Making an Experience Inventory to Reflect on the Year Past
TL;DR: I developed an Experience Inventory to help me pull data out of my journal, calendar, and various notes for the past year. Once I had this data I was able to explore it and compare what the data said to how I feel about different times and topics throughout the year.
Data nerds know that’s awesome. Data what-evs know they’ve clicked the wrong link.
How the Experience Inventory Came About
Every December I take a look back at the year. Each year the look I take is a little different then the other years. Last two years I used the self interview guide that Susannah Conway publishes. I like that approach yet I also wanted to get more data out of the process.
I do UX research at my day job and a technique I’ve found useful is adding quantitative observations to qualitative sessions. The observation notes are helpful in a qualitative way to convey the narrative of the experience. Then adding quantitative data like “how successful did they complete the task” and “pick or add a label to describe the participant’s reaction” helps with summary observations across the experiences of all the participants.
It was a natural hey-what-if thing for me to go from self interviewing to then add some quantitative questions to the mix - to help me summarize and group my experiences of the past year.
Either that or I while reflecting on the year past - I slipped and fell and made a spreadsheet.
What Did I Want to Learn
To craft helpful goals for this year, I wanted to feel better informed by what happened in the prior 12 months. Who did I connect with? What kinds of connections were they? What was particularly challenging or particularly easy?
To answer those questions, I considered what data I’d need to gather, what questions to ask to gather it. Three categories of questions emerged:
- Questions to gather basic data about the experience (when, where, what topic)
- Questions to explore about how I relate to the experience (feeling, effort, difficulty)
- Questions about how others seem to relate to the experience (did it connect with others, who as a group, who specific, what reaction, how much reaction)
Steps to Capture the Experiences
Where do I have information about what happened in my life during this last year? In a bunch of places. Evernote, nvAlt notes, OmniFocus, and especially my DayOne journal are all private places I capture data. Then there’s Twitter, Instagram, blogs, and podcasts for things I share publicly. Finally, I have the day to day administrative sources of data such as my calendar of appointments, emails, and files on my computer sorted by date.
To capture experiences:
- Open one of the data sources and browse through it, while keeping my Experience Inventory spreadsheet ready to enter the data.
- Take note of an experience
- Add data about that experience
- Review progress
- Fill in gaps
It took about 1 and a half calendar weeks of this capture work for ~20min-1hour a day to get the amount of data that felt like enough. I gathered 240 experiences and captured 19 answers/observations about each experience. A total of ~4,560 points of data.
Experience Inventory Questions
For each line in the spreadsheet, the following questions are columns. The first column is the experience, the other 19 are questions to gather insight on that experience. Each row following captures data about the experience.
Info About the Experience
1. What did you do or experience? an event you experienced, could be any time frame from moment to a month… keeping to roughly a day or week is most useful
2. What month? date or when phrase
3. Where did it take place? online, offline local, offline travel destination
4. Additional notes or details optional
5. Life role/purpose? What big aspect of your life best categorizes this experience? For example: personal, professional, main gig, side gig, friends, family, finance, learning, fitness, etc.
6. Project? Was this part of an organized set of tasks, goal, or overall project-like commitment?
7. Topic? If you gave this experience a recurring theming hashtag, what would it be?
Affect on Me
8. How do you feel about the EXPERIENCE overall? rate 1-5 1= very negative 5 = very positive
9. How easy or difficult was it to produce? (Easy: you didn’t have to learn new things to produce it - Difficult: you had to learn a lot and invest a lot in learning to produce it) skill… rate 1-5, 1 = very difficult, 5 = very easy
10. How much EFFORT did it take to produce or participate in this experience? rough numeric estimate in hours of effort…
11. How do you feel about the EFFORT? rate 1-5 1= very negative 5 = very positive
12. How much did it cost you monetarily? numeric
13. How much did you earn? numeric
Affect on Others
14. Did it help you connect with other people? y/n
15. What was others reaction to it? for example: conversation, celebration, purchase
16. How much reaction was there overall? rate 1-5: 1 is no reaction, 2 is little reaction, 3 is some reaction, 4 is a good amount of reaction, 5 is incredible amount of reaction
17. What was the result of the reaction? for example: learned something, networked, earned pocket change, earned a living, etc.
18. Why did you take part or make this experience happen? for example: a long established goal, a new goal/revision, belief in it, improvising, fun
19. Who as a group did you connect with? A group name or list of groups of people or communities, separated by comma.
20. Who individually did you connect with? A person’s name or list of individual people, separated by comma.
What I learned From the Data
The data I gathered felt like a great reminder of who I connected with throughout the year and what kinds of things I made for what purposes. Exploring the data, I found some insightful queries to make these reports:
The Best Stuff Report: Taking a slice of what experiences related to projects I felt best about that others responded well to, then sort them by how much effort they took.
The Worst Stuff Report: The crap list. Things that didn’t go well that I either want to do better in the future or avoid entirely.
The Meh Stuff Report: Things that had to be done, not the worst, not the best.
The ready-for-my-day-job-review report: Many of the experiences I captured related to my day job/main professional commitment. Now I have a list of accomplishments and events throughout the year for my self evaluation/performance review.
What I learned from the Process
App-making distraction: I got excited about this process and how it felt gaining insights along the way. Pretty soon I found myself designing an app to build based on this process, daydreaming ways to visualize the data, and sketching. To set that aside for now, I stopped summarizing my data in Python, sketching UI, and switched to using Base and Excel. That kept me focused on exploring the data, not building an app.
Solid start to the process: Doing an experience inventory is definitely a flexible process. It was no problem gathering data from a variety of sources into one big spreadsheet, then learning from the reports on the data.
Getting spent diving through the data: To do this in one effort over a few weeks to dig through a year of data both fun and overwhelming. It was a bit much to reflect on such a big-time and sifting through so much data.
Do this more often: I need to repeat this process, tweak, improve upon it, and benefit from the insights more often than once a year.
Keep an eye on enough-but-not-too-many observations: In a given session of data gathering, it’s easy to get fatigued making observations on so many records.
Unclear if 240 experiences is too few or too many: I captured about 240 experiences, which feels like a lot yet is clearly not exhaustive.
Would I do this again?
It felt like a useful exercise, yet a bit overwhelming to do a whole year at once. To really know the answer to “should I keep doing this”, I need to do this again applying what I’ve learned this time.
My plan: I’ll be giving this a try at the end of March. Will I still find it useful? Will it feel less intense since I’ll be taking a much smaller slice of the year into account? I’ll be sure to share an update, we’ll see how it goes.
What I do know: I’ve found it possible to sift through piles of stuff I’ve captured throughout the year, capture some structured data, and learn more about what I experienced. This feels super helpful for planning the year ahead.
Experience Inventory Spreadsheet - Download/Clone from Google Drive