Response to “The User Experience in Platform Cooperativism”

A good friend, Enric Senabre, together with Ricard Espelt (who I don’t know) wrote and published an interesting article on designing for platform cooperativism. They set out to define “platform cooperativism UX”, which seems to be to be a very concrete task on one level (UX is nothing if not concrete) for a general state, approach, or category of ‘platform’.

I’m not going to go into detail here about Platform Cooperativism, because I don’t really get it. I do know Trebor Sholz and figure whatever he does is probably right and makes sense. So I’m buying the book to find out more.

Enric and Ricard are approaching software design by intersecting strategies to overcome technically disenfranchising stakeholders while ‘learning as you go’. These are laudable aims, especially in the NFP sector where there is a great need to develop solutions that actually solve problems. As I read somewhere recently, the technology community has no shortage of solutions, what they are in need of are solutions that solve problems. Zara Rahman has also pointed this out recently and is conducting research into just this area.

The issue here is that often technologists see all problems through the eyes of code. Further, they are prone to see the intended beneficiaries of their work as avatars. There are, in fact, many strategies to turn real people with real needs into avatars.

If you try to solve real world problems with code, and your participants are avatars, you are really setting yourself up to be a great game developer. You are possibly not in a good position to solve real problems.

So, Enric and Ricard are starting off with the right premise and in the article they document their experiment, exploring fundamentals to come up with a new facilitation methodology for this context.

we began with a reflection on which specific functionalities and features (other than those available on existing online platforms and social web interfaces in general), if any, could be explored

They seem to have given themselves an extremely difficult task – designing for an open-ended ‘imaginative’ state. Although they couch this as ‘specific functionalities,’ I take it they are trying to define specific functionalities for a generalized approach to platforms. That is tricky. I admire that they took this on. Innovating with design methodologies takes some gusto, and it is a vital process for defining and refining tools for a new method. However, in my experience, open-ended problems like this seldom lead anywhere useful. You need to start smaller, with real, concrete problems. These might add up to, and constitute, larger issues, but the road to those issues is from the bottom, not the top.

...we finally arrived at the key element of online reputation systems for every social web application.

It seems that the result was still productive, but perhaps not in the way expected. They appear to have elevated the group’s awareness to issues of trust in the social web. A hot topic at the moment. As such, the process is successful as a barometer of the times, identifying issues that concern people here and now. Enric and Ricard appear to have understood this too and continued on to refine this starting point, moving it towards actual UX design with the well-known method of user stories.

However, user stories are best deployed as a function of software design and I don’t think their process was there yet. User stories require a concrete problem. They are intended to drive people toward designing a concrete solution. Bringing this framework to a general question of reputation is confusing methods and will cause cognitive drag and a mixed understanding of intended results. It would be better to keep this part of the process outside of software design paradigms, and instead, employ general ‘sense making’ methods.

It seems that Enric and Ricard diverted from the goal to produce concrete UX and ended up driving towards requirements. I would say this is a better direction. However, requirements-gathering for a general issue is not well placed to lead to much of use to software development other than a ‘general direction’ – which is what they seem to have achieved but not what they set out to achieve.

As such, I think the results of Enric and Ricard’s experiment are interesting, but the results are not interesting in the way they outline. In the summary they state:

The next steps in addressing “platform cooperativism UX” should continue along these lines: new user stories that generate both potential platform coop requirements and design-driven research outputs.

This overstates the value of their findings as generated by the participants. The real value of this session is that they tried to assemble a methodology for an ambitious context – in essence, they are actually trying to help the ‘platform cooperative’ community to understand itself, to understand the implications of their philosophy. I think that is really interesting and admirable. What they need to do, however, is not to override this aim with the pretense of generating actual user stories, software requirement, and UX for platforms. They need to name and design a method that starts in another place – a place where the articulation of values is the outcome, not the construction of code.

Booki to Booktype, BookJS and beyond…

Many years ago I was the Product Manager and Project Lead for Booktype at Sourcefabric. We developed many interesting technologies including Booktype itself, Objavi, StyleJS, BookJS, Booktype Renderer, and Booktype Designer, amongst others.

Booktype is still going very well and has also spawned the very interesting Omnibook service. Due to the recent interest in this project, I revisited this old video which documents some of the exploratory thinking I had when leading the Booktype team at Sourcefabric. It was recorded May 2012 at #dev8ed in Birmingham, UK. At the time I was leading a small team, having just migrated Booki (FLOSS Manuals) to Booktype (at Sourcefabric).

I found the video really interesting as it covers my thinking at the time, (developed over many years of experimenting in this area) over many issues, including rendering books in the browser and using the browser as a design environment for books. There are some nice quotes which accurately reflect how I was thinking then which are interesting:

"there is no one taking responsibility for designing environments where you can target both flowable text as an output like Kindle or EPUBS, and at the same time, target fixed page outputs like paper books. So we are trying to work this out at the moment. How do you deal with this? .[...] We are trying to work out how can you possibly find a paradigm that fits both flow-based, and fixed page, design" [36min 25s]


"what we want to see [in the browser] is when you are outputting to book-formatted PDF, we want to see like you see in Google Docs - exactly the page dimensions that you are going to get when you output the PDF. Google Docs does some sort of magic where that is possible, we haven't yet cracked it ourselves, but for fixed page design we think it is quite important that what you see in the HTML page is what you would eventually get in the PDF. [41min 37s]

" do you actually render one to one representation of a book-formatted PDF in a browser?" [49min 49s]

"...we can have JavaScript playing a role in rendering elements of pages for book-formatted PDF." [16min 58s]

"...we take the Booktype content as HTML, HTML as the base format, and Objavi formats that into one long HTML page for which we have specific CSS rules to structure the book in a specific way. Then we run WKHTML over the top of it, and a number of other tools, and we assemble a book out of it, book-formatted PDF" [18min 38s]

"Thats because WKHTMLTOPDF is webkit, the browsing engine behind Chrome and Safari, ... so you can use CSS, and JavaScript and everything from webkit, and turn it into a PDF" [19min 50s]

"...the advantage of using webkit as part of the rendering environment, as webkit is a browser, [is that] if you design in the browser you have a one to one co-relation between content creation environment and output environment" [33 min 49sec]

To be clear, we were already using browser engines to make books for quite some time, and Douglas Bagnall, a friend who also worked with me at FLOSS Manuals, even investigated collaborating with the Gecko (Mozilla layout engine) developers to add widows and orphans controls and the CSS page-break control (which we needed for books), in 2010 or so. Actually, it was pretty cool because Douglas, myself and Robert O’Callahan (Mozilla layout engine dev) were all New Zealanders. But FLOSS Manuals had been making books for many years with browser engines since Behdad Esfahbod advised me to explore this, many years earlier. We knew browsers could be used for producing book-formatted PDF and we had been doing it for years.

However, as I have learned over the years, there is an important role for vision, experimentation, and theoretical exploration prior to developing good software. Hence, I was now exploring how you could take these positions further to design books in the browser client. Rendering PDF was one part of the story, the other was working out the tools to take book design to the browser. This was what Adobe was also after, I believe, when they implemented CSS Regions in webkit and started on their Adobe Edge Reflow line of products that leveraged the browser as a ‘design surface’. They were interesting times.

But back to the Booktype story. The video is a demo in May 2012about a month before I hired anyone (in June) to start on what eventually became BookJS. It took us a while to get there but after much discussion, further experimentation, and some months of development, I was able to introduce BookJS in Oct 2012 on the Sourcefabric blog.

Terrible profile pic of me!
Terrible profile pic of me!

While BookJS didn’t quite get to be the design environment I was (and still am) after, it was still a good tool. In an attempt to get to a design and rendering solution in the browser, we later took the Booktype Designer (demonstrated in the video) ideas to a JavaScript prototype called StyleJS for integrating with BookJS but, unfortunately, it didn’t make it to production. StyleJS enabled a kind of ‘WYSIWYG’ tool for styling a page live. Which is an interesting prototype for future in browser book production exploration.

Work continued on BookJS and it has had a useful life despite some quirky turns in the road. During this time, the Booktype team worked with several people on the development of BookJS and received good advice and contributions from Mihai Balan (from the Adobe CSS Regions team), Phil Schatz (from Connexions), Maria Fraser (University College London) and others. As with many software projects, contributions like this deserve a lot of credit, as I have written elsewhere, since these contributions are not always preserved in the code.

Another quirk that happened is that the Google team, in an unexpected move which surprised many people and turned into a bit of a CSS heavy hitters ‘discussion’, removed CSS Regions from Blink. Many people were pretty shocked. This, I think (but I don’t know the inside story), spelled the end for Adobe’s vision of the browser as a design surface using CSS Regions, and the Adobe Edge Reflow product has been discontinued.

In the Booktype world, Juan Gutierrez (who worked on BookJS at Sourcefabric, and now works with me at Coko) extended BookJS to support the CSS Regions polyfil. It is still in use now with Book Sprints for rendering books. Consequently, we are still very grateful that Booktype and Sourcefabric kept the BookJS product AGPL after I left the project so we could extend it. Hurray for Open Source!

It is good to see Booktype going strong, Sourcefabric still invested in Open Source, and a growing interest around Omnibook. I know the team there, Micz Flor (co-founder of Sourcefabric and Managing Director of Booktype) being an old friend, and Julian Sorge also makes a great Booktype Managing Director. They have brought their own vision to the Booktype products, pushing them in new directions, and it is really great to see. I’m hoping they will continue to go from strength to strength.

In summary, these were interesting, productive times. Sourcefabric provided the opportunity for Booktype to grow, and I experimented a lot, as I had done at FLOSS Manuals (and continue to do now), with new ideas and approaches. There was some great software, books, and ideas that came out of that period. Some of the books we made I have even kept with me through my travels. In the video, for example, I demonstrate the Booktype Designer. We built the Designer before and during the Sandberg Institute workshop I led in Amsterdam and used it in the same month as I did the presentation to create this wonderful artist’s book. I carried it with me all over the world and still have it on my bookshelf now!

Waag Society/Remko Siemerink 2012.
Waag Society/Remko Siemerink 2012.

Nice to find this old vid.

Original url for the video:



Paged Media website launched

A few weeks ago Dave Cramer and I started a new website – Paged Media. The website’s purpose is to promote the use of HTML, CSS and JS to make books, whether the books are displayed in the browser, or in e-readers, on mobile devices, or in print. The site is coming along nicely with blog posts and links to valuable resources to do with the production of books for reading or display on screen. Soon we will introduce podcasts to the site, some weekly how-to posts, and items about the future and past of this very important approach to making books.

More reminiscing – Antarctica summer trip 2006-07


While copying over my archives from everywhere, Raewyn Whyte, who is helping me with the copying and cleanup, carried over all the posts from my 2006-07 summer trip to Antarctica. You can find them here:

The original site doesn’t exist anymore so we had to fish them out of the good ole Wayback Machine.

It was an amazing journey to Antarctica. I have some definite highlights and lowlights. Lows included the death of one of our crew on the first day at the base due to very unfortunate circumstances. That was unbelievably horrible. Also, I think I felt quite compromised being in Antarctica in the first place. I almost didn’t go but didn’t want to let down the buddies I had made a commitment to.

I felt uncomfortable because the science bases on Antarctica are strategic placements… waiting, waiting, until the pressure gets too much and the moratorium on extractive industries comes off… I can’t speak for the entire continent but my direct experience was that there was very little real science going on, and a lot of resources were being spent in the name of science while maintaining strategic positions for bases.

The highs were that it was an amazing experience and I felt privileged to be there. I met great people, had good times, even beat the chopper captain in the New Year’s darts finals! We did some amazing stuff too. Building antenna, setting up a radio station and a very low-fi radio talkback system, among other things.

But mostly it was the really unbelievable beauty of the place.

Our mission was to start the build of an autonomous mobile base for art-science collaborations. We did the first phase, others came later. I don’t know if it was ever completed, I lost track of it.

Anyway.. .it was a great experience. I visited the SA Agulhas (the icebreaker we travelled down in) a few years ago at the Capetown wharf. Beautiful boat.

New Coko Foundation Website

The new Collaborative Knowledge Foundation website is now live. It was designed by the fabulous Dutch design company the van Leeuwen Brothers. I have known designer Henrik van Leeuwen for many years. He’s a good friend, talented designer, and great artist. Henrik has done all the illustrations for Book Sprint books for many years now and does almost all the Book Sprint cover designs. He developed the Book Sprint and Coko logos and now the Coko website. Henrik and his brother Kresten are huge talents and if you are looking around for good designers I highly recommend them.