and beyond. Stay humble, don’t patronise, don’t speak above where people are at. An academic friend of mine, Crystal Abidin has sage words for her students in Singapore: “I always tell my students that despite the booksmarts they compete to pursue in our rigid education system, the auntie selling tissue paper on the street wouldn’t care much for Durkheim or Queer Theory or 3500 word essays. The onus is on us to break out of these bubbles, to relate to each other, to be level citizens, to emphatize, to call out microaggressions, to visibilize systemic discrimination – to care and care enough to take action.”

We need you all more than ever. There is plenty of work to be done.

See you next week.


It’s been a while…

But updating this site has been on my to-do list for quite some time. You see, it was in quite a state.

I suppose the biggest change relates to what this site is actually all about. It started life as a research blog for my MA project and dissertation and morphed into something else again when I finished and contemplated how digital sociology could speak to the tech industry.

In the middle of last year I was offered a PhD studentship that I couldn’t turn down (I’m really grateful for it), so I’m back at Goldsmiths in the first year of a PhD, looking into our everyday habits with visual social media. I’m having a blast, I really enjoy doing and sharing research. You can read more about the project in the research project section.

So in terms of this website, it means that it’s swinging firmly back into a research blog. You can expect to read about:

  • Methods I’m thinking of using
  • Reflections on theories I’ve been thinking about
  • News about fieldwork
  • News about workshops, conferences, events I’ve been to.

I’m excited to be able to return to research and return to writing, thinking and speaking about ideas around digital sociology. Thanks for joining me!

Designing for empathy, not just usability

(Fair warning, this post is opinion and anecdotal, not empirical)

Call me a softie, call me a stark raving empath, tell me I’m a social ‘scientist’ as though that’s a bad thing; but I firmly believe that what we design should make people feel confident. At the very least, it shouldn’t make a dent on their sense of agency when they encounter a service, form, website or product.

Bus shelter poster, Lewisham Way, London

(Bus shelter poster, Lewisham Way, London)

Our users have their own contexts, their own stories that contribute to the mindset they have when they approach a product. We should account for this context, and indeed, actively seek information on this context when we meet our users.

In particular, when designing government transactions (but it could be applied to any form of transaction), we need to have a level of awareness of  the journey people have been through before they get to the transaction itself. What does that kind of awareness look like? As a user researcher, I get to be in the position of informally chatting to people about their context before we jump into playing with a product. Here’s what I’m keen to know about a user before I launch into a usability test or another activity:

Have they been given the runaround by the bricks and mortar version of the service?

We’ve all been there before, being passed from pillar to post, department to department to get a simple task done. If the user has gone through a long process offline just to get to the online process, the user could be nearing the end of their tether. Try to create an online experience that is sympathetic to the journey the user may have been through just to get to the website. Also consider this if your website’s information architecture doesn’t immediately elevate the transaction to a place where the users can easily find it.
Where have they been informed about this process? Friends and family? Media?

If your transaction is a one off transaction – such as a transaction to activate a payment, your users may have been informed by others who have gone ahead of them. In some research I carried out on activating state pension payments – a one off transaction, our users told us they found out about the process from their friends who had reached pension age before them. Not everyone googles for the information they need. Often asking a user with no prior experience of a certain transaction what they expect will happen in the process can pay dividends if you’re trying to reimagine the process.

Is there a lot riding on the transaction?  Could there be potential financial or legal implications from the transaction?

If your users are trying to complete some life admin in an area that they’re not well versed in (tax returns spring immediately to mind), they could be under added pressure for fear of completing the form incorrectly. Clearly explaining concepts and consequences clearly can do a lot to allay fears. Stick to one concept or question at a time.
Does the transaction have a reputation of being a ‘grudge transaction’?

If there’s an element of the transaction that users have to carry out on a regular or semi-regular basis, what is their feeling of it based on past experience? One user I recently worked with kept mentioning an ID they’d been assigned to carry out government transactions as the ‘nightmare number’ because she had encountered so much trouble in using the ID to get into any transactions. This highlights the importance of ensuring that any logins we place in front of a transaction are easy enough to sign up for, activate and re-use when the time comes. If your users are in a situation where they need to have an ID but they only use the ID maybe once or twice a year at best, ask them how they store that information and whether retrieving that information adds another layer of stress to completing the transaction.

What do they fear will happen if they make an error in the transaction?

It’s often fear of the worst case scenario that makes users unnecessarily err on the side of caution and omit rather than submit salient information that could help them out. Help out your user with clear, concise information at known points of confusion. If users are faced with a situation where they cannot complete the transaction because the options don’t fit their circumstances, then provide details for offline support.


I’m really keen to hear what you find important to ask users as contextual questions. I’d also like to know how you factor empathy into designing and iterating your products.

Coffee and wifi: beyond the research project

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged anything related to Coffee and Wifi; the research project that formed my MA Digital Sociology dissertation.

Coffee and Wifi was a success and I enjoyed every second of research and writing that went into it.  The dissertation went on to receive a Distinction and I graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London with an MA in Digital Sociology late last year. Coffee and Wifi is now available to read online (if reading dissertations is your kind of thing).

After presenting my research at the EPIC 2013 colloquium, I started working at the Government Digital Service as a user researcher on the GOV.UK website. It was an absolute privilege to be able to help make Britain’s online public services better by meeting with users to find out what they needed from their government. However, all good things (read: my UK visa) must come to an end and I had to leave the country and a job and colleagues that I adore.

Rather than leaping straight into another job straight away, I’m currently in North America, travelling around and meeting others in the user research community.

Why? Well, this happened a few weeks ago:


The response was overwhelming and humbling and I didn’t want to squander the opportunities that have arisen from one single tweet. I had some time up my sleeve to meet some of the people who have been kind enough to reach out to me via Twitter. I’m keen to see how people are approaching user research in different locations and different industries.

So I’m slightly changing the tack of this blog to reflect on user research as I travel and meet with the user research community across continents.

I also hope to use this blog to talk a little bit more about:

  • the user research industry – what are we doing? how can we communicate what we do better? I’m slowly on the lookout for my next research gig and I’m looking to share some of the joys and frustrations of that journey.
  • experience design – I think travelling and being new to so many cities in the next few weeks will give me a great opportunity to look at services and systems I encounter along the way and almost conduct some mini field observations on them.
  • empathic design – I started a conversation and a train of thought on empathic design just before I left GDS, I would like to explore that a bit further.
  • methodology – I’m a methodology geek. I’m keen to create some discussions around how we research and the methods we deploy.

I’m pretty excited for what’s to come and would love your comments and feedback along the way!


Twitter ethnography and technical challenges

The main technical component of my research was going to be writing a piece of code in Python that could be executed to scrape tweets mentioning the cafe I was researching in over the course of the month.

Then Twitter changed its API and its authorisation system. And they were changes that meant there would be fundamental changes to coding in order to make it work. You can read more about the changes on Twitter’s developer blog along with some FAQs about the API changes. The API and authorisation changes meant that I would have to sign up to Twitter as a developer (instead of using my log in details) and make changes to my Python code to reflect this.

Because the research project was only three months long, with one month of that dedicated to analysing and writing my findings, I wanted to find another solution that would work but that could have the technical elements easily explained.

Around the time that Twitter made its API changes, another scraping-related website made significant changes. ScraperWiki was previously a website with libraries of code contributed by users wanting to scrape digital content. But Scraperwiki noticed that a lot of their users were writing code specifically to scrape Twitter for search terms, so they built a bespoke web tool to do that and cumulate tweets for the user in either online or downloadable spreadsheets. The solution was found. I made contact with ScraperWiki’s product manager to make sure it worked how I thought it did, so I could write it up in my technical specifications.

It’s not as technical a solution as I would like to have had. I would love to have written a piece of code on my own and had it work. But the end result was more important – I needed data to support my theory of Twitter’s role in independent cafes – and that’s how I achieved it.

Of fieldwork and formulating ideas.

It’s  been a while since the last update of coffee and wifi (yes, two months!). In that time, a lot has happened, and probably a lot of things that didn’t necessarily warrant being blogged about in a warts and all fashion.

So here’s the bullet-point update to get you up to speed with how the project has progressed.

  • I read. And read. And read. There is so much literature about cafe ethnographies (Habermas, Laurier, Wakeford) to get through, then there is literature about actor-network theory (Latour) to read closely and then digest. To cap it all off, there is a massive chunk of reading around methodology (Hine, Murthy) to read and think about to shape my ethnographic approach.
  • I devised my methodology. It’s a multi-modal ethnography comprising observations, interviews and Twitter scraping. There were a few other things I prototyped that won’t make it into the finished work.
  • I spent a lot of time in Manchester. My field is in Manchester, so it was excellent in that I could easily divide the field from the rest of my life in London. The five-hour bus commute each way wasn’t so excellent. I got a lot of reading done.
  • I observed and interviewed. I gained a lot from being in the field – in fact it was my favourite part of the project so far. Apart from the obvious joys of doing legitimate research in a cafe, I learnt a lot about being a participant-observer (this is one of the key discussions on the ethical side of doing ethnography). People in the field were incredibly supportive, generous and receptive. They had a lot to say and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you in the coming weeks.
  • I thought. Even when I’m not in the field and when I’m not reading and not interviewing, I am chewing over what I’ve observed or heard or read. This means eureka moments in the shower, on the tube and in the office. There are many benefits of studying (sociology in particular, but I’m sure it’s the same for other disciplines), but one of the best benefits is being able to slowly consider a concept and build on it over time.
  • I almost gave up coffee. Yes. There was one horrible Friday in Manchester where I seriously entertained the thought of giving up coffee for a while once the project came to an end. Thankfully, I reconsidered. But I will be taking it easy on the coffee front come September.

What now? It’s time to start analysing and writing. More on that in the coming weeks.

Digital Sociology and Startups – why? how?

Yesterday I was lucky enough to go to Silicon Milkroundabout 5.0 in Shoreditch. It was one of those days when you realise it’s special to live in London because there are opportunities right on your doorstep.

Firstly, it was good to gain insights into startup culture. In my background, I’ve not really had much to do with startups. It’s been more a lack of opportunity than a lack of willingness. I met a lot of people who are just getting on and running with their ideas. I enjoyed their willingness to have a chat about what they’re doing. In short startups have a lot of passionate people working really hard, but having lots of fun and enjoying it (from what I could see).

However, it’s hard to gain positive attention from startups if your skills don’t necessarily fit the bill. I felt as though I was evangelising Digital Sociology as well as looking for career opportunities.

My favourite reaction? “Digital Sociology? That’s a thing?”

My least favourite reaction? *eyes glazed*

Situations like that aren’t necessarily the best to explain exactly how digital sociologists can be useful to startups.  Digital Sociology has only been running for two years at Goldsmiths, so yes, it’s a thing but a very new thing.

To help explain what we’re about here are a few bullet points to outline some of the skills digital sociologists can bring to the startup (ping pong) table:

  • We bring an analytical view at how your products could impact customers/users/clients. We’ve completed a module about Sociology into Design which looks at communicating sociological research into design environments. I’m currently in my last week of an internship at a design research firm.
  • We are observant. And we’re good at noticing interesting issues or insights in user groups that could be relevant to your product.
  • We know big data (both the creation and uses of it) and we know empathy. We’re trained in both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies sand we have spent time getting our hands dirty, testing them out, making data visualisations, personas, experience models and lots of other cool things to communicate our research.
  • We’ve spent days, nights, weekends, holidays learning to code and putting it in practice. We’ve had experience using HTML, CSS, JS, MySQL, PHP, Python and Unix. For most of us, our weapon of choice is Python so we can scrape Twitter and other online media for insights.
  • We’ve learnt about innovation and startup culture in an Innovation Case Studies module.

Where would I see the fit? Somewhere in your design or R&D team or perhaps in business/project analyst roles. Although we have the knowledge of coding to hold conversations with developers and coders, we would tend to use those languages for research and communication purposes (but by no means should you dismiss a digital sociologist with real coding chops).

I hope that clarifies how digital sociologists and startups could play nicely together. Do get in touch if you’d like to know more, or carry you can also carry on the conversation in the comments section.