What I used to think I knew isn't helping: adventures in higher ed open source

Archive for January 2010

Launching the UX framework site

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For a little while now, the latest design phase for Sakai 3 has had issues with how it communicates with the Sakai community.

On the one hand, while our contracted designers need to access the accumulated practical wisdom and user insight lodged in our collective heads, there’s nevertheless a limit to how many voices and perspectives they can take in and try to sort through, especially if we want them to deliver a result in a reasonable timeframe.  I’ve mentioned the Drupal UX project experience before, and a comment one of the designers made there (can’t find the link right now) was that they spent about 60% of their time in on-list discussions and about 30% of their time actually designing. I know this sort of thing was a frustration for Nathan last year as well, and think we’ve needed to find a better balance. So we’ve been selective about points of engagement and channels of feedback, drawn as much as possible from community resources and leading figures in our UX efforts, but we’ve at times erred in taking this too far.  At some irreducible level there is a tension at work here between openness and getting results, and yet a simple tradeoff is not acceptable: we need both.

It’s all very well to want to discuss everything on list, and it’s a healthy default, but I think we sometimes also err in stopping at that point, imagining it to be the solution of a communication problem.  Lord knows I hear from many who say that the email threads are hard to follow, to the point that sometimes even the open conversations on list can seem like an exercise only for insiders. Or take the Confluence wiki as People’s Exhibit B of communication that can stop being helpful when it just unloads (and I’ve been complicit in this). Particularly when we’re talking about communication that often involves a lot of visual elements that have complex relationships to one another, we need a way for the discussion to zoom in on a particular focus without losing the ability to draw back out to the bigger picture. The feedback needs to be pertinent while the design needs to be coherent.

Enter now an attempt to find a balanced answer to several of these competing issues: the Sakai UX Framework. Sam and I first started working on this back in December, in fits and starts. It’s loosely inspired by Drupal’s UX Framework, but Drupal’s version (from our perspective) jumped a little too quickly into mechanical components of the interface, and wasn’t framed and grounded well enough in the user insights, which should be carried along as a constance reference and touchstone. Our framework is trying to open up and reveal the design work, provide a place to comment on it (including challenging it) at focused points, but to keep in mind the context at the same time. The hope is that we’ll be able to evolve things in feedback cycles without losing reference to the whole.

It’s still in its nascent stages, but I think it’s far enough along that it can now be a help in communication both directions, providing a picture of where things are headed while also revealing how they need to adapt or shift.

Sakai UX Framework


Written by khomotso

January 20, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Contributing forward

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“Contributing back” was once for me the phrase that packaged up practical engagement with open source projects. It signalled a readiness to participate, it implied a material contribution, and carried with it the healthy sense that one’s efforts were part of a broader whole.

In the last few years I’ve come to a more nuanced view. I’ve seen “contribute back” often mean that a body of code will simply be handed off or posted in a repository once completed to private satisfaction. No matter the generosity with which it’s offered (which I couldn’t doubt – I know it’s a non-trivial amount of effort to even get to the point where things could be handed off), the practical constraints on rethinking or continuing to develop the work effectively amount to a take-it-or-leave-it state. “Contributing back” can lead to a result something like that of software companies that try to suddenly open source products that have long been proprietary.

I wasn’t a great fan of the excesses of the “Pay it Forward” movement a decade or so back, but flipping the preposition offers a clarity worth braving the association. Open source contributions count for more if they’re thinking ahead about how they fit in, or even better, if they’re leading (and communicating) with the general problem of which their particular itch is one variant. The potential benefit is not simply that it’s a more selfless community spirit, but also that the solution will likely be sounder, longer-lived, and one is far less likely to be stuck with a brittle maintenance burden. Contribute forward.

Written by khomotso

January 10, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized