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Topsight > Triangulation tables

Posted by: on Jan 9, 2013 | No Comments
In previous posts in this series, I've discussed two meso-level analytical constructs, two constructs for making sense of what we see minute-by-minute in people's work. Handoff chains help us to envision regular sequences, while resource maps let us see the connections among the information resources that people use.


Think of your research site as a football game. In handoff chains, the camera follows the ball, tracing through the series of handoffs and tosses that move it downfield. In resource maps, the camera follows the game, watching systemic dynamics and tactical changes as players and artifacts all over the field continuously reconfigure themselves.

Can we follow the ball and the game? Can we find a way to coordinate these two models? Sure: That's what we use triangulation tables to do. They allow us to triangulate data: to compare the stories that we get from different sets of data in order to make sure they agree.

Triangulation tables are based on Bruno Latour's sociotechnical graphs, but they've been adapted to mesh together what we learn from handoff chains and resource maps. For the messy details, see the paper that Zachry, Hart-Davidson and I put together a few years ago:

Spinuzzi, C., Hart-Davidson, W., & Zachry, M. (2006). Chains and ecologies: Methodological notes toward a communicative-mediational model of technologically mediated writing. SIGDOC  ’06: Proceedings of the 24th annual international conference on Design of communication (pp. 43–50). New York, NY, USA: ACM Press.

You can also see it at work in my book Network.

The basic idea is pretty simple: we put together a series of tables or matrixes that relate the chain of sequences to the resources used at each point in the sequence. We start with the individual visit, then expand to the group, then to larger units.

In our implementation, triangulation tables are tables in which 

  • columns represent communicative events from the handoff chain
  • rows represent different points of comparison - different data sources, different participants, or different groups
  • cells contain information resources that are used for a given communicative event within a given point of comparison


For instance, here's a triangulation table in which the researcher examines a single participant's work, using two different data sources (field notes from the observation and the post-observation interview). Notice that this table helps us relate communicative events from the handoff chain to the resources from the resource map. And it helps us to see how our field notes differ from the participant's account. It helps us to triangulate the two data sources: we can see how closely they line up and where they disagree or are partial. See the italics in each cell: these are texts that are mentioned in just one account.

Table 1. A triangulation table for a single participant.


Communicative events


Prepare for callContact customer and discuss billRecord notes on call
Arnold - Field notescollections list, annotations on collections list, database screen for customerdatabase screen for customer's collections informationPhone call to customer, collections list,database screen for customer's collections informationdatabase screen for customer's collections informationfax cover sheetsticky note, collections list
Arnold - Interviewcollections list, annotations on collections list, bankruptcy noticesspiral notebook,phone calls from coworkersBills, phone call to customercollections list, annotations to collections listdatabase notesdatabase screen for customer

Now suppose we do the same thing for multiple participants. We can collapse the list of texts from both data sources into one list for each participant, then compare the participants -- and we begin to turn up similarities and differences in how individual participants work. Triangulating at this level helps us to do the following:


  • figure out which texts are "core" texts, the bare minimum for executing each communicative event
  • spot innovations that one participant uses and others don't

For instance, in Table 2, Clara uses a text that the others don't use: a log of previous customer interactions. Does this log function as a substitute for some of the texts that others use, such as Arnold's spiral notebook? The triangulation table helps us to spot differences and reexamine our data - including our copies of the spiral notebook and the log - to answer questions about how participants work differently. Through this triangulation, the table helps us to catch innovations and workarounds, showing how these substitute for other texts.

Table 2. A triangulation table for multiple participants.


Communicative events


Prepare for callContact customer and discuss billRecord notes on call
Arnoldcollections list, annotations on collections list, database screen for customer, database screen for customer's collections information, bankruptcy notices, spiral notebook, phone calls from coworkersPhone call to customer, collections list, database screen for customer's collections information, billsdatabase screen for customer's collections information, fax cover sheet, sticky note, collections list, annotations to collections list, database notes, database screen for customer
Billcollections list, annotations on collections list, database screen for customer, database screen for customer's collections information, bankruptcy noticesPhone call to customer, collections list, database screen for customer's collections information, bills, spiral notebook of call logdatabase screen for customer's collections information, collections list, annotations to collections list, phone call to supervisor
Claracollections list, annotations on collections list, database screen for customer, database screen for customer's collections information,log of previous customer interactionsPhone call to customer, collections list, database screen for customer's collections information, log of previous customer interactionsdatabase screen for customer's collections information, collections list, annotations to collections list, log of previous customer interactions


If the organization is large enough, you may triangulate to spot differences in how groups do their work. Groups can be


  • participants doing the same work at different locations
  • participants taking on the same role at the same location and in the same workflow
  • participants at the same location, working in the same role, but with different characteristics (training, experience, access to technology)


For instance, if a company has two offices, it's common for the offices to develop different ways of doing things due to different technologies,  training, backgrounds, expectations, or innovations. A group-level triangulation table can help you spot those differences as well. Table 3 shows how two offices might handle the same communicative events differently - and how the second office has managed to use one text to substitute for many.

Table 3. A triangulation table for different groups.


Communicative events


Prepare for callContact customer and discuss billRecord notes on call
Group Acollections list, annotations on collections list, database screen for customer, database screen for customer's collections information, bankruptcy notices, spiral notebook, phone calls from coworkersPhone call to customer, collections list, database screen for customer's collections information, billsdatabase screen for customer's collections information, fax cover sheet, sticky note, collections list, annotations to collections list, database notes, database screen for customer
Group Bcollections list, customer folder with contact information and last billPhone call to customer, customer folder with contact information and last bill, calendarcustomer folder with contact information and last bill, Word template, email
The triangulation table helps you to easily relate information from the other two analytical constructs and spot differences. It's a way to manage complexity so you can get a handle on the meso level. Which is great, because we're almost ready to move to the micro level—the level of habits and reactions. More on that soon.