Usability Research 101 for Solopreneurs


You’ve started your own business, and you’re doing everything right.

  • You started your email list.
  • You created an e-course.
  • You offer freebies and goodies for visitors and subscribers.
  • You created landing pages for your products and services.
  • You put some money behind ads on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.
  • You set up Google Analytics.

So that’s it, right? Now you can just relax, and look at the numbers — visitors, subscribers, customers, dollars — as they roll in.

But we both know that your target audience isn’t simply a number or a price tag. What if your efforts aren’t resulting in the success you imagined?

My guess is that it’s because you’re forgetting one key piece of the puzzle: research.

Everyone who is trying to run a business that is largely web-based (even if you’re selling physical products) needs to embrace usability research.

Usability research is the process of finding out how people are interacting and using your website or digital tool.

How do you find this out? By asking them.

I am an evangelist for mixed-methods research: meaning, I want to understand the what (numbers and analytics) AND the why (decision-making and thought process). Analytics don’t tell me the whole story, so I can supplement that by talking to people.

So here’s how you, as a solopreneur or side-hustler, can test your products and services to make your dent in the universe.

Usability research basics

  • Be a guerrilla researcher. UX researcher and trailblazer Jaime Levy conducts what she calls “guerrilla user tests.” She’ll set up shop in a cafe, and recruit people on Craigslist to come in and talk with her team about an idea. While I don’t necessarily recommend using Craigslist, you can make research a simple conversation with another person in a comfortable environment. That’s essentially all it is!
  • Write simple notes. You don’t need to employ complex statistical analysis on your feedback; simply write basic notes that are meant for you. I also recommend using screen-recording software (like Quicktime) and a recording app on your phone, or you can recruit a friend to take notes while you chat with the participant.
  • Stick to small sample groups. Effective results can come from groups as small as 5 people. When you do in-person (or remote live video) usability tests, you don’t need to do it with 1,000 people. In fact, 5 to 8 people is the recommended amount of people per usability test. Their feedback is enough for you to make changes to your website or service.
  • Be an exceptional listener. When you are talking with someone face-to-face, you’ll want to be as objective as possible. This means listening more than talking. You may hear input from the participant that you disagree with and want to clarify, but it helps to think of it like this: what would they think/do about X if I wasn’t sitting in front of them?

Start with these two usability tests

Once you start understanding the importance and necessity of testing, it can quickly become overwhelming. Instead of falling down the rabbit hole, start by conducting these two types of tests.

The discovery process

How are people finding you or your brand? Sure, you can spend hours trudging away at SEO, and it’s certainly important to make sure that you know which keywords work best for your brand. However, what’s really insightful is asking someone how they would search for a service like yours. What words would they use? Do these words differ from the types of keywords you swear by?

Because our searches are impacted by our activity on the web, observe what shows up when people search for your brand on Google (or Bing, or whatever search engine you use). What you see and what they see often differ, and this can give you some perspective on what you can add to your website to bump up your discoverability.

Observe how people navigate on your website or landing page

Landing page optimization sounds stuffy and technical, but all it really means is: how easy is it for visitors to achieve the goal? The goal may be signing up for your newsletter, registering for your e-course, or buying your product. Are there additional steps or pages getting in the way of the checkout process? Are there too many fields in the form they need to fill out? (For example, your newsletter signup likely doesn’t need an address and phone number field.)

Ready to start your usability research journey? Download the free accompanying workbook with recommended questions to ask during your tests.

Conducting research abroad


Even with the wealth of information online, many researchers still travel for work; not all libraries or museums have digital catalogs, and some resources simply must be visited in person.  As you can imagine, this presents some unique challenges, especially if you travel to places that use languages other than your own.  

Here are some recommendations for conducting research abroad:

Keep a translation app handy

While a translation app doesn’t replace the benefit of having an actual human translator, it can help alleviate some of the stress of navigating through a foreign catalog. Google’s translation app, for example, can translate words in real time using your phone camera; you just hold it over the text you want to translate (or take a photo), and it will translate the words for you. You can download the languages ahead of time, in case you have limited internet access. 

Study their cataloguing system

Classification systems vary internationally, so this is one thing you can study ahead of time to be more prepared when you get there. When in doubt, check their library website.

Reach out ahead of time

Communicate with researchers, locals, or scholars in the region you’re visiting. They may offer to help with translation, or help you navigate through local collections.

Document your findings the best you can 

If you’re visiting a library or museum temporarily, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to bring their resources back with you. Be ready to document your findings thoroughly: take pictures, scan documents, and record ideas so that you don’t miss anything when you return home.

Visit locations to get a sense of space and layout

If you're doing research for a historical novel, for instance, be sure to spend time visiting the places featured in your story. Knowing what your characters would have seen firsthand will give your story depth and rich details, and you can ensure that you're using factual information since you'll be at the actual location yourself. Writing about the Roman Colosseum, for example, is much more interesting (and easier) when you've seen it yourself, to accurately capture the scope of it.

Learn more research tips and tricks in The Citizen's Guide to Research, out now!

Thinking like a historian when writing historical fiction


You don’t have to be an expert historian to delve into historical research. Learning how to be a thoughtful and clever historian takes years and years of practice. But you can start your journey by understanding how to think like a historian.

Always consider context

The old adage, “hindsight is 20/20,” can be a detriment to historical storytellers. Challenge yourself to think about events or interactions not from your modern perspective, but using the details you uncover from your research.

Be mindful of your sources

Different sources covering the same era or event can tell wildly different stories. Consider the 1940s — a New York newspaper covered WWII far differently than a German publication. Investigate multiple sources to see what unique perspectives you can find and use in your story.

Draw conclusions with evidence

If you have a hunch that a certain character would react in a certain way, use your research to support that behavior. This helps you think more objectively about context, and can also fuel your narrative.

Ask specific questions

Being specific will guide your research process. If you’re writing a book about Ancient Rome, that’s a huge topic and can be overwhelming! Focus your questions based on your story or characters, such as: what did teenage Roman girls in wealthy families wear during the summer months?

Research topics from different perspectives

See what you can find out about the same events from the perspective of multiple characters. For example, what would a married Roman woman talk about while watching Gladiators battle in the Coliseum? What would a Gladiator in slavery think about as he is sent into the arena?

Download the free guide, Researching Your Historical Novel, by clicking below!

How to do research for your National Novel Writing Month project

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It's almost November, which means it's almost time for one of my favorite events of the year: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! I've written about NaNoWriMo preparation before, but I want to go into more detail about actually doing research for your project.

It's not just historical novels that require research; every novel and writing project requires some research. A science fiction book may include research about spaceship design; a fantasy novel may include research on mythical creatures. I've participated in NaNoWriMo about five times (winning twice), and I can tell you firsthand that the month goes by FAST, so the more you can tackle ahead of time, the better. Since it's the first week of October, it's the perfect time to knock out your research before November 1.

Below are my tried-and-true research tips for your novel, regardless of genre or topic.

Start with a thorough outline

Not all writers use outlines for their books, but it makes a huge difference during NaNoWriMo; the two times I "won" were because I had very clear outlines, so every day was just a matter of "filling in" the outline. An outline will also help you identify the parts of your story that require research. 

You can outline digitally, or get out a big piece of paper and just start writing down the main plot points of your story. (Here's a great resource on what your outline should include.)

Prioritize your research points

Your outline should reveal the parts of your story that need research, and you'll want to make a list of what research you want to tackle first. Research is often overwhelming to writers because there's just so much of it to do, so take it piece-by-piece.

Consider the following:

  • What are the "big picture" details in your story? For instance, what's the location or era/time that you need to study? 
  • How will your characters interact with their world? You'll need to research the day-to-day details, such as clothing, food, architecture, music/art, and cultural events. 

Start with the "big picture" details. What is the most important research you need to do before you can actually start writing? Start broad, and you can drill further as you go. 

Create a research schedule

Once you have a sense for the research you'll need to do, come up with a reasonable schedule. It's impossible to knock out all your research in one day, so make a plan to tackle a little bit over the span of a week (or a few weeks). I always recommend going into a research session with a specific goal in mind. Your schedule should include the specific research questions you plan to tackle every day. For instance, researching the clothing worn by a battle nurse in World War II is a specific and attainable goal to meet in one research session.

Spend an afternoon at the library

It's tempting to conduct all of your research online, but I highly recommend committing an afternoon to a library visit. You'll have books and librarians at your disposal, and you can knock out some of the "big picture" details of your research. If your research includes studying places or architecture, scan or take pictures of the images you find in books.

Annotate your outline with your findings

Rather than documenting your findings separately from your outline, add your findings directly to each part of your outline. I love using writing apps such as Scrivener, which makes it really easy to create folders of research and link them to chapters. For the book I'm writing this November, I have folders for each of my main characters and locations in the book. In each folder, I've added the research images and documents that correspond to each. Then, I made folders for each of my planned chapters, and I put the documents into each relevant chapter. 

If you don't want to shell out the $$ for a tool like Scrivener (although I highly recommend it, especially for research-intensive projects), you can use a free service like Google Drive. Create a folder that contains the doc in which you'll write your story, and then create a folder for each chapter/part of your book. These folders will grow over time, but it makes it easy to quickly reference the research you need in that particular chapter. 

I also recommend using Pinterest, especially for your web-based research. As you're doing research on the web, create Pinterest boards for your chapters and characters, and save your findings straight to your board. You'll also have a visual moodboard of your story, which I find really helpful.

I'll be writing more tips and tricks for conquering NaNoWriMo, so stay tuned! Have you announced your novel yet? My username is AshleyWarrenResearch, so be sure to connect with me!

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Download the Thesis Survival Guide

It's August, which means the new school year is right around the corner! If you're gearing up for a thesis, dissertation, or professional paper, be sure to download my free Thesis Survival Guide, with tips, tricks, and tools from former grad students. 

I wrote this guide because I wish that a resource like this had existed when I was a graduate student! All of the advice comes from firsthand experience. Hope you enjoy, and be sure to share with your friends!

Scrivener, Novlr, Ulysses: Which writing tool is best for you?

Whenever I hear about a writing tool, I’m compelled to try it out. In the past couple years I’ve been focusing more on fiction instead of solely journalism/academic writing, and I have been searching for the best writing tools for longform writing. Three programs that frequently appear at the top of lists are Scrivener, Novlr, and Ulysses. I have been using all three programs for several months now, and thought it would be useful to share what I like and what I don’t like about each of these programs.


Scrivener, Novlr and Ulysses are all, in essence, word processing programs. They are used to write, edit, and export pieces of writing, such as books, novels, or longform projects. They each offer additional features, such as formatting, organization, and outlining. Each program connects to cloud services to save your documents.

How I’m using the programs

To get the most out of each, I have used each program for multiple projects, including:

  • Revising the manuscript of a nonfiction book. The bulk of this book has been written elsewhere for an email series, so this has required importing the text and formatting it.
  • Writing a multi-part novel — with research, such as images and maps.
  • Writing short stories to submit to literary journals.
  • Writing articles, help docs, and blog posts.

Because I use these programs for different types of writing projects, I’ve been able to explore and try features I may not have normally discovered.

I’ve been using Scrivener since November, after National Novel Writing Month. I bought the software using the NaNoWriMo Winner’s discount, which also helped me get over the pricing hurdle. In the long run, $45 doesn’t seem very expensive for dedicated writers, but it’s hard making the leap when you’re not sure what to expect.

What I love about Scrivener:

Scrivener is a great program to use for any stage of a project: outlining, brainstorming, writing, editing, revising, and preparing for publication.

My absolutely favorite thing about Scrivener are its research capabilities. You can easily import images and documents into the research section of your project, and have them visible or accessible as you’re writing. Since I am a researcher by profession, this has been a wonderful discovery, and I think writers who are writing research-intensive books (like historical fiction) should absolutely take advantage of this.

Scrivener templates are also extremely handy. I now rely heavily on the character templates to help make my characters as real and well-rounded as possible. Making resources like that readily available in the software shows that Scrivener was made to help writers be more thoughtful about their projects.

Another unique feature of Scrivener is its statistics. Beyond just tracking your word or character count, you can set writing goals, and Scrivener will calculate what your word count needs to be daily to meet that goal. You can also look at the stats to see what words you used most often throughout your manuscript, which is helpful when revising.

What I would like to change about Scrivener:

As a UX researcher by day, I have really high standards about design, and sometimes Scrivener can feel a tad dated. What’s nice is that you can tailor most of the interface to your needs, but every now and then, I feel like there’s just too much going on.

Bottom line:

Scrivener is excellent for big projects, such as novels or series, because you can get really specific with how your book is organized. Plus, its research capabilities make it a good option for people writing research-based books or academic projects. Scrivener’s templates make it easy to be organized and detail-oriented. And, the statistics feature is insightful about your writing habits.


$45. Available for all operating systems.

Novlr is a gem of a program, and I began using it a few years ago during a prior NaNoWriMo challenge. It’s browser-based, so there’s nothing to download.

What I love about Novlr:

A lot! First and foremost, I love how simple it is to connect Novlr to Google Drive and make backups. Novlr makes multiple backups every time you update a story, and that is really important to me since I normally do that manually.

The design of Novlr is lovely. They offer daytime/nighttime writing modes, and that makes a big difference! (Especially if you find yourself writing late at night, like I do.) I really love the way their goals feature works: once you’ve set a goal, the program gives you support and reminders as you work toward that goal. Since I frequently participate in writing challenges, I like knowing that my tool is essentially rooting for me to finish.

What I would like to change about Novlr:

Although it’s easy to outline and organize your chapters and parts, Novlr doesn’t have as many research tools built in to it, so I find that I still have to organize my research outside of Novlr. Novlr is focused on a great writing experience, but in my opinion, research is ingrained in that for many writers (especially historical fiction) and I’d love to see more integration for this in the future.

I’d also love a few more options for formatting. Novlr’s goal is to help you write efficiently, and they’ve designed their writing space to be conducive to that, but I wouldn’t mind a few more font options or the ability to make headers and whatnot. Not everything I write is fiction, so when I’m writing a journalistic article, it’d be nice to be able to continue to use Novlr but format it for a different type of piece.

Bottom line:

Novlr is deceptively simple, but you’ll quickly come to love and rely on its additional features, like writing modes, analytics, and goals.



It took me a little longer to come around to trying Ulysses; it’s a hefty investment of $45 USD, and that can be hard to justify when there are cheaper programs out there. However, I was drawn to how simple it is, and I wanted a better way to write throughout the day instead of using Evernote or Google Docs. Reading their blog gave me insight into how other writers use their program, so that motivated me to give it a shot.

What I love about Ulysses:

Using Ulysses is like a digital form of a handy notebook: it takes no effort to have it open at all times, and it’s super easy to jump into a blank sheet and just start writing. As such, there’s no friction to just getting started on a new idea.

I really appreciate the minimalist design of this app. I’m inspired to write when I use Ulysses because it’s so clean. The organizational features are subtle, and you can create “libraries” to group particular documents that are part of the same project. I love being able to set a custom icon for each library. Little details like that make using programs more enjoyable.

What I would like to change about Ulysses:

I am familiar with using markdown, but I find that sometimes it disrupts my editing and revision process. For instance, using the *emphasis* markdown turns anything in italics bright blue, and when I’m reading through a document, this makes it hard for me to visualize what it will look like without that type of formatting.

Unlike Scrivener, I don’t find Ulysses to be great for research. It’s certainly good for note-taking and outlining, but it has limited options for importing documents or media. That’s not really it’s goal as a program, but it’s something to keep in mind if you are working on research-intensive books or projects.

Ulysses is an Apple-only product, so it’s not be accessible to all devices. (For example, I have a Macbook, but my desktop is a Windows machine, so I can’t move documents around from device to device. Ulysses does have an iPhone app, though, so you can sync with your smartphone.)

And lastly, I’m not too fond of backing up my projects to iCloud or to my computer itself. I always prefer being able to save versions of my projects as actual documents, not as program files. With Scrivener and Novlr, I can constantly sync my stories to my Google Drive account (and from there, I make backups again, because I am super anal about saving my work!). They do offer a kind of workaround for this, but it doesn’t export and save the actual files, and that’s a limitation for me. I find myself writing in Ulysses, and then copying and pasting my writing into a Google Doc, just in case. Overkill, I know, but something to be aware of.

Bottom line:

Ulysses is great for outlining and early drafts. The program is beautiful and distraction-free while writing. I enjoy the little details, like custom icons for each project. The markdown capabilities can be handy for copy editing, but I find it a tad distracting when doing actual revision.


$44.99. Only available for Apple devices.

Final thoughts

In essence, all three programs are very robust. I would recommend Scrivener to writers whose projects require research, because Scrivener’s research capabilities are unparalleled. If you don’t need bells and whistles, and you own Apple devices, Ulysses is a great, unfussy platform that makes it easy to just write. Novlr is a wonderful bridge between the two: it has the formatting features I love from Scrivener, and the simplicity/minimalism of Ulysses.

I think you get the most for your money with Scrivener, and Novlr is easily worth the cost too, although it does require a monthly subscription (which can be paused at any time). Ulysses costs the same as Scrivener, and the thoughtful design and functionality justifies the amount, but if you need more planning and outlining features, you may find that it doesn’t offer enough. However, for writing alone, it’s perfect.

If you have to choose just one, I’d recommend Novlr. It’s browser-based, so it works on any device, and it’s easy to save backups to popular cloud services. They are adding new features all the time, and the writer analytics are a fun way to learn more about who you are as a writer. Their goal feature is helpful and encouraging for staying on track.

All three programs offer trials, so you have nothing to lose if you want to try them out.

Regardless of what program you use, it should inspire you to be a better writer. You’ll be spending a lot of time with whatever tool you use, so you might as well find one that you love!

Picking the right survey tool for your research project

If you're preparing to collect information from people as part of your research project, you'll likely discover that there are dozens of digital tools and services to use. 

If you’re not sure what type of survey tool/service works best for you, here are some things to consider:

Does the tool let you ask different types of questions?

Depending on what you want to collect from people, a service that lets you create a variety of question types — multiple choice, short answer, radio buttons, etc. — would be best suited for this.

Is the tool easy for others to access and use?

If you want a ton of great results, make sure that your survey doesn't have friction — meaning, any obstacles that prevent them from easily completing it. Stick to tools that have a simple design, and offer mobile-friendly layouts. Most form tools generate a simple link that you can post on social media, text, email, or share with others however you wish. Be sure to test it yourself to ensure that the survey/form link works! Also test to make sure it's legible and simple to type, select checkboxes, and submit the response.

How do you plan to analyze your results?

Do you want the service you’re using to do some of that work for you, or do you plan to just analyze it all your own way? Or, perhaps both? For example, Survey Monkey has some analytics tools so you can get a general idea of how people are answering your survey.

How do you want the data?

Do you want to be able to export it as a PDF, or download it as a spreadsheet that you can then analyze in Excel/Numbers/etc.? 

How confidential is the information you’re collecting?

If you’re asking about very private or personal information, first of all, consult with a lawyer or a research ethics governing board. But after that, make sure the service stores the data in encrypted databases. I’ve personally never had to worry about this but it may come up in some of your research!


My personal favorite form/survey tools are Google Forms, which is totally free and part of the Google Drive suite, and Survey Monkey, which has some robust features, although some of those are premium. There are many great survey tools out there, though, so pick the one that works best for you!

What to do if you get stuck during your genealogy research

Common issues you may face as a beginner genealogist

Genealogy is a rewarding, but often frustrating, journey. That’s the reality of any research project. But that’s OK! Problem-solving is an important part of research and genealogy, and it usually just requires a bit of creativity.

In my experience as a professional genealogist, here are some of the common questions I get from beginners, along with suggested solutions that may help you troubleshoot.

Problem: I can’t read these handwritten documents!

Beautiful cursive is now considered a lost art, but let’s be real: our ancestors didn’t always have impeccable penmanship. And a poorly scanned document, such as a census record, can make handwriting even more difficult to decipher. So what do you do if you can’t properly read a handwritten document?


  • Practice reading through handwritten documents. Much of this problem stems from our modern eyes, used to reading clearly printed letters thanks to typewriters and computers. It takes some practice to get acclimated to handwriting. A great way to do this is by contributing to Smithsonian’s transcription volunteer project. They need help transcribing documents, so you can read through a variety of handwritten documents to help. This can help train your eyes, and you’ll get to see a lot of great history, and contribute to an important archival project.
  • Hire a transcriptionist. You may not want to shell out cash, but it can help to bring in an expert to get you over this hurdle. Ask around at a local writer’s group, or go online and find a service like 1888TypeItUp.
  • Have a friend or family member take a gander. Sometimes you just need another set of eyes on a document, so show it to a friend or family member to see if they’re able to figure it out.

Problem: I don’t read/speak/understand documents in different languages!

Your ancestors may have spoken and written in a language other than your primary language, or you may want to explore archives from other countries.


  • Use a translation app. There have been amazing advances in translation technology, such as Google Translate. If you install the app, just hold your phone over a document, and it will translate for you in real time. It’s incredible, and a great way to see if something you’ve found is on the right track.
  • Hire a translator. Like hiring a transcriptionist, sometimes hiring an expert to help can be less expensive in the long run. Not all languages easily translate via an app; there are nuances in language that an expert can identify.
  • Ask on forums. If you’re researching a family member from a specific city or region, a niche forum for that location may be able to help translate for you or confirm your attempts at translation.
  • Learn a language. I’ve found that learning the languages of my ancestors gives me more appreciation for my own heritage. While this shouldn’t be your first step to addressing this challenge, it can help kickstart some of your research once you have a basic understanding for how a language works. I recommend using a free service like Duolingo, which has a variety of languages to learn and easy, applicable lessons.

Problem: I can’t find anything about [this person/topic]!

I hear this a lot from new genealogists: “I looked, but I couldn’t find anything!” I’m here to say that it’s extremely rare that you’ll find nothing at all about anyone in your family, and it probably just means that you need to take a different approach.


  • Try a different database. If you’ve been plugging away on for days and aren’t finding anything, try something else! It may be that their databases don’t have what you’re specifically looking for. Branch out and try something different, such as the National Archives.
  • Talk to your family. I really encourage you to use your family as a resource throughout this whole process. You never know which aunt or cousin has a photo album or a file stashed away that could be the golden ticket. And they may be able to provide new ideas or insight, such as a different spelling of a name that you may not have considered.
  • Post in a forum. Put out a call for help by sharing a bit about who you’re looking for and what you’ve tried. It helps to go on region-based genealogy forums (for example, Italian genealogy).
  • Hire an expert. I promise that this is not a shameless plug for my own livelihood. ;) But I do see that many people forget that genealogy is research, and research is a skill that takes a lot of schooling and practice. It’s not that you can’t learn how to do it — you certainly can! — but an expert researcher can at least help get you started, and they may have access to sources and tools that you don’t.

General Troubleshooting

Your obstacle may not be specified above, but that doesn’t mean you should give up! Here are two general suggestions:

Go beyond existing information

Research is a science and an art, which means it requires some creativity. Try to not get stuck with what you may already have documented. An example is to try searching for someone using a nickname. Maybe your great-great grandmother went by Peggy instead of Margaret; this may yield new results, especially if their nickname was used in census records (which happens a lot). The same goes for locations, such as city names. For instance, St. Petersburg, Russia, was once called Petrograd, and then Leningrad, before being changed back into St. Petersburg. The era you’re researching may have an impact on what places or people were named.

Go to a library — especially a university library

Genealogy is a special branch of research, but it overlaps with many skills that librarians already have. Try going to your local library and telling them what you’re looking for. Your local university is especially helpful, as universities typically have access to a huge amount of databases from around the world. A library specialist who focuses on history, humanities or geography can at least provide some suggestions on your searches, as well as some other cultural considerations you may not have known.

Kickstart your genealogy journey with this self-paced ecourse, Genealogy 101!

Creating a thesis toolkit

Tools for tackling your thesis or dissertation

Organization is key to maintaining some semblance of sanity during your thesis or dissertation. It also ensures that your research and methods are accurate; if your data and resources are all over the place, it becomes much harder to revise later on, which means important details can fall through the cracks.

If you’re about to start your thesis process, take a day to assemble your toolkit. It’s never too late to get organized! Here’s a list of recommended tools — digital and analog — that current and former graduate students use and love.

Word processor

What do you plan to use to actually write your paper? There are many options besides Microsoft Word (which is a good option, too!). I used a mix of Google Docs and LaTeX while writing my thesis. Google Docs was great for keeping my drafts and ideas stored in the cloud, but it’s not the best to use for formatting requirements. This is where a tool like LaTeX comes in handy, although there is a bit of a learning curve. Take the time to try out a few options. You should find something you love, because you will be spending a lot of time with this program.

Word processing software:

Ulysses app

Ulysses app

Citation manager

When you start writing your literature review, you will collect a ton of documents that you’ll need to cite in your paper. Managing your citations and references early is a life-saver. Be consistent in using a citation manager so you don’t have to scramble to put together your reference page at the very end.
Recommended app: Zotero. Free and open source, Zotero makes it easy to manage and organize your citations and references.

“Zotero. May the Gods bless Zotero.” — J. Saperstein, Master of Arts in Geography, University of Missouri

Style guide

The internet has plenty of great resources for citation style, but I highly recommend investing in a print copy of your required style. It’s much easier to flip through it on your desk then to have to constantly tab back and forth on your computer. A style guide also has more information than just citation formatting; there will be important information about how to structure and report your research.

Recommendation: Check out a copy from your local library.


I love digital tools, but I never leave my house without a notebook, and they are super useful to document notes or progress. You may try documenting your search terms, informal research observations, ideas for your defense, and so on. Brainstorm on the go.

Recommended: Word notebooks. I love their bullet journal-esque layout, and they are small and durable on-the-go.

Cloud-based notetaker

Even if you use a notebook, it’s helpful to have a web version for general outlining, planning, and note-taking. Use a cloud service so you don’t have to worry about losing any of your notes. Cloud notetakers tend to also offer options to upload other file types, including spreadsheets or images.

Recommended apps: Evernote or Google Keep.

External hard drive

Yes, I just said how wonderful cloud services are, but I (along with thousands of other writers) cannot stress this enough: BACK UP EVERYTHING YOU DO. There is nothing more terrible or demoralizing than losing time or data that you can never retrieve. Don’t even put yourself
 in that position. Be extra careful and get an external hard drive to store everything you’ve worked on, including all of your research articles used for your literature review. Use it in conjunction with cloud storage. Don’t risk it. Seriously. Can you tell how serious I am about this?!

Calendar app

Find a calendar app for desktop or mobile that you absolutely love, or invest in a nice planner — you’ll be using it a lot. I prefer a calendar app because I can set reminders for all of the many deadlines that arise during the thesis process.

Recommended app: Shift. Switch between Google accounts easily, including Calendar, Inbox/Gmail, and Drive. A must-have for those who use more than one Google account.

Download the free Thesis Survival Guide for more tips, tricks, and tools.

The Citizen's Guide to Research

I am really excited about the launch of my new email series, the Citizen's Guide to Research. I've been working on this for months! From my experience as an educator, journalist, and maker, I know that many people are daunted by research and data. If you're not in academia, the world of research and science seems like an utter mystery. It's been my goal for many years to come up with a way to make research more approachable for the public. It seemed like a great time to launch this new effort.

This guide is a weekly, bite-sized lesson about research sent straight to your inbox. It provides some easy, actionable steps that you can take to become a smarter, savvier citizen.

Lessons include:

  • How research is reported in the media;
  • How research is conducted;
  • How research is published and funded;
  • How to access published research;
  • How to interpret charts and graphs;
    and more, including interviews with researchers from all disciplines. 

The series is totally free, fun to read, and all you have to do is sign up here:

Name *

The Researcher's Pledge

Regardless of your political values, I think we can all agree that last week's United States presidential election impacted many of us deeply. Many of us researchers felt betrayed by the way data was used during the election season. The world relied on it, and we were surprised and shocked by the reality of it, which told a very different story. I wrote a post on Medium about the importance of making data more inclusive so that we can better measure and account for the nuances of politics. 

Research is my absolute passion and, I feel, my purpose in life. My love for research has lead me down a path of literacy activism, most recently volunteering in the refugee resettlement program in my city. I care very deeply about the ethics of research and journalism, and the people who are impacted by these ethics. I'll admit that I felt helpless last week, scared and worried for the state of the world. And like many, this kicked me into action. Research and data are becoming more and more important, and since there's just so much of it, researchers and librarians and information scientists are more important than ever to help make sense of it all. 

So I created the Researcher's Pledge to commit to using research for good, which consists of the following commitments:

  • I commit to making my research open and accessible to the general public;

  • I commit to making my methodology inclusive, to the best of my ability;

  • I commit to being transparent in my methodology and biases;

  • I commit to holding journalists and researchers accountable for flawed or misrepresented data;

  • I commit to holding high standards for peer review, both for my own research and the research I cite;

  • I commit to collaborating across disciplines to conduct research beyond the confines of the Ivory Tower;

  • I commit to educating and empowering my community to understand and interpret data and science;

  • I commit to adhering to strict ethical standards that protect and prioritize the safety of the subjects of my research;

  • I commit to using my research to enlighten, educate, and inform.

Above all, I commit to using the research process and scientific method for good.

If you're a researcher, scientist, writer, genealogist, etc., please take the pledge. You can also download the badge to display on your social profiles.

Why the #DeathPositive movement is important for public research

This year, I've been learning more about the movement of "death positivity," thanks to researchers on social media. For the unfamiliar, "death positive" refers to a movement to make death a less taboo subject (especially in western cultures). According to Order of the Good Death, this includes open discussion about death, and the surrounding issues that arise with the physical and emotional impact of death. 

This movement is comprised of people from a range of background and interests, from death doulas to writers to morticians to researchers. What these people have in common is that they use social media to share their findings and careers with the general public, helping to remove the stigma from things like autopsies, cemeteries, and grief.

When academics and researchers share their research with the public, it removes some of the divide between the general public and the ivory tower. Giving people a look into jobs and field work they may not have the chance to see firsthand includes people in the process. Using social media as a platform to share research, especially on complex topics, is a great way to inspire people to get involved in a cause, and can have a real impact as people turn their interest into action.

Here are some Death Positive research projects you should follow:

The Order of the Good Death

This is a collective of academics who research death-related topics. Together, they educate the masses about death and try to draw new people to the Death Positivity movement.

Death, Scent, & the Live Girl

This website is run by Nuri, a PhD student who studies the intersection of death and fragrance. It's absolutely fascinating, and Nuri regularly posts about history, death acceptance and how scent impacts life (and death).

So, for this holiday in which death and its surrounding rituals are celebrated, peek into the world of death positivity. I guarantee it will give you a new perspective on life, too!

Happy Halloween!

What is Open Access, and why is it important?

This week is Open Access Week, celebrating and promoting the importance of OA research. According to SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition):

"Open Access is the free, immediate, online availability of research articles combined with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment. Open Access is the needed modern update for the communication of research that fully utilizes the Internet for what it was originally built to do—accelerate research."

Open access ensures that research — all of it, including the original data, and not just the final published article — is accessible to the public. Currently, much research produced by academic scholars and industry researchers is locked behind paywalls, which are only accessible if you're part of an academic institution or willing to pay anywhere from $20 - $150 for one article. For educators, journalists or researchers who don't work for a major institution, this means that accessing research is very difficult. 

Also, researchers are heavily encouraged by their institutions to publish in major journals, because it reflects well on their department. However, these journals typically don't pay researchers anything for their contributions; in fact, there's often an entry fee required. Open access, while free, can help researchers break out of this old-school system of the research to publishing funnel. 

A common argument against OA is that it's not as rigorously peer reviewed as many established journals. But this isn't the case, and there's a concerted effort in the research field to expand upon peer review, and let more people participate in the process. 

Why is it important?

Open access is fundamental to the work we do as researchers: to be critical thinkers and writers, and conduct studies that can lead to advancements and improvements in peoples' lives. It also lets the general public access research and draw their own conclusions from original data. 

What you can do

Whether you're a researcher or not, you can still participate in OA advocacy by contributing your research to OA journals, or requesting that your local library or educational institution include OA publications in their databases. Sign up at

How to prepare for National Novel Writing Month

October is quickly coming to an end! I don't know about you, but I feel like this month flew by. And while I'm bummed that my favorite holiday, Halloween, will be over soon, I'm really excited about November, because it's National Novel Writing Month! (NaNoWriMo, for short.)

This year, I am dedicating November to writing a historical fiction novel. To make my month of writing easier, I'm spending this week outlining my book and doing some research. Here's how you can prepare for November writing: 

Pick your writing tool

A writing tool can make or break your writing experience! You may prefer good ol' tools like journals or typewriters, but I think most writers these days prefer a digital word processor. Here are a few I recommend:

+ Novlr

Novlr is a book writing tool that I absolutely love. Their interface is minimalistic, and it's easy to create new chapters or new books. Each novel you create also has a section for taking notes; I use this for organizing my research, writing my outline, and documenting character/place descriptions. It costs $10/mo, but automatically stores all of your writing in the cloud (you can sync it with Dropbox or Google Drive) so you never have to worry about losing your writing. One of my favorite features is their analytics, which shows me how many words I've written that day and what my writing preferences are (I like to write in the evenings, for instance). 

+ Google Docs

If you want a free option, Google Docs is also an excellent free tool that I use every single day. Docs are automatically stored in their cloud, which again alleviates the fear of losing your story (every writer's worst nightmare!). Use their comment tool to make edits as you go without having to delete things entirely from your story. 

+ Scrivener

Many of my writer friends are diehard Scrivener fans. Scrivener is writing software that helps you organize and complete your writing. It's a bit more technical than the other tools I've shared, but it's excellent for longform writing. You can download a free trial to give it a shot. Scrivener Coach is a great resource to learn how to use this tool to the fullest. 

Create your outline

Even a book with a simple narrative still needs a good outline to ensure continuity. An outline will help you set goals. If you're not sure about what's going to happen yet during a part of your book, your outline may help you think this through. Your outline may look like this (this is actually part of my outline for the book I'm writing!):

Outline for The Red Violin

Plot: Introduce Julia and Daniel
Time: Present day (2016) 
Location: Reno, Nevada

Part 1
Plot: Introduce Lidiya, who meets Dmitri
Time: November 1941
Location: Leningrad, Russia

And so on. Your outline is like a storyboard: an overview of what happens, who it happens to, and how it happens. 

Do your research

The challenge of NaNoWriMo is to write a whole novel, start to finish, in one month. But if your story requires some research, such as historical research, there's no harm in doing some of that this week. Compile photographs, documents, audio clips, and notes that you can reference as you write. Add your notes to whatever writing tool you choose to use, and annotate them so that you know where in your story you want to incorporate this information.

If you're new to writing historical fiction, you'll enjoy my mini course, Researching Your Historical Novel. Because of NaNoWriMo, it's just $5, and comes with a worksheet that will help you organize your research and your story. 

Happy writing!

Free ways to view history online

There are few things more magical than seeing relics and artifacts in person: the Rosetta Stone at the Louvre; the Magna Carta at the British Library; or the Declaration of Independence in the National Archives. Seeing history firsthand is an unbeatable experience. But unfortunately, even us most passionate museum goers can't fly to all corners of the world at a moments' notice. Luckily, the internet gives us the world at our fingertips! 

Did you know that you can view many historical documents and artifacts online — for free?! Thanks to the tireless work of historians, librarians, archivists and computer scientists, there are a multitude of resources that you can use to peruse priceless collections. This is part of the ever-growing digital humanities field, which uses new and innovative technology to preserve and share history and culture. Here are some resources that you can use to explore global history. (Another tip: Google "online exhibits" for an extensive list of online museum exhibits you can view in museums around the world!)

The British Library

The British Library puts a huge emphasis on digital media. A whole section of their website is dedicated to online exhibits, which are curated by their expert team. Some exhibits include an extensive collection of classic maps, copies of holy books from various faiths, and a really fascinating look at the lives of black Europeans throughout history. One of my favorite exhibits is Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, which you can actually search.

Leonardo da vinci's notebook

Leonardo da vinci's notebook

There is also the "Treasures in Full" feature, in which you can view old documents in their original state, with provided annotation or translation. This collection includes the Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare Quartos, among others.


It's not just documents you can view online. You can also view notable locations all around the world, such as the ancient Egyptian ruins that are so beloved by the world. PBS' NOVA project provides 360 degree views of these locations, and a map that you can click around. Annotations are provided throughout so you always know what you're viewing and why it was so significant.   

The sphinx in egypt

The sphinx in egypt

Egypt VR

For more Egypt up close and personal, Egyptian company Egypt VR is using new virtual reality technology to the fullest. They have high quality, 360 views of various Egypt locations that you can view directly on Facebook!

The Library of Congress / National Archives

America's Library of Congress is an international gem (quite literally; it's one of the most beautiful libraries in the world). Its website features maps, images, newspapers, and audio files. Listen to the infamous radio broadcast about the Pearl Harbor attack, or audio of famed authors like Ray Bradbury read their own writing. There are few things more special than hearing beloved words straight from the author's mouth. 

Subsequently, the National Archives have all of the notable American documents on display online, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, Abolition of Slavery, Edison's Light Bulb Patent, and the Women's Right to Vote. 

The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence

What treasures will you discover online?

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Creating your family narrative

In honor of my new e-course launch, Genealogy 101, I thought I'd give you a sneak peek into a small part of this course: creating your family narrative. 

People do genealogy research to learn more about their family, their culture, their heritage, and their identity. In the genealogy community, I see a lot of focus on filling in the branches of a family tree. And that's certainly important, but it's not the end-all-be-all of genealogy. It can also cause discouragement when you can't piece together all of the puzzle pieces. Instead, I encourage genealogists to focus on writing a family narrative. 

What is a family narrative?

A family narrative is a creative interpretation of a person's life. This can take the form of a memoir or biography, in which facts are elaborated on with speculation or relevant details. Or this may be more in the realm of historical fiction, where you would use what you know about this person to craft a story. Research is the first step for this: the goal is to contextualize an ancestor, and that still needs to be rooted in real details and facts about their life. Knowing when they were born or where they lived can help you delve into the history of that place and time. 

Why is this important?

To truly understand more about who our family is and was, it's important to think about context. Without talking to the actual person, narrative is a way to think about life from their perspective. The more details you have, the richer your narrative will be. A narrative is also a great teaching tool. Think of parables, fairytales and campfire stories; these types of storytelling continue to be used to pass down stories and information from one generation to another. 

A family narrative doesn't have to be long or complicated. You don't have to be a skilled writer to do it. It's a fun way for you to delve into a moment in history that, in some way, helped shape who you are. To get started, grab a notebook, and use these prompts as a guide. 

Start your family narrative by following along with these writing prompts:

  • Who is your narrative about?
  • When and where were they born?
  • What are some notable world events during this era that may have impacted their life? (Tip: Think about wars, inventions, technological advancements)
  • What are personal challenges this person may have faced because of their identity?
  • What kind of food do you think this person may have cooked or eaten?
  • What kind of music may this person have heard or liked?
  • Who may have been important people in this person’s life?
  • Think about this person at age 16, or age 32, or age 50. What may have changed about the world that impacted their life at different ages?
Want to learn more about your family history? Register now for Genealogy 101.

3 awesome history podcasts

Happy Monday! I'm so excited because this coming weekend, my new Genealogy 101 e-course opens! I've spent this past weekend putting the finishing touches on the course, and I think you're going to love it. While I work on any project, I love to listen to good music or a good podcast. As a history buff, podcasts are one of my favorite ways to learn about different aspects of history. I thought it would be fun to share three of my favorite history podcasts. 

All of these podcasts are available on iTunes or your favorite podcast app.


Sawbones is a medical history podcast co-hosted by Dr. Sydnee McElroy and her husband, Justin. Each episode delves into a different treatment that humans have used throughout history to address various ailments. There are also episodes about weird medical trends and events, such as King Louis XIV's fistula trend. (If you don't know what a fistula is, DON'T Google it. But DO listen to the episode; it's a little gross but super fascinating.) It's really interesting to hear commentary about weird medical oddities from the perspective of a doctor, and Sawbones is highly engaging. 

Stuff You Missed in History Class

This may be an obvious choice, but I'm an evangelist for this show. Co-hosted by Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey, this show shares lesser-known historical figures and events. I'm particularly fond of their episodes about women, as that's a passion of mine, and women's stories have long been overlooked throughout history. (Recommended listens: Hildegard of Bingen and Anne Bonny & Mary Read.) The episodes are short, too, which makes them perfect for your commute. 

The History of Rome

Ancient history buffs will thoroughly enjoy this ongoing series about Ancient Rome. This show was awarded a Best of iTunes 2015 show. Political scientist Mike Duncan makes ancient history bite-sized for the modern listener. The show is a few years old, but the info hasn't changed, and it's an engaging and well-researched look at one of the most interesting eras in human history. 

There are many great history podcasts out there about nearly every era or niche. What are some of your favorites?

(Interested in starting your own history podcast? I'd love to help! Contact me and let's collaborate.)

My researcher toolkit

When I’m doing research, I go to great lengths to find the information I need (most recently, I ended up on some very sketchy websites trying to find Soviet-era Russian newspaper archives). I’ve honed my skills to be a mixed-methods researcher, which means that I take both a quantitative (numbers, stats) and qualitative (words, people) approach to the studies I create and conduct. When it comes to literary research, I take a similar approach, using a mix of cutting-edge information technology and tried-and-true print materials.

I thought it’d be fun to share the tools I love most for research. Keep in mind that these aren’t research databases (that will come in another post!); these are just things that help me with my research process, which I’ll also write about in detail soon.


Mendeley is a web app that helps researchers organize and annotate sources. I can’t speak highly enough about Mendeley; I use it for every project I work on. Store PDFs and files, and tag them or organize them via category. Their library is a nice, simple, searchable archive if you’re looking for some additional sources to add to your study or paper (funny enough, this is how I found some of the primary sources I used for my Master’s thesis). There’s also a social component where you can connect with other researchers in your field.

Word. Notebooks


This is where my mixed-methods preferences come in. While I rely heavily on digital tools, I find that having a notebook is extremely helpful at any stage of the research process. I’m a fan girl for Word. Notebooks. Like Field Notes, they are small, so I always keep one in my purse in case inspiration strikes (nothing sucks more than being stuck somewhere without something to write in!). I love the design and the feel of these notebooks. At the start of a project, I write down my goals, and I look at them again toward the end to see if I met those goals. I also track my time spent on various sources/archives, effective search terms, and annotations. 

Cloud services are a must for any writer or researcher. I use both Evernote and Google Docs; Evernote is great for basic outlining, and I like Google Docs for writing longer pieces or working on projects. The UI of both is clean and straightforward, and it’s easy to organize documents into folders. You can also add Google Docs and images straight into Evernote.

Pocket is a great way to bookmark articles, pictures, etc. that I find anywhere on the web. I can add tags to each thing I bookmark to easily organize them by topic or project. I use this instead of adding articles to my bookmark bar in my browser, as that can very quickly get overcrowded. Organization is key for a researcher, so I love tools that make it easy to stay organized!



On a train to budapest, hungary

On a train to budapest, hungary

Welcome to the first post for my new project, Ashley Warren Research!

This has been a long time in the making; in some ways, I feel like I've been ready to start this for many, many years. But in reality, the idea started a few years ago, after I finished graduate school, and was working as a writer and teacher. Could I make it as an independent researcher? Is there such a thing? I didn't know. I still don't. 

What I do know is that I'm passionate about research, obsessed with it. It's what I love most at my very core. I love it all — academic research, journalistic research, literary research, marketing research, data science, etc. I want more opportunities to delve into it, so here I am, offering my abilities to the world.

This isn't the first time I've started something, but my hope is that this endeavor will be long-term. I'll be posting weekly here with research tips, cool research projects I'm working on, research in the news, and more. 

And of course, if you're in the market for an efficient, enthusiastic researcher who will go to the ends of the earth (literally) for your project — holla atcha girl.