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Combing vs. Grouping

“What is a task, exactly?” This question came up in conversation today as the team at the University of Buffalo starts to comb some of the 47 interviews they conducted. (Yes, 47! Wow!)

It is an unfortunate choice of words on my part, which may lead people astray during combing. The word “task” is leftover from the practice of “task analysis” which had been a favorite practice of usability research in the last decade. For the usability practice, a task is something someone does, like “Register for an account” or “Go to the doctor.” I explain in the book that I don’t really mean this kind of task. I want something like “Feel excited about the convenience of voice-controlled calendar access on my mobile phone via toktok” or “Ask the doctor if the online article about symptoms describe what I have.”

“So it’s not the act itself, but the underlying motivation,” surmises Voltaire Santos Miran, on of the founders of mStoner. He’s exactly right. And it includes emotions, reactions, and guiding philosophies. Voltaire goes on to say, “We’re thinking of calling it a ‘nugget’ rather than a task. A nugget is like mining for gold. Or, it’s like a little bite-sized chicken McNugget! Small and easy to eat.”

Combing is not analysis. Combing is the period of time when you must forget your role as a researcher or an employee and get to know each participant at a personal level, through their transcript or audio. At this point, you want to keep the label of a task (or “nugget”) as close as possible to the unique human nature of each participant. Represent their inner thoughts. Use their words. Try to capture what they were implying in the conversation. Save your higher-level labels for later. (Combing is also a great way to learn better interviewing skills, as you find parts of the transcript where you wish you could have more insight and ask deeper questions.)

Grouping is analysis. This is the point where you put your combed labels together and label the groups with higher-level phrases. When you have finished combing, then you can revert to your role as analyst and researcher.

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