Is there a perfect storm brewing for the Sakai Project’s goals of improving the user experience? I am very impressed with the confluence of ideas and action in the Sakai UX improvement initiative, the Fluid project, and CARET’s Sakai Web 2.0 project. These initiatives show the community prioritizing the user experience need and coming at a shared problem from many angles, each contributing pieces of the design activities, technology, and community building. After spending the morning perusing the sites and catching up on the happenings that I am more optimistic regarding Sakai’s ability to reach user delight than ever before.

In addition to bringing good ideas and changes to the Sakai product, I am liking where it is heading in the communication department. Nathan Pearson, the UX lead for the UX improvement initiative has used Flash demos with voice over to share his design ideas with the community. Working rapidly and iteratively, he has taken the approach of share earlier rather than later, iterate and improve. He has had a lot of good research and documentation to launch from, but he also uses his design expertise and general design best practices to move forward with some best guesses which can then be tested. This can feel risky to many designers, but if the promise of being able to iteratively improve is real, then it is well worth it in terms of getting buy in and concrete visuals. In the open source and community source projects, this may be the best way to be successful with design and usability.

If you haven’t seen his presentations, check them out:

Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4, Week 5, Week 6

Nathan’s approach and Cambridge’s approach with the Sakai Web 2.0 project represent a value that is hard to come by in higher education, partly because of tight budgets which means all work must be efficient and produce a product for our end users, partly because of the reluctance of our universities to invest in R&D within its administrative units (even when supporting the academic endeavors of the campus), and partly because of our tendency to invest in a narrow range of skills (the ones that we think will shorten the time to delivery — such as programmers — and limit overhead costs — such as project managers). That said, even a range of skills doesn’t guarantee good product. I think perhaps a value of risk taking, exploration, and getting stuff in front of users for feedback will be terribly important.

Jutta Treviranus and I will be leading a discussion on some of these ideas and challenges regarding building the right organization and culture at the 9th Sakai Conference:

Mara Hancock and Jutta Treviranus will lead a discussion that explores the culture, values, and structures within our departments and institutions that enable a User Experience (UX) approach to flourish and bring transformational change to our services and open source systems.

Using the Fluid/Sakai partnership as an example they will look at the range of roles, skills, and methods that precipitate and enhance the inclusion and embracing of UX in the development process. They will lead the group in the investigation of ways in which the Sakai foundation and contributing institutions can enhance and extend their staffing models and capabilities to create a creative, flourishing, and inclusive development environment.

Hope you can make it and help us explore these issues. Meanwhile, thanks to Nathan Pearson, the CARET team at Cambridge and their friends working on the Sakai Web 2.0 project for adding some additional wind to the perfect storm.

Fluid Project Summit

October 9, 2007

The week of September 24-28 was the first Fluid Summit, held at the University of Toronto. This brought together folks not only dedicated to the project, but other key members from the associated communities such as the Sakai Executive Director, Michael Korcuska, and fellow Sakai board member, Clay Fenlason. We also had volunteers from the larger community, such as Kathy Moore, a UI designer from Boston University. Of course, we also had a large contingent from the Fluid Project core team as well, making it a pretty large group of designers, developers, and managers.

One huge benefit of the Fluid Project is that it reaches across communities – uPortal, Sakai, Kuali Student, Moodle — and brings people together around real work. This real work is what keeps us all motivated and getting up in the morning. I was surprised to find in a discussion with Michael Korcuska that he wasn’t sure about just how concrete the Fluid contribution was going to be. The Summit revealed to him how committed the project is to getting real results (designs and code) into these community source products. Michael wrote a great blog entry about the Fluid and Sakai as a result of his attendance at the summit. One of his statements that was particularly heart-warming to me was this:

“Fluid is Sakai

Looking around the rooms at the Fluid Summit I saw a lot of familiar faces from places like UC Berkeley, Cambridge and Georgia Tech. These folks know Sakai inside and out and that knowledge will ensure that what gets worked on is relevant to Sakai. Of course Fluid is other things as well, including uPortal and Kuali Student and Moodle, which should benefit everyone. But I stopped thinking about Fluid as a project that is somehow separate or “in parallel to” Sakai.”

When we were working on the proposal for Fluid, we articulated that Fluid would never be successful if it was seen as being from “outside” the community/open source project it was working to improve. Being inside — and trusted — is a critical aspect of making an impact and contribution to open source projects. Thus, we talked about Fluid as being “embedded” in the core projects it was working on. Michael’s comment indicates to me that we were right on with this approach.

It is important to stress that Fluid is not a theoretical exercise or experiment. Efforts from its teams have already begun to be seen in implemented designs and code. The component and design pattern libraries will be be built and integrated “as we go,” we will not wait to achieve perfection or critical mass. Everything is open and available now. This includes access to decisions, methods, mock-ups, user research, code, html widgets, components, and more.

Look for the U-Camp to roll out for the JA-SIG Un-conference in New Brunswick on November 11-16 and the Newport Beach Sakai Conference on December 4-7. U-Camps are a place to learn, talk about, and do design. They include UX designers, training and support folks, faculty, and programmers. You can see some of the activities that took place in the Sakai Amsterdam conference U-Camp. The Newport beach U-Camp will be the third U-Camp for Sakai, and the fourth delivered over the past year. The Sakai programmer’s cafe and the U-Camp are exploring ways to bring together UX designers and developers — perhaps in some sort of sprint activity.

Before closing, I want to reiterate that projects that directly contribute to and impact production systems are the only type of project you will ever find the UC Berkeley Educational Technology Services unit involved in! While we may lust in our hearts after the pure innovation project, it is critical to our mission as a services unit that where we extend our effort has direct impact (hopefully for the good!) on our constituency. If you notice my eyes straying, just give me a nudge.