User Stories as a Genre of Digital Humanities Scholarship

There has been a good bit of discussion about how building things can be thought of as a hermeneutic process. Building things can be the crux of a methodology for at least part of this thing we are calling the digital humanities. The more I have thought about this the more I have started to wonder if there might be another piece of the software development process that could find an even more natural fit with existing practices in humanities scholarship. Specifically, if there might be hybrid forms of writing, something between software documentation and scholarly articles that might serve as the basis for formalizing building as scholarship. Each of the design deliverables that Dan Brown discusses in Communicating Design could serve as the basis for a new mode of scholarly communication. The idea here is that the writing involved in the production and use of software and tools for creating knowledge could serve as the raw materials for scholarship.

Personas and User Stories
User stories and personas strike me as potential forms of software development writing that could be bent into humanities writing. Most user-centered design approaches start with creating personas for users. That is, coming up with what it is that someone wants to do and their background and experiences that need to be taken into account to design something that will let them do what they want to do. User stories are very similar, in this case generally explaining how a particular tool helps a user accomplish their goals. For example, these are some of the Zotero student and faculty user stories I would share with people who were interested in training Zotero users.

How Personas and User Stories Could Become Methodological Scholarship
Most user stories and personas focus on how someone who wants to buy a book on amazon, or how accomplish some other clearly defined task. I am not saying that we should think of these as scholarship. However, in the case of building software for humanities scholars the goal is generaly not a simple discrete task. We are trying to create tools and interfaces that help scholars produce insight and knowledge. That means that a) it is far more difficult to define success and b) the possibilities for deep thought, explorations of context, and considerations of the nature of knowledge production come into the mix. In short, when the goal of a particular software tool is to facilitate the production of knowledge there is good reason to believe that the kinds of thinking that go into using and designing that tool could be good fodder for a kind of scholarly writing and communication. This is partly what Fred Gibbs and I are trying to get at in our feeling that we need to write a lot more about methods in Towards a Hermunitics of Data.

Extent Software Stories are Just as Useful
This isn’t really just about building software, it is also something that we need more of for even just using off the shelf software. User stories have the posibility of becoming the methodological texts of the digital humanities. What did you do, or what do you want to let someone do? What will doing that let you know? This is already happening, for example Cameron Blevins’s Topic Modeling Martha Ballard’s Diary and Rob Nelson’s Mining the Dispatch are personal narratives of research methods. In a less technicaly intense example it is the same kind of thing I tried to do in Mining old News for New Historical Insight. These are simultaneously necessary for establishing the validity of any claims we ultimately make in our research, but they are also essential as a kind of new research methods literature. This kind of work is particularly important, because as Ian Bogost suggests, “technologies themselves make tacit, low-level assumptions that can’t be seen in the light of day.”

I would love there to be a place to put this stuff and find it
My links to examples go all over the web, software documentation, out to blogs, etc. These are great places for us to put these things, but there is a part of me that wishes that we could pool together a bit and aggregate this kind of writing about use, method, interpretation, with tools. Furthermore, it would be great if there was more review and dialog about this kind of writing. I think we are still in the infancy for what hybrid forms of the writing involved in software development and scholarly writing could become.

So what do you think? Should we start thinking about the writing involved in the creation of software as the same kind of  hermeneutic process full of the deep thinking about meaning, context, and interpretation that we put in with scholarly writing writ-large? If so, how do we get from where we are to what these hybrid forms might look like?

One Reply to “User Stories as a Genre of Digital Humanities Scholarship”

  1. Having more dialogue and critique on user journeys and personas would help designers be more accurate in their descriptions and become better writers. It could help set a precedent for those of us who are new to this kind of text. Great ideas, I hope to see something evolve from this in the near future.

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