Saturday, 20 September 2008

So long...sort of

For those who haven't heard, I've resigned from Osmosoft and I'm off to pastures new! But I'm leaving the gate open behind me, so to speak, for mutual grazing purposes.

I've had an amazing time at Osmosoft. I feel privileged that I was able to spend so much time in the vicinity of so many smart people....such is the nature of the Osmosoft experiment. The idea was that we'd learn as much as possible so we could pass these learnings onto the BT mothership, and I hope I've done my bit via this blog and other channels.

I'm joining the digital arm of an agency called The Team, based in London (by Borough Market). They've got big ambitions, particularly in the open source space, and recently won a great contract with the NHS. I'm hoping that I can use my open source experience to help The Team's clients make informed technology choices, and I'll also be helping The Team to establish a project management framework that's ready for growth.

On a personal note, the NHS gave my family an amazing service when our two children were born, and I'm thrilled to have the chance to give something back!

As for the mutual grazing, I'm hoping to continue involvement in many of the projects and initiatives I've worked on while at Osmosoft (open source, TiddlyWiki, VRM, all-things-web), so I'll still be attending public events and workshops on these subjects, hopefully running into the aforementioned smart folks from time to time. We've made much of our 'porous membrane' at Osmosoft and I hope to continue in this vein at The Team. The blogging, twittering, flickring, upcominging (?!), vimeoing and dopplring won't stop here!

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Making open source products usable

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm intrigued by the idea that the involvement of user experience disciplines in open source projects could be a catalyst for improving mainstream adoption.

I'm most interested in those cases where the target market includes non-developers and where a proprietary offering commands market share right now (think: Ubuntu, OpenOffice, Pidgin, Gimp). Although developers on the whole dislike poor UI as much as the next man, developing usable complex systems for the common man is a far more interesting challenge, doubly so when it dovetails with the intrinsic benefits of grassroots development.

It's a really tough problem to crack. The open source world is ruled by developers, who are sometimes resistant to non-developers telling them how they could improve "their" product. Which is a shame, as not all developers have the knack of designing intuitive user interfaces on their own, never mind in concert. For more on that, read this.

This is why the projects most likely to integrate the different disciplines successfully will most likely have a financial sponsor. Someone with the financial clout and the vision that persuades multi-disciplined contributors (developers and non-developers) to collaborate.

This still leaves you with the problem of how, exactly, the (top down) user experience guidance can dovetail with the (grassroots) development process. To me, it feels as though appropriate talent pairing and knowledge sharing could help here. Get the UI designers working closely enough with key developers to pool their perspectives, and share their subsequent insights with other people in their disciplines.

Anyway, I was interested to see Mark Shuttleworth - leader of the Ubuntu project - also agreeing with this school of thought, and even offering a few insights about how he might go about achieving this. To my mind, Ubuntu is one of the few Linux desktop distributions that has the resource potential to challenge OS X in terms of user experience.

He's got his work cut out, mind. But I'm hopeful that he'll use his best asset: the Ubuntu community. When the first set of design assets are ready, I'd like to see him share them with the community and study their feedback carefully. Present multiple options. Hopefully this will focus the design effort in a direction that isn't going to cause too much disruption (eliminating unviable options).

I'm also hoping he'll be able to create and share working versions that can demonstrate how the design principles might manifest themselves. This is a chance to watch what people do (as opposed to what they say).

I love the analogy that our experience of the web so far is akin to three seconds after the Big Bang! Open source as a term is only ten years old, and here we are standing on the edge of solving one of the most significant problems open source faces. This will not only be interesting in the short term, but hugely rewarding to all of us in the long term. There's a huge amount of potential just waiting to be unlocked!

Photo shared under a Creative Commons licence on adewale_oshineye's photostream.

OSS del Milano

I've spent the last couple of days at OSS 2008, one of Europe's premier open source conferences. It's my first experience of an academic type conference; all of the speakers (most of which were either students or professors) had submitted ~5,000 word essays in support of their talks, and these were bound into a book presented on arrival.

The conference was dryer than other events I've been too. Most of the sessions were based on empirical studies and it seemed to me that several speakers were treating their study as an end in itself, rather than as a discipline with practical value. For instance, one presenter went to great pains to show that open source is growing quickly, and wanted to use mathematical models to predict how this trend would develop. Ignoring for one moment the flaw in this approach (the open source world and software industry are vulnerable to external forces; mathematical models won't work here), what's the point of trying to predict this stuff? I mean, it's vaguely interesting to know what the current health of the market is like, backing up what most people already know (is healthy, yes!), but trying to extrapolate this data into the future is pointless at best.

Anyway, rant over! There were some interesting insights in some of the other sessions. Many of the talks focused on how communities were structured, how they operate and how they're likely to evolve:
  • We learned about a project (Project Laika) which had bloomed and then declined, so plenty of lessons learned there. The main one was that they tried to fix everything that users asked for, rather than encouraging the community to get involved in the fixing, and this didn't scale.
  • Walt Scacchi has observed that open source projects are changing as non-developers are getting involved, which obviously resonated with me. The folks who can mediate discussions between developers and non-developers become essential hubs in these new communities. Separately, Walt's also setting up a helpful repository for research papers.
  • There was also a useful session on how trust is formed in open source projects. The conclusions were that new users approaching a project for the first time undertake a quick assessment based on reputation, number of downloads, amount of activity and longevity of the project. And as they get more involved in a project they focus more on openness of the whole development process (e.g. availability of bug tracking tools, documentations, etc.), the way builds are tested and integrated, availability of intermediate milestones and implementation processes. Faith in the system leads to trust, which leads to contribution.
As for Milan itself, Milan is cool. I managed to avoid all the Mafia-infested avalanches, which was a relief. The weather was great, and we got the chance to wander around town. The architecture was amazing; this is Duomo church in the main square:

Duomo di Milano

And you can clamber around on the roof!

Flying buttresses

Roof of Duomo

There's also an epic covered arcade called Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II:

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

And the impressive Castello Sforzesco:

Torre del Filarete

We found some unfortunate signs around the city...

NO GPL!

We had lovely pasta and pizza for most main meals, in charming family run restaurants:

Ex Mauri

...but the desserts were the star of the show!

Mille-feuille

I missed out on eating Gelato, but you've got to leave something for next time, haven't you?

You can see the full set of photos on my Flickr page.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Fighting Wikinomics

I'm noticing an alarming trend by Wikipedia editors. They seem to be holding articles to a much higher standard than they did before. Problem is, the glory of Wikipedia (and wikis in general) is that poor quality content is much, much better than none at all.

The first I heard of it was when Doc Searls complained that wikipedia were about to delete his entry. It would be bad form for him to edit his own entry, and fortunately there were plenty of people who were willing to make the required changes for him (unlike Tara Hunt, who no longer has an entry). His entry is now safe.

Fortunately, all the changes are visible. Let's have a quick look at Doc's entry: before and after the threats of deletion. There have been slight improvements. Were the threats of deletion really necessary? Couldn't Wikipedia have just pointed out the issues with the article in a colourful box at the top of the page?

And here's a current example. Someone has created an entry for "tiddler" (a component of the TiddlyWiki product). Unless we can prove that the entry is notable, this entry will be deleted. Anyone who wants to correct this would have to understand the modest notability guidelines and the extensive citation guidelines. This requires a lot of time and effort. So if this entry is deleted, will no entry at all be better than the current situation? Of course not.

I think Wikipedia is losing sight of what made them great in the first place, and what makes wikis good in general. Public edits, a low cost of repair and virtually unlimited storage allowed the project and the community to bloom. Driving up quality is an admirable objective, but this shouldn't be pursued at the expense of the broad value of information contained within.

Don't get me wrong. Having a clear set of guidelines is essential, and the NPOV guidelines in particular have been essential in resolving disputes and setting the tone of some of the more contentious topics. It's been fantastic that the Wikipedia administrators have drawn attention to e.g. lack of citation when it's missing, and helped to correct vandalism when it occurs. But these administrators are now changing their role from moderator to policeman, and this will harm what has become an essential resource. Our essential resource.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Listening to your community

This discussion about the new JQuery website is pretty interesting. Just to recap, their old site looked like this (click these to big, if you want):

JQuery old site

On Friday, they changed it to look like this:

JQuery intermediate site

...and their community went pretty wild. They particularly didn't like the use of the rock star image and metaphor. So they decided to change it to this:

JQuery new site

For me, this all smacks of a badly thought through process, and they're still not thinking smartly.

I'm inclined to draw comparison with another recent failure to engage properly with a community - the unveiling of the London 2012 logo. In both cases, there was an opportunity to canvas opinion with the audience, and this option was ignored (or, worse, not even considered). In both cases it backfired badly.

JQuery has no excuse for not engaging with their community before going down this path. Their community lives on the web, where there are well established tools for seeking, gathering and processing feedback. Try and slip one past this crowd at your peril - just ask Kevin Rose after the encryption key debacle or Mark Zuckerberg after the Beacon mess.

And that isn't to say that the quick change was the best way forward either (although some members of the community appreciated it). For me, this merely repeats and compounds the error. At least the London 2012 guys didn't fall into this trap (although they shouldn't have just left things the way they were either!).

What I think both the JQuery team and the London 2012 team should have done is recognise that community engagement is difficult, messy, time consuming....and very worthwhile, especially if done during the discovery phase of a project. It's also a good way to reverse an error, if accompanied by a well-timed mea culpa. In today's highly connected world, the onus is on public leaders to demonstrate that they've thought things through, but still need the input and support of their community to make the big decisions.

For the JQuery case study, I believe the best path forward would be to outline the logic behind the redesign - what are the objectives of the website? How will they achieve these objectives? - and then present options for the community to consider. Then they need to demonstrate that they're listening, and not just say that they are. If they can do this, then those who don't like the final solution are far less likely to object than if a seemingly arbitrary solution is thrust upon them.