Managing Input in Community Source UX Design

May 30, 2008

Managing input to design in the large distributed community and open source projects can be challenging. Transparency is good. We all agree. However, when does transparency become a hindrance? When is it critical to success? Understanding and defining these lines is incredibly important but also very very hard. It is especially challenging when everyone and their sister (that would be me) has an opinion, is an armchair designer, a user of some sort, and wants to help. Tonight, over dinner with several of the Fluid Project designers and Clayton Lewis, professor of computer science at Colorado University and collaborator in the Fluid project (among many other things), we discussed such issues.

One issue that I have been noodling on is that in community source we use email to share ideas. Text. Explaining what are inherently visual and dynamic ideas via text sucks. Our language should should not be text first. The posed answer may be (and it was), “but I can write something in 15 minutes what it would take me an hour to draw.” Yes. But, if you take all the interpretation time and questions and back and forth time required for each person to visualize and explore and conclude… perhaps the entire cost to the effort is much higher in text at the end of the day. Clayton pointed out that there are some interaction/UI issues that can never be worked out until you start to mock-up the interaction — solve those problems earlier and get the visual in front of real users (not me in most cases) earlier.

It is true that once it is in a visual format, it is harder to go back. But, it is a lot easier (and cheaper) than when it is coded, QA’d and released…

I remember when I used to do graphic design and art (the good ol’ days). There was always that moment of truth when you had to let someone else see it. When you had to explain it and justify it. That is a difficult moment. It feels very exposed. Very risky.

So, if we go back to that transparency issue, that is transparency as a Value (capital V), designers are always taking risks. Perhaps we can license them to do this. Provide a free pass and find a way to liberate us from the burden of text so we can get to the truth of what works and doesn’t work for the user much more quickly and keep those of us armchair “opinionaters” at bay because we just love anything that glitters.

Sometimes silence is golden.

Dinner was good. Thanks Clayton, Allison, Rachel, Daphne, and Oliver!

Email is a chatty medium, it is hard to visualize an interaction


3 Responses to “Managing Input in Community Source UX Design”

  1. Nathan Says:

    Great article Mara. I’ve been tinkering with very similar thoughts lately!

    How do we surface the best ideas in an open community, all the while eliminating the worst?

    The struggle as I see is two-fold:

    1. Understanding the best form of communicating ideas (online and otherwise).

    2. Finding the right balance of group intelligence vs. individual intelligence.

    The first point is really intriguing. Here we are, a “modern society” with years of academic and industrial communications expertise, and yet we still struggle to express ourselves effectively and efficiently.

    The challenge is found everywhere, from business to politics to everyday relationships. One misstep and a potentially good or important idea is sunk.

    While I can’t speak to all contexts, I have found the following to be helpful in getting design ideas across to groups:

    * I personally favor a mix of media: text, graphics, audio, animation, etc. The key, IMHO is making sure the right amount of time is spent understand the audience and crafting the message.

    * Wire-frames are great because their light form implicitly communicates a work-in-progress despite the explicit idea of the rendering.

    * People hate to read, unless they know in advance it’s worth their time, so when presenting new ideas it’s best to use bite-size, easily digestible chunks. In fact, this is probably a good idea when presenting anything, including images. Less is more.

    * Just like in math, always aim for simplification. Anything complex can be boiled down to simple building blocks. Start there — especially if it’s a dialogue not just a monologue — and work your way up. Your audience will tell you what’s missing or what needs clarification.

    The second point is one I’ve struggled with (and continue to) throughout my career. The question being: do too many chefs make a bad stew?

    There’s a book by James Surowiecki called The Wisdom of Crowds in which he uses statistical data to show that groups are more accurate in vetting out truth than individuals. His example involves a crowd of rural folk judging the weight of a cow at a fair. The average group guess turns out to be closer than the closest individual guess.

    Yet, from personal experience, too many people critiquing a design typically takes-away rather than adds to the process. So how can we reconcile these two points-of-view? For starters, I suggest we accept them on their own terms by acknowledging their given contexts.

    For example:

    * Simple problems like guessing the weight of a cow or the number of jelly beans in a jar are probably best handled by larger groups rather than individuals.

    That’s probably why picking between Presidential nominees often comes down to simple talking points — add complexity to the discussion and it’s all over.

    However, a single individual often lacks the information needed to make sound choices. This is particularly true when dealing with complex systems.

    Given the above, it’s likely that successful ideas are best formed in smaller groups. After the initial idea shapes up, it’s time to release it to a larger community for feedback and refinement.

    * One thing to note about ideas, especially those in the formation stage, is that they’re not static. An idea in progress is quite different from a fixed reality. Managing feedback while an idea is being formed is extremely challenging because imaginations aren’t consistent. What one person imagines as the potential end-result is commonly different from another.

    Can you imagine a single artist taking feedback from a stadium full of observers as he molds clay?

    These conflicting imaginations (and sometimes agendas) murky the water when it comes to getting helpful external feedback.

    To sum it up, I guess I’m drawing the conclusion that transparency should come in stages. Feedback from large communities is good, but only at the right time and under the right circumstances. In other words, only after an idea has substantially gelled.

    I suspect the conclusion is probably more obvious than I (or we) realize. If we look around, we see all types organizations modeling small group behavior. Should Sakai really be any different?

    The Web has no doubt introduced an information medium where the exchange of ideas is rapid, expansive and pervasive. But despite the enabling technology, we’re still limited by social progress that defines our strengths in numbers – particularly smaller numbers.

  2. marahancock Says:

    Nathan —
    Thanks for such a thoughtful response. I think you are especially good at utilizing various visual tools to communicate. It appears to me that the majority of people are still driven to textual explanations whether by inclination or the fact that textual expression is taught as the primary communication method in our schools.

    I think there needs to be an expectation that if you are in a field such as software development that your visual communication skills are as strong as your textual and verbal.

    Of course, that has to be combined with some successful patterns for peer review and feedback but in a controlled way. I was watching a recent exchange on the Fluid list regarding a specific design. It was late in the game and seemed to be calling into question an entire set of assumptions that had been agreed upon by the designers and the “clients.” After watching a few of these, what I consider to be, futile responses to one another’s words. I began to think, “just do it!” This striving for perfection at every minute stage seems to be limiting our ability to really learn and test out ideas.

    I would rather have more designs that help to change our experience and increase our learnings than more talk that leads to product that is too late and too little.

  3. marahancock Says:

    Perhaps “Just Show Me” is a better way of saying it?

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