Skrip.io File management and organization for astrophysicists conducting research
Organizing files, spreadsheets, and code for astrophysics teams 3 Weeks – Personal Project Skrip is a cloud drive extension that organizes files by properly naming and routing them to directories. Additionally, it helps teams stay in sync with simple meet-up scheduling and file update notification.
Poor file naming and slow communication bogs astrophysicists down during research Working with spreadsheets, code, and images that are gigabytes in size, astrophysicists quickly become bogged down by ambiguous directories, misplaced files, and lost data. Coupled with miscommunication with teammates, research outcomes can potentially become inaccurate.
Mason M. Astrophysicist at CalTech
“You’re going to get stuck because you named a file poorly and didn’t put units in.“
Matej B. Launch Lead at Cal-State Long Beach
“We meet face to face with the team. It is the quickest way to discuss things.“
Field Research: Observation I obtained consent to took screenshots and photos of interviewee's team drive and meetings to see how teams organize their team directories.
"NASA sends brief guidelines and a guidebook, but the rules itself are not very specific."
Product SWOT Analysis I surveyed tools currently on the market and ones researchers used during their projects. I covered products in data storage and communication.
"We have a group chat that everyone is in through Group.Me, which is just a very basic SMS type messaging system."
Research Surveys In addition to field observations, I sent out a 10 question survey for teams to answer. This way, I can quickly gather qualitative data within a week
"A lot of the time, you are reading papers or background information on something."
In Situ Interviews I conducted video and in person interviews with Mason and Matej to get a better understanding of their tasks, responsibilities, and workflows
"It’s mostly just a spreadsheet of numbers; that’s where all the reduction happens."
Astrophysicists design and follow strict naming conventions to organize and keep track of their files One thing that I've noticed in both Mason and Matej's workflow is the practice of naming files based on a set of rules. For Matej, folders are named and structured in a way that communicates a clear file path, showing the parent and child directories. Mason follows an even more robust naming system, making sure that filenames communicates the object he is studying, type of data stored, version, and research type.
Mason's files are mostly scripts and spreadsheets, so he designed his naming convention based on the object and file type. In additiona to versioning and file type, he also includes units for the data he recorded.
A vast majority of time astrophysicists spend updating Python code and spreadsheet cells Contrary to public perception, astrophysicists spend very little to no time observing through telescopes. This is because telescope observation time slots are incredibly rare and require grants and years of scheduling. A vast majority of time, astrophysicists are writing code that executes mathematic functions, normalizing numbers to gain insight from their data sets, plotting numbers into a model, and creating research presentations.
To Mason and Matej, it is a lot easier to just check the code and adjust the numbers, as opposed to visual confirmation, which is more prone to error.
Because files are so memory intensive, team members meet in person to collaborate more effectively Mason and Matej both collaborate with teammates regularly. However, there are thousands of rows of data that they are working with asynchronously, making it very difficult to onboard their advisors and teammates or collaborate with them virtually. To overcome this barrier, they schedule 1:1 meetings to brief the team of all the changes and insights. Mason and Matej both mention the value of real time feedback and discussion during their meetings.
Meeting face to face is incredibly valuable because of how easily teammates can refer to specific parts of the file, and how quickly people can provide real time feedback on the data or script.
Email is the de facto communication method, maintaining professionalism at the cost of slow responses Not too many research leads are used to Slack / chat workflow, and SMS messaging seems too informal. This makes email the primary channel between project leads and researchers. However, the main disadvantages of email is how slow people respond, especially when advisors are away at conventions and conferences. Furthermore, long emails that do not have abstracts tend to be glossed over, causing details to be lost in translation.
Mason has mentioned the pain point of having to wait for his advisor to respond on his project, sometime having to wait for days and needing to followup multiple times. Furthermore, he mentioned the frustration of having his messages misread or glanced over due to length.
Current tools provide a disjointed experience between file management and team communication From my market analysis, I found that products span across two areas of the team workflow: fast communication and file synchronization. Products like Github and Google Drive do exceptionally well at managing files and versions, but do not provide ways for team members to communicate. Products like Slack and Group.me allow for quicker communication but limits the amount of file sharing astrophysicists need.
Products in team collaboration and file management span across two different tribes: synchronization and quick communication. Mason and Matej needs a solution that provides fast communication and robust file management.
How might we streamline file management and communication for astrophysicists? Astrophysicists face three main pain points during their research. Massive data sets make collaboration slow and hard to maneuver. Communication channels mainly funnel through emails, which are easily missed or misinterpreted. Finally, teams lack a central location for file management and meeting scheduling. The opportunity became to create a source of truth where communication and file management can occur simultaneously.
Previews are not helpful because files are so large and visually indistinguishable Since spreadsheets and Python are so data rich and text heavy, it's really difficult to differentiate spreadsheets and scripts visually. Furthermore, because the file sizes are so big, previews will take a significant amount time to load, requiring additional time and making the function hard to use.
Chat panels on the side should be constrained to scheduling meetings, or else it becomes cluttered and informal One of the biggest barriers keeping researchers from utilizing chat spaces is the informality of dialogues. However, by limiting the feed to only allowing scheduling, the feed becomes strictly work related. This limitation addresses the user's need to schedule meeting times, but can also attract users who are used to email coordination.
Mobile component satisfies the use case of looping in teammates who are remote at conferences or meetings The mobile component should be limited to showing two feeds: file updates and upcoming meetings. The meeting feed becomes a nudge to notify advisors away or teammates of all upcoming meetings, while the file update feed tells them whether outstanding issues or edits have been addressed. These feeds allow teammates to synopsize project progress and outstanding requests.
When showing updated file feed, it's more important to emphasize icon than filename Filenames can be long and convoluted, which makes them difficult to differentiate from one another. However, by showing the correlating logo based on file type, users can quickly scan the feed and track the file they are interested in following. Having a "follow" feature that notifies of edits to a specific file also helps remote teammates stay informed.
Instantly see directory structure, upcoming meetings, and important documents Skrip gives astrophysicists access to all the important things upon landing. They can access general documents like main proposals, research briefs, and NDA agreements in the important document section, their main directories. People can aslo schedule meetings in the panels to the right, and see a feed of all the recent document changes.
Configure naming conventions so that files can be named and saved properly One of Skrip’s main features is the ability to configure naming conventions so that new or edited documents are named properly and routed to their respective directory based on the team’s configuration. This feature does all the tedious naming and management for researchers, which prevents bad practices such as ambiguous naming or metadata.
Quickly schedule meetings with teammates and see upcoming meetings Another one of Skrip’s main features is the ability to quickly get in touch with teammates through a builtin meeting scheduler. Teammates can enter a request by creating a meeting invitation with the purpose, location, and file(s) being discussed. Invitees can accept or decline the invitation, as well as reserve slots of time when they are unavailable.
Built-In version control system for better editing and documentation Since a majority of astrophysicist work with code, Skrip integrates version controls into teammate’s drive. This feature stores code diffs and changes in VCS, similar to Github, so that teams do not have to separate their workflows into different services.
Keep track of revisions and changes to spreadsheets and data sets Skrip also keeps track of spreadsheet version. Similar to how differences are visualized in code, Skrip highlights cells that have been added, deleted, or changed. Additionally, it displays the units being measured for each row as metadata, so that spreadsheets do not become ambiguous.
Be notified of file changes, revisions, and comments Similar to recent activities in Google Drive or @mentions in Dropbox, Skrip shows a feed of all the recent files being changed. To help distinguish files from one another, Skrip shows icons of the file type as well as a brief metadata description of what parts of the file have been edited.
Keep remote teammates in the loop with meeting requests and file changes Skrip’s mobile app focuses on notifying remote colleagues on what meetings are upcoming and what files have been changed. When teammates need help or need to schedule a last minute meeting, they can schedule and notify whoever is remote and quickly communicate virtually.
Prototyping Skrip.io to conduct user testing and validation Because the project was a 3 week sprint, I only got the chance to followup with one of my interviewees to talk briefly about the concept. While I got many valuable feedback and suggestions about the concept, I needed a more focused user group to conduct validation. User testing would help me decide who my critical users are and validate whether the features are actually useful to their workflow