Thoughts about Facilitation

Recently Kristen (from Coko) and I were discussing facilitation styles and she made an interesting observation about some techniques I use. Essentially Kristen noted that I use devices to ‘give away’ power (my summation, I can’t remember her exact words).

I can see what she means – essentially, when facilitating you have a lot of power over the group. There are many things you can do with this power, you can wield it as if you are the expert on all things (which is what being an asshole is all about), you can use it in an exceedingly benevolent and generous manner (which is how I think master facilitator Gunner from Aspiration operates), or you can do what I do, which is to use humility and self-deprecating actions to share some of the power with the group… there are probably many more modes of course.

I think there is something to this, although I’ll need to think through it more.

Brief chat with Tony in the car

Tony Wasserman is an interesting chap. He is on the advisory board for Coko and has been around the open source block a few times (including being Director of the OSI at one time). He invited me to talk to his students yesterday (which was fun!) and was kind enough to offer me a lift back to San Francisco. In the car, we talked about my brief foray trying to make the argument to ‘the open source community’ that we need to invest in user-centric solutions models. Although Tony and I think of what this means differently (for Tony I think he considers strategies using personas and user interviews, and adding UX at the end of the project to largely take care of this, whereas I’m advocating that users design their own software), he had some interesting ideas on how to make this argument.

So, I want to scratch them down here so I don’t forget them.

First, he believes the argument can be made that open source has progressively solved a historical ‘stack’ of problems. These include (in order):

  1. infrastructure (operating systems, databases etc)
  2. developer tools (including libs etc)

and that there is a third tier that we are confronted with now:

  • the application layer

That is an interesting idea. It’s useful because it shows a forward momentum, which is a positive story, and also because we can show there are different types of problems to be solved. So the question is less ‘why does open source suck at the application layer’ and more about ‘how does open source solve these problems’ ie. it feels, when presented like this, more of a natural continuum.

Tony also brought up an interesting point when I was asking him for ideas on how to motivate ‘the open source community’ to consider new ways of working. His point was that user-testing in traditional software development processes is expensive and complex. Bringing the user into the process in a more ‘open source way’ solves the problem of ‘user testing’ in a more interesting way (it also, interestingly, places more value on the user when thought of like this). While this isn’t the whole story, it is a point worth pondering.

It was an interesting chat.

Pondering the Timing of Technology

When giving a presentation to students at the Silicon Valley Carnegie Mellon University campus last night, I was pondering the timing of innovation. As the famous techie saying goes, ‘being too early is the same as being wrong’…. It seems that there are two simple sides to the timeline:

  1. tech that is too old for the time causes frustration (eg existing legacy tech)
  2. tech that is designed to be too far forward looking won’t be used

So, the sweet spot is targeting tech that is ‘just far ahead enough’ of where we are now to both solve the problem and be adopted. Which is brings to my mind many interesting things about innovation. Innovation, for example, is not about being a visionary and building that future, rather it is a matter of keeping your head in the future but your products just a little ahead of the here and now (so users will understand and use them), and evolving them over time.

This may mean that on some days you might feel you are building ‘old ideas’.

Brief Lecture at Carnegie Mellon University

I just did a lecture at Stanford to an Introduction to Open Source class lead by Tony Wasserman. The students were awesome and I was grateful for the invitation!

Correction: It was the Carnegie Mellon University campus in Silicon Valley 🙂 For those interested in the course contact Tony

Some Muzak

Currently listening to some amazing rekids including:

  1. Nihiti – Ghosts and Versions
  2. Sand – Golem
  3. Radio Silence – This Kind of Punishment (TKP)

The last is a bit of a find. It is a NZ band I used to be fanatical about, comprised of 2 brothers (Graeme and Peter Jefferies) from Stratford (a small town on the west coast of the North Island in New Zealand). They produced truly phenomenal music, recorded on old 4 track reel-to-reel tapes machines and using a variety of low-fi techniques. Most of it was acoustic and all of it is amazing.

As it happens, I got to know Peter pretty well and organised some gigs for him in NZ when I used to manage radio stations in Hamilton and Auckland. The track above is a new release from the archives. The track was originally written and recorded in 1984, but never released. The 7″ single is backed by Reaching and End (one of my favorite TKP tracks) and was just recently released by the record store (Stranded) down the road from where I live now in San Francisco! Small world. To make it even smaller… Radio Silence is originally written by Chris Matthews of the well -known NZ band The Headless Chickens. And, short story long, The Headless Chickens song ‘Donde Esta La Polo’ saved my life once on a back road in Mexico. But that’s another story…

Finding Out What Might Cause Poor Usability in Open Source Software Products

Finding Out What Might Cause Poor Usability in Open Source Software Products, by more Finns: Matias Ylipelto, Henna Nissinen & Eero Parviainen

Raza and Capretz (2012) have conducted a study about how the developers collect users’ feedback and how they meet the expectations of the end-users. They surveyed the developers of different sized open source projects. According to their results, only 30% of the developers consider usability as the most important quality attribute in their projects and only 42% collected some form of user feedback for their projects. In addition, 77% of the respondents did not consult usability experts for their projects and only one ­third of the respondents who consulted an expert actually followed the advice given and modified their project. (Raza & Capretz, 2012.)

Even though their sample size was quite small (72 respondents), their results indicate that the developers do not seem to perceive the importance of usability and methods to improve the usability, such as collecting users’ feedback and consulting usability professionals,  are not utilized in most OSS projects. Andreasen et al. (2006) also found out that usability evaluation is not considered as a priority in many OSS projects. Their study indicates that OSS developers are actually interested in usability, but in general, they do not have professional usability practices. Usability experts’ evaluations are appreciated as long as they do not interfere the decision­making about changes and priorities. One reason for OSS developers not being interested in focusing usability issues is that in general, they are seeking for challenges. They want to improve their skills and want to be intellectually stimulated. (Andreasen et al., 2006.)