Great Lakes Commission

Date: January-May 2015
Team Project

My Roles: Developed and conducted research; interpreted research data through sketching of work flows, as well as affinity wall and data coding; wrote final report

Problem:  The Great Lakes Commission (GLC) is a U.S. interstate organization, located in Ann Arbor, MI, whose work revolves around issues of water conservation, environmental protection, and economic development of the Great Lakes-St Lawrence River Region.

Our five-member team was tasked with evaluating the organization’s data management system in an attempt to improve existing filing and storing practices and potentially recommend new practices and data management software.

Process: We conducted 5 interviews, created four work models, and built an affinity wall to analyze the research.

We used an ethnographic research method called Contextual Inquiry to understand the organizational culture and follow closely staff’s use of the existing data management system. Contextual Inquiry is a research method developed by Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt encouraging interviewers to understand users’ work context. Most significantly, contextual inquiry values immersion in users’ work routine. To this end, besides the typical interview, researchers are encouraged to spend time with users, as well as follow and observe their work routine.

Deliverables: We  wrote a final technical report with findings and recommendations that we presented to the client.



We conducted interviews with 5 staff members, meeting them in their work place and thus gaining important insights into the context of their work. We audio-recorded each interview and then transcribed them, after which we met as a team for coding and debriefing. Then, each team member followed up with the design of a work model, as detailed in the next section.

Work Models

Work models are created to give interviewers a better understanding of workplace hierarchies, especially regarding relationships among staff as they go about doing their work. For instance, for our project, because we were interested in understanding flaws in the data management process, we wanted to know how staff go about creating, saving, and then accessing files. But, we also wanted to understand how team projects unfold and how staff communicate and collaborate with one another. Based on knowledge gathered from interviews, each team member sketched one so-called work flow, having in total 5 work flows that we analyzed as a team.

Work flow I sketched out
Work flow I sketched out

Affinity Wall

An affinity wall is a grouping of interview quotes on sticky notes, enabling researchers to visualize the interviews and draw out common themes. The group typed quotes from all five interviews and taped them onto 250 sticky notes, which were in turn placed on a large sheet of paper. At the end of the process, we had a long conversation about common themes and major trends and recommendations to be glimpsed from these notes.

This process is lengthy and laborious: we spent a total of 10 hours going through the notes, arranging them on the affinity wall, and discussing our findings. At the end of the day, though, this was one of the most rewarding and productive methods as it enabled the team to come together and have a general visual representation of the main problems our client was facing.

Building the Affinity Wall
Building the Affinity Wall
Affinity Wall Finalized
Affinity Wall Finalized

The final report we wrote drew on all the above research methodologies and findings. We met with our client, presented our findings and recommendations, and were very happy to see our client’s plan to implement all our suggestions.

The following are the findings and recommendations we presented to the client:

  1. The biggest challenge is the lack of standard naming conventions for filing and saving documents on the main organizational drive — the P Drive. We recommend applying standard naming conventions based on the needs of the organization and following a protocol with which everyone involved agrees. We especially suggest consulting the International Standard Organization’s guidelines for successful creation of standardization in the workplace.

  2. All staff in the organization have access to editing files on the organization’s drive, which results in multiple people editing the same documents at the same time and, many times, creating duplicates on the Drive. We recommend that unlimited access to documents should be restricted to some staff only based on their role in the project. For each project, we suggest that the team gives only one person access to add, modify, or delete project-related files.

  3. Years-old documents are still on the Drive, adding to clutter and confusion. We recommend archiving older documents based on a timeline set according to the needs of the organization.
  4. Lack of training of new employees leads to poor file management. We recommend implementing training sessions to introduce incoming employees to the filing process on the Drive.