This entry is part of a series of #moznewslab posts that I’ll publish over the course of my time as a participant in the Knight-Mozilla learning lab. On the merits of a video idea “that will improve the way that online news is produced or experienced” I was invited to the second round of the Knight-Mozilla Fellowship. I’ll be using posts such as this to reflect and share what I’ve learned in class and develop my final open-source project, which I hope to be invited to prototype in the next round. Your feedback, positive and negative, is very encouraged and welcome. Seriously!


As the weekend approches it’s once again time go through our to do list. For some it’s a trip to the market and some backyard grilling for others it’s making deadlines and packing a bag for a trip (moi) and for a close friend who became a father recently, it meant going to a big box retailer, let’s say it’s Swedish, a couple weeks ago to purchase some furniture for his new baby girl.

He, I’m lead to assume, like most new dads know little about what to do with a fragile bag of bones and flesh, and so to contribute to the ritual must go out and hammer something in a celebratory gesture.

So my friend hops into his pick-up truck and heads out on a Saturday morning to navigate a purple and yellow maze of desk lamps and tea candles to bring home a chest of drawers, a bookshelf and some chairs.

At home he sprawls everything out, sends out a Twitpic, gazes at the directions and convinced hunger was at the root of his confusion proceeds to make a sandwich.

The sandwich doesn’t help and hours later he’s assembled a skateboard ramp, a triangle and a set of parallel lines of varying length.

His text message is short and to the point: “new Dad fail.” This is followed by my reply of an “Lol,” which returns some expletives, the refusal to shop at this store again and threats to throw the particle board mish-mash out the window at passing children.

We’ve all been there, I know that look he must have, that’s the look of a desperate man.

The instructions are impossible to decipier and frustration starts to grow as perceived manhood is challenged by umlauts and stick figures. It’s enough to make a person throw up there hands and give up on the retailer. Even if others make it look simple, for my friend the instructions were too thin and he gave up and decided to hop on Twitter and Netflix instead.

It’s all about the follow through

That’s the danger in failing to recognize the follow through and think about the end user experience in providing a modestly priced, designed and simple product that is assumed to be a hit, you’ll loose people who will never come back.

Or as John Resig would relate the idea to open source projects, the failure to proactively help create the community that you wish to have support, expand, develop and breath life into you product.

For every Firefox and WordPress there’s a Blender or GIMP, products that are robust and powerful but never achieved a level that lead to widespread success beyond a loyal core.

It’s not enough to just release a great product, a community must be cultivated.

Resig presented #MozNewsLab participants with a lot of guidelines and shared insights gained from the successful launch of the jQuery JavaScript library he helped to create.

Earlier in the week, Christian Heilmann of Mozilla also touched on this idea.

All your tools may be cool and shinny, but both Resig and Heilmann emphasized that it don’t mean a thang if they users don’t know how to swang. I’m paraphrasing of course.

Don’t forget to support the users and actively work build a community, it’s not enough to just release a product. It’s like handing over the keys to a Maserati to an 18-year-old and forgetting to first teach how to shift gears. They’ll be edgar to jump in and take it for a ride but before long your sculpted beauty will become a heaping pile of junk that no one else will want to drive.

Instead, we would do better to encourage the owner of the car to first teach users how the product works, what it can do and most of all to provide support to aid in learning.

While Heilmann focused on building a better web, one where usability and visuals take center stage to create more customized and cleaner user experiences, and Resig spoke about how to build and support an open source community and why would you want to; both are still hitting the same cords at the heart of the matter: that making tools easier for user to understand and use is key if we’re going to improve on the existing web for everyone’s benefit.

To carry the metaphor further, in the open source world the 18-year-old will be given the keys to a Maserati with one gear and taught in simple almost intuitive nature the nuts and bolts of how the drive train, electronic sensors, axels and other base mechanical aspects work and then be encouraged to collaborate and invent climate control, power windows, adjustable seats and other gears for the community to use and improve upon.

You set the rules and you keep it simple and as Resig relayed, it’s better to build something that’s 95% what you want and kept simple rather than 100% what you want that’s more complex.


The more complex your open source code becomes, the more restrictive it is for others to wrap their brain around it and start creating. Plus, if you build a robust community which is finding it easy to jump in and then actively improving your core code, then there’s a good chance someone will create the plug-in that achieves that last 5% for you, and everyone.


A road map to road maps

To create a successful open source project it’s just as important to pay attention and plan out a post launch strategy as it is in putting together the initial code. It seems so simple it shouldn’t have to be said, but as a non-hacker trying to learn this stuff personally, it never fails to amaze me how often developers forget that there might be noobs with an interest.

It’s why WordPress enjoys a huge development community and Druple does not. It’s why Photoshop is still king of imaging software. It’s why I never was able to teach myself Blender in 2004.

Looking at open source projects: Audacity, Blender, WordPress, Firefox; video games like Spore and Little Big Planet which encourage users to create items, levels, mini games and entire storylines; or at non-software projects like the surprise of OpenCola’s success and marketing campaigns like Mountain Dew’s Dewrocracy which invited fans to invent a new flavor of soda and design everything from its name its look ad how it’s promoted; or at open source application to entertainment such a zombie movie and Tosh.O’s screenplay project written one line at a time via fans on Twitter, one thing becomes clear. (Sure you can knit pick and say those last ones were crowd sourced projects, but I’d say anything that is open for the crowd to comment on, change and rewrite rather than just submit to is an argument for the open source label. In other words, an active two way conversation is open source in my book.)

The winners are the ones who provide users with resources, demos, tutorials and real responses when calling out for help.

And then a funny thing happens. All the smart people who thought you had a good idea but had too much stuff on their plate to join in but remained supportive, soon they’ll see how serious the community has become and they’ll dive in.


How we learn

In thinking about my project, I can see how having a quick start guide and some community social forums like Twitter and Facebook pages won’t be enough. I have some ideas, but I’m interested in asking the question: how do we best learn.

I’m hands on myself and like tutorials that walk me through producing actual product. In a IRC chat session following class, I heard from others that they prefer less hand holding. Yet both users, advanced and “noobs” need to have the educational tools available to benefit everyone.

It’s a fine balance and I would say it’s one that requires rethinking how we educate users to the ins and outs of our products. Perhaps the best path is two roads, ones which adapt to the user and follow the advice of Heilmann to embrace the open web and use HTML5 to allow users to quicken the pace, place bookmarks within lessons for later reference, allow for live chat with fellow learners in the margins and leave a community sourced link trail for further reading.

Make the tutorials, e-books, documentation and walkthrough videos themselves a form of open source which let’s us decide how we learn and add to the knowledge bank. Why not confine innovation to the product and not the learning?