DIY research

Not learning to do stuff from tutorials, though that’s where this started, but more thinking about tutorials by looking at tutorials.

It has been a couple of weeks, but I finally had some time to take a look at the backlog in my “arts and crafts” folder in Google Reader and one of the things I found there was this Top 100 Tutorials of 2008 post at The Long Thread blog.

Rachel and I have talked before about crafty or DIY tutorials because we both like to do crafty and DIY things so we run across a lot of them.  And with Karen we talked about crafty tutorials in the context of library tutorials for a bit.

But this Long Thread post got me thinking about that topic again – because I’ve been thinking about tutorials lately in my job sometimes in ways that I find fun, and interesting and sometimes in ways that just make me tired.

A lot about library tutorials makes me tired.  I get tired because the process of making them and maintaining them can quickly get so big.  I get tired because Camtasia doesn’t work on my Mac,  And I get tired using Camtasia and Captivate anyway.  I get tired because you can spend all this time making them and then you’re still left with the even more complicated question of how to get people to actually use them.

So I think it’s actually interesting to look at this crafty community, to look at DIY tutorials and think about what tutorials mean in a context where the basic assumption is that people do want to learn how to do this stuff, that they are interested, that they do want to do some of the work themselves.  I have looked at almost all of the tutorials on this list, though I won’t claim that I’ve seen every one of the 100 and there are some common threads that are interesting to think about –

(yeah, I didn’t really mean to say common threads there)

#1.  They’re kind of at the point of need.  They’re kind of not.

There’s no discussion here about how to get these tutorials into someone’s knitting bag or onto someone’s sewing table.  The expectation is that people will find them in their normal information flow, that they will get pointed to them by crafty friends, or on blogs they follow.  Or, that they will find them on the web.

The former thing, I think about a lot. Without a lot of success.  The latter thing, though, I think is something to think about – how searchable are our tutorials?  Do our students even think to use Google as a strategy when they don’t know how to do something?  I’m really asking – is that how they go about answering those questions?  When I need to know how to do something that’s not clear in the directions I have, whether it’s a tool thing, or a software thing, or a cooking thing, my first step is usually to search (Google Reader, Google or delicious) for an answer.  I would imagine that is not a generational thing, but I don’t know.  Are there students out there Googling “how do I find peer-reviewed journal articles?”  or “how do I find newspaper editorials?”

(plus side, by putting those phrases in this post, if they are searching for those things I should start seeing similar phrases in my referral logs soon)

And if they are, what are they finding?  Are our tutorials and modules and how-to’s findable?  Let’s see.  Trying search strings instead of keywords – if I try:

“how do i find op ed pieces using lexis-nexis”

Two of the top four results are from Lexis-Nexis itself.  Includng this one which is #1 and right on point.  Not surprising, and not bad.  The first library result is high, at #3.  It’s from Duke and it’s a more general page about finding periodicals online.

But I don’t think many students would actually phrase a search in this way.  Maybe if they could cut and paste from their assignment guidelines and their assignment guidelines pointed them to Lexis-Nexis.  So how about if we make it more general –  “lexis-nexis” becomes “newspaper databases”  and “op-ed pieces” becomes “editorials.”

“how do i find editorials in newspaper databases”

This time, a page from UT-Austin comes in at #2, and it is quite useful.   There are two other library pages in the top 5 – UNLV at #4 and Long Island University at #3, but in both cases the page in question is simply a list of newspaper databases.

Still, this search requires the user to be pointed to databases, or to know that these sources are likely to be found in newspaper databases.  Here’s the search I actually think is most likely:

“how do i find editorials in newspapers”

Nothing comes up here. The whole first page of results is pages explaining what editorials are, or how to write them.

I have more examples looking for how-tos on finding peer reviewed articles or citing sources, but they don’t really suggest anything different.  I’m putting the searchability question on the list of stuff to think about more.  That seems to be important on a couple of levels – if people are already using this strategy to find out how to do stuff, and we’re not findable there that’s an issue.   If our students aren’t using this strategy, they should be.  But we should make sure they’ll find the stuff we make there first.

#2.  They’re all about how to make something.

This might seem obvious but a lot of our tutorials aren’t about how to make something.  They’re about how to do something that will then let you make something.  So this is both a “how these tutorials are different than ours so we should be careful about drawing a lot of parallels” – and a “maybe there’s another way to think about our tutorials”part.

There are tons and tons of “how to do this thing” tutorials out there in the world too.  The fact that none of them are on this list means that the list is really more about the products that you can make with the tutorials, not the quality of the actual tutorials.  But I think it’s worth thinking about how we conceptualize and present some of our tutorials as well – can we identify some things that our users want to make/ need to make and present the tutorials as a “how to” in that way?

Which connects to -

#3.  These usually assume some knowledge on the part of the user.

In other words, these aren’t “how to sew a skirt if you’ve never seen thread” tutorials.  They are tutorials on how to make stuff for people who already know how to make other stuff using some of the same techniques.

A really extreme example of this is in this tutorial to make these:

The full set of instructions for these bookmarks is this:

I glued little craft floss hair-dos on them and then stuck pipe cleaners in their heads, used more glue to make a felt pipe cleaner sandwich and then whipstitched around the edge.

Now, that is kind of excessively brief, but most of these tutorials assume they can give directions like “whipstitch” or “use your zipper foot” or “use a long-tail cast-on” or “straight stitch” without having to explain every one of those terms.

Which is something I think we can think a lot more about in libraries.  On a couple of levels.

First, is the letting stuff go level.  I think we do have a tendency to think that the tutorials we create have to be complete and comprehensive.  Or maybe this is just in my library.  But the truth is that even though we usually pull back from it, in our conversations about the smallest learning objects we initially start having conversations that do this – “but to do X they will need to know A, B. and C.”  There’s a couple of linked assumptions there – that they will never click on or search for more help at this moment, and that they might never come across our help again after this one time.  I think we mostly know now that we have to let stuff go so that we can focus on real learning of the stuff we do have time to teach or cover.  But it’s hard.

On another level, though, our students do spend a lot of time finding stuff using online tools.  They do have transferable skills – we can assume they know some stuff.

Back to the craft people, they are also on the Internet.  So even if you use an instruction like “whipstitch” and Annie the Sewing Newbie doesn’t know what that means, she’s on the Internet and and Google will find something that will tell her what it is/ show her how to do it.  Which is another reason why the concept of making our tutorials as findable as possible is interesting.

Which leads to –

#4 – They are presented using social tools

Almost every single one of these tutorials is a simple combination of blog post + pictures.  No fancy video, or branching, or audio involved.  I do think this relates to the “people want to use this stuff” assumption that these tutorial designers have.  They are not focused on building in cool bells and whistles to engage the users because they can assume their users are already engaged.  So they can use the power of today’s social tools to get stuff up there fast.

But even the tutorials that are presented as PDF files are usually delivered via a blog post.  Which means that the people using the tutorials can ask questions.  So you don’t have to explain every step as if the person will never get any other help ever – they can ask you for it, or they can get that help from the other people who have used the tutorials.

For example in the comments to this tutorial, the comments include several from other other crafters answering a question that the original poster had about the project.

Beyond this, many of these projects develop a second life on Flickr – where a lot of different people can show what they did with the basic concept suggested in the tutorial.  This also has implications for library tutorials, I think.  Given how complex and dynamic and personal research is, the idea that other users can show how a different application of a basic concept can lead to different resultsc could have a great deal of utility.

As an example of this, in this tutorial (PDF) about making a fabric-covered charging box for your devices, there is a note to add final projects to the author’s flickr group.


Which connects still further to this -

#5 – There’s value added.  They do some of the work for you.

So these tutorials are made for people who already know how to do some stuff, and really, there are a lot of tutorials out there that seem kind of obvious.  Even on this list of the top 100 there is this tutorial for adding patterned paper to a clear iPod case that seems like it defies the need for instruction.  But there are two things to keep in mind here.  One is that sometimes all we need is the idea – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth telling people about the idea.

The other is that most of these tutorials add some value by doing some of the more fiddly work of crafting for you.   There are a lot of tutorials here where I could figure out how to make the thing myself, but it is really nice when someone else has already done all of the necessary math for me:

Hobo lunch bag tutorial (Sewing Notions)

I don’t know how to apply this to libraries, but I think there has got to be some things out there where we could present tutorials on – here’s how you make this thing, and we’ve already figured out some of the fiddly parts for you.

Anyway, it’s not surprising that -

#6 – a lot of the time, they’re marketing tools

The Purl Bee is a great example of this.  This is an upscale fabric and other crafts store in NYC.  There are tons of useful, cute tutorials on their store website – all helpfully linking users to the materials they will need to make the things in the tutorials, which are all available from… The Purl Bee.

materials list for the Bias Tape Bib from The Purl Bee

For this pattern for a Quick Bias Tape bib, there are direct links for four different items that you will need to make the (adorable and easy) bib.

For everyone like me who sees a pattern on the Purl Bee site and thinks “wow that is exactly what I need to make something out of that piece of fabric I bought in San Francsico in the 1990’s” there are probably a whole lot more who think “must buy fabric from Purl Bee now.”

That’s something I think we could definitely do  – create things we could link from our homepage that tell people how to do things we know they want to to do.

However –

# 7 – These are created in the context of an existing community

Even if we have blogs, I don’t think we have a lot of readers.  Even though we have a ton of visitors to our web sites, I don’t think we have a lot of people tracking the changes on those sites.  Relying on our students to point each other to our tutorials seems unrealistic no matter how useful they are.  This one bears more thinking about.

Now, I have big plans to go make reusable fabric versions of all of the gift bags I will need for the next year.   Unfortunately (or luckily) obligations at Midwinter may prevent obsessive crafting from happening, at least immediately.