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.