Wednesday, 27 August 2008

The Curation of Open Source Websites

I've recently spent quite a lot of time trying to improve the TiddlyWiki website, and thought this made an interesting case study - so I'm sharing what I've learned here.

Two things made this particular case interesting;
  • The product (and, by extension, the website) is curated by an open source community. So there are no face to face meetings, no project team, and an intellectual group of people to persuade.
  • Where TiddlyWiki is concerned, the website IS the product - and a sophisticated product at that. This affects every element of the experience. So we have to mitigate the potential confusion that can arise from using the product in "website mode", to then downloading something that behaves differently to the site (e.g. allowing saving).
The best way to improve the website was to treat it as a community artifact, just like TiddlyWiki itself; the development process would be kept as open as possible, I would make sure there were opportunities for feedback, and that all of this feedback was given due consideration and response.

When considering how looked a few months ago, I first considered recommending a complete overhaul. But given the above complexities I was persuaded to identify some quick wins, and implement those first, as a path to later improvements.

This turned out to be an effective approach. The quick wins I focused on were search, navigation, download, installation and content. I tried to see the site through the eyes of a new user going through the process of evaluation, download, installation and experimentation, while also allowing for experienced users who might be returning for advanced requirements.

As the site was developed, I shared these improvements with the community, and those interested in giving support stepped up to the plate. The feedback was intelligent and very helpful. Together we've worked towards a version of the site that has just gone live (yay!).

In my agency days, we'd always warn clients against the perils of designing by committee - a slow route to a messy solution...and one could say that an open source community is the ultimate committee! But the subtle dynamics and conventions at play within the community helped keep the usual problems in check. For instance, there was little or no posturing. And I received a lot of encouragement and support.

And it's interesting to consider the feedback from the community supplanting the kind of feedback one receives from focus groups and traditional user testing. Most people in the TiddlyWiki community have well-above-average technical skills. I remained cautious about developing a site for these users at the expense of less capable visitors, but still the quality of feedback was very high. I'm hoping I can persuade Julie Starr (of TiddlerToddler fame) to give the site her honest feedback....

If you'd like to deep dive into the artifacts:
So where are we now?

So far, we've only implemented a number of quick (but significant) wins on the website - as mentioned; search, navigation, content, download and installation are all much improved. The end result is much cleaner and, I believe, much less intimidating to the casual visitor. My hope is that we can now observe these improvements in the wild, and take further feedback into account moving forwards.

And talking about moving forward, some of the subjects coming onto the table will be pretty interesting, I think...we're talking about things like branding, the logo, creating a sandpit area, improved evaluation (playing with different verticals such as GTD), extended download options, and more. There's still heaps of room for improving the end-to-end experience, and some great suggestions from the community to consider. Watch this space...!

I couldn't have done all this by myself, and thanks are due to everyone in the community who provided feedback, plus my colleagues Phil, Martin, Jeremy and Fred who chipped in at key moments. Thanks, y'all!

Friday, 22 August 2008

CTO, Stars and Stripes Incorporated

While all eyes are on who Obama will pick as his running mate, Robert Scoble's encouraging his readers to discuss who should be Obama's CTO. In case you missed it, Obama has said that, should he become prez, he'll appoint a Chief Technology Officer (CTO), who'll be responsible for setting the technology agenda in all areas of government. But it stands to reason that such a figurehead would have a highly public profile, and his or her influence would stretch beyond public office, and probably beyond American borders.

From the relative safety of my sofa in London, it's fun to speculate as to who might be good at this job. Scoble included a good suggestion (Larry Lessig) and a jaw-on-the-floor bad suggestion (Bill Gates) in his blog post. Vint Cerf came up in the comments, he'd get a vote from me. But then so did Michael Arrington *slaps forehead*. Some wag suggested RMS!

I was surprised that Doc Searls didn't get a mention. There can't be many web celebrities who are as well informed, well respected and persuasive as Doc. It would be nice if Bruce Schneier was involved in some capacity too; heck, that could have positive repurcussions on their foreign policy too.

The reality is that none of these guys would take a job as Obama's CTO; it really isn't their style. But we can hope that the person elected to the role will be well connected to this crowd, so they can keep abreast of the latest issues and developments (particularly regarding net neutrality and privacy), and not just be influenced by those with the deepest pockets. And fingers crossed we won't get another series of tubes style gaff from someone with more power than sense...

Monday, 18 August 2008

Olympic coverage on the BBC

I knew that the BBC's olympic coverage was good, but I didn't appreciate quite how good until I read this. We shouldn't take the BBC's coverage for granted; they've put in a huge amount of effort and produced something really special, both online and over the air, and for free (if you're in the UK, anyway).

And this is over 5,000 miles away - just imagine what they'll be able to do when it's taking place in our own backyard!

Yay for Auntie!

Thursday, 14 August 2008


A Snout is one of those things that you know you need before figuring out where you'd put it.

Find out more here!

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Very Public Relations

Here's an interesting article by PR type Steve Rubel. Money quote:
It's my view that increasingly, bloggers (and maybe journos too) simply don't want our help. Many bloggers - particularly those who cover tech - love to discover new things and experience them on their own, unaided by PR.
Steve, it isn't so much that bloggers (or even the traditional media) want to find their own story. OK, maybe that's a small part of it, but mainly it's that we react badly to anything written in a commercial tone of voice. Look at this random press release.

This isn't intended as a dig at Nike; it's more the PR industry in general. I mean, this press release wouldn't even pass the Turing Test. It's obviously gone through several iterations to allow for the "right" structure, the "right" tone of voice and the "right" message. Almost all evidence of humanity has been left by the side of the road. And it's about the freakin' Olympics!! It's really no surprise that even Rubel throws most of his away.

Here's the thing. These days, we're used to reading articles online written by people who don't hold formal press credentials. Their articles are friendly, genuine, flawed and *much* more interesting to read.

From a company perspective, there's an obvious (albeit scary) way around this problem. Let your workforce talk online about their work. Let them choose the tools to use. The people will self-select. They'll be the ones who are most passionate about what they're doing, and the most knowledgeable. And it's this passion and knowledge that will attract the right audience that the outdated tools can't reach.

This needn't harm the PR industry too much, not in the short term at least. They can still send traditional communications down traditional channels (there are traditional journos out there, after all). But it does represent an opportunity for PR departments and agencies that are willing to evolve. Companies need help transitioning to this model, and there is still value in consistent communication of e.g. company values. And individuals may need support and encouragement.

This is the new face of Public Relations. You have a choice: adapt or fade away!

Building an Open Source Community

Since joining Osmosoft, which is in orbit around a very large telco, I've been interested in the reasons why large enterprises don't integrate open source into their organisations as well as they could. After all, the benefits are well known now, and this is something that individuals can achieve with very little effort - so why not a collection of individuals?

Turns out the main reason (besides culture!) is that large companies are often stuck in a process rut. Systems and processes have evolved over decades to support an organisation which usually either builds software itself or buys it in. And these systems and processes don't lend themselves to the open source way of doing things. Procurement processes, for example, aren't set up to handle open source at all.

It's tempting to think that individuals in a large company don't need processes to adopt open source, but this isn't the case. One good reason why process and governance is needed is that open source software has licences just like proprietary software, and it's essential for a company like BT to make sure these licence terms are understood and applied. Plus sometimes code from two or more different open source projects and licences is merged, and someone has to identify and sort out the result licensing mess. And that's just scratching the surface!

Fortunately, help is available. There's an initiative called FOSSBazaar, which BT has just joined as a strategic partner. The idea is that companies that successfully create processes and tools to manage open source projects share their work and experiences with those who would like to follow suit. This can save everyone a huge amount of time and effort, as starting this stuff from scratch can be onerous. Large companies have a huge amount of resources that can be directed into open source projects, and helping them get started really helps build momentum behind the open source movement.

Anyway, on the suggestion of one of my colleagues, and in the finest tradition of reuse, I've re-hashed an article I wrote a while back ("Building a Developer Community") into a new article for the FOSSBazaar website called Building an Open Source Community. You can read the full article here.