Research outcomes, ‘live’ and ‘real’


The Living Archive project — the project that has taken up all of my time for the last 2 years, the project that takes up so much time that I haven’t even ‘bothered’ (according to one unhappy customer) to update my one iPhone app to work on the slightly larger screen of the iPhone 5 — is now ‘live‘.

‘Live’ is a funny word to use really. The Living Archive prototype, in some form or another, has actually been ‘live’ online for over a year. What ‘live’ means here is that the current version, the ‘new’ version, is accessible to the general public, to the world, unrestricted.

I have a few qualms about this ‘liveness’, mostly hold-overs from my former life as a professional web and software designer and developer. Looking at the version that is available to the public, I can’t help but feeling there is so much wrong with it. It is buggy. It crashes. It only works on a selection of web browsers, a smaller selection of phones. It is not optomised for anything. It is unreliable, possibly confusing, underdesigned, unfinished.

The nature of this being a research ‘prototype’ as opposed to a commercial venture is that there is actually years of invisible thought underlying the design. That said, in this particular project, the manifestation of the research through the design is subtle. This is no cool data-visualisation project with excititing visual outcomes to share on design blogs. Nor is it a technologically complex project: none of the technology involved is new, or even remotely groundbreaking. Most of the research is hidden in the processes involved in producing the outcome, and the outcome itself is something of a side-effect of these processes.

The problem—where I perceive it—is that this ‘side-effect’ is the only thing the rest of the world sees. This tension between ‘research’ and ‘development’ presents itself in the project at every meeting, and is becoming more and more explicit as the project moves into a ‘public’ phase. Yes, this is a research project. Yes it is ‘only a prototype’. But people all over the world can use our project as a way of interacting with Circus Oz, a performing arts company with a reputation to maintain. There are so many things that we haven’t thought about, so many design decisions and issues that we decided to ignore because they were not the focus of the research. These things all glare at me, especially when I consider how it might seem to a new user, one who has no idea about the research nature of the project, interacting with the archive for the first time.

On the other hand, for a project that really only had two developers working on it (two developers who were spending most of their time on other, tangential research activity), it’s a pretty good effort. It mostly works, on a selection of browsers. The content is mostly accessible. It’s buggy, but nothing insurmountable. It is a very useful proof of concept of my (and the project team’s) research work. It is a useful tool for Circus Oz. Most of all, it is a useful tool for future research into digital performance archives.

Dan Hill argues in his wonderful ‘Dark Matter and Trojan Horses‘ that “there is a danger in describing projects overall as prototypes, in that it suggests they are in some way “not real”, that they can be turned off, decommissioned”. I agree wholehartedly with this statement. This is no prototype, it is the Circus Oz Living Archive, online, ‘live’, and real.