A vision for CivicSpace; or Why CivicSpace hasn’t been eating its own dogfood

CivicSpace is at a point in its adolescence where it’s beginning to question just who it really is. I will attempt to describe why we’re struggling with this issue, how it is affecting CivicSpace and ways to think about our work from this point forward.

There’s a common expression in software development that recommends “eating your own dogfood” as soon possible. The idea is get to software developers to experience firsthand their work from the users’ perspective earlier in the development cycle. The thinking suggests that this will allow for proper adjustments to be made before a product ships. It’s common sense really; you wouldn’t feed yourself crap, so don’t feed your crap to your users.
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Harrison Bergeron as the personification of the internet child

Where's your free will at?When I was in Mr. Duffy’s high school English class, he assigned a short story that altered the course of my life forever. Harrison Bergeron it was called, written in 1961 by a witty old fart, Kurt Vonnegut.

You see, at the time, I had been growing increasingly skeptical about whether any of my peers had free will. It concerned me that it seemed somehow that I was the only one in my whole high school who could manage an original thought in his head.
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Redesigns run amok!

A number of sites have redesigned lately including CivicSpace, SvN and VersionTracker. Do I smell a trend?

CivicSpace redesign
Well, if you haven’t seen it yet, we went live with the beta of the new CivicSpace redesign. I’ve had this on my plate since last fall, but only now after the logo has more or less been finalized (and business cards printed) did I feel ready to proceed with the site’s design.

…that and Zack and Andrew are touring the country this month going to various conferences and the old site just couldn’t be kept up any longer without seriously soiling our burgeoning reputation.

So within one week of returning from Belgium, CivicSpace got a brand new site thanks to the perserverence, determination and abandonment of sleep by members of CivicSpace and Music for America (watch for their redesign coming up soon).

Now what’s interesting to me is that on the same day that we go public with our redesign, I spot two other significant redesigns. Coincidence or serendipity?

SvN redesign

VersionTracker redesign

Well, I’m going to stick with the latter, though that’s certainly not a scientific observation.

And while we’re discussing redesigns… how about the “new” RSS icons? Is this variation a good thing? Do we need to stick to one look (besides just orange)? I’m all about moving away from the RSS mini-buttons but are we moving forward in a sensible way?

RSS Specimens

Bah! Here’s a picture of me doing my thing care of Miss Chang.

Networks in cities and fungi

Mushroom CongestionBala Pillai posted this to the Minciu Sodas mailing list… brilliant:

This is such a great example that I need to quote the entire thing. MeshForum wants contributions from people who have looked into this kind of thing. Monkeymagic: Traffic, Congestion and Information Flows

This is exciting from the New Scientist: apparently New roads can cause congestion. [via 3quarks daily]

Traffic should flow best in cities when only a limited number of roads lead to the centre. This counter-intuitive finding could allow planners to prevent gridlock by closing roads rather than building new ones.

It comes from a new way of thinking about complex networks developed by Neil Johnson, Douglas Ashton and Timothy Jarrett at the University of Oxford, UK.

Fascinatingly, the article goes on to say:

The same process of analysing the costs associated with moving across a network could help solve a long-standing problem in biology: why some natural networks are centralised like cities, whereas others are decentralised like the internet.

“Organisms such as fungi have managed to evolve a complex network in which there are centralised and decentralised pathways to move nutrients around,” Johnson says. “Now we can look at biological systems in terms of the ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ of the connections rather than in terms of the physical structures themselves,” he says.

The ACLU takes aim at Rumsfeld

ACLU takes on Rumsfeld I’ve been a card-carrying member of the ACLU for the past three years, having done a volunteer stint as the Chief Geek and co-captain of the volunteer Legal Observers Program at the ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter.

In all that time, it amazed me how much the organization did for people of all walks of life, whether their grievance against the government was legitimate or simply some half-baked theory stemming from a misunderstanding of what one’s constitutional rights really are.

I am very proud of the volunteering that I did and proud to be a part of an organization that is willing to do the unpopular thing when it’s the right thing to do.

With the ACLU taking aim at Donald Rumsfeld, I am again proud that I renewed my membership and with my dues, are going after the root source of a truly grave threat to society.

Though I highly doubt that this decision will turn into a popular one, it is still the right thing to do, and one that not many organizations are in the position to take on.

If you holistically examine the policies of this government, you begin to notice patterns… patterns that suggest that the torture abuses that happened in Iraq were merely the tip of the iceberg. Those incidents in Iraq was not the result of misbehavior of a few soldiers (as the government would like us all to believe), but rather a widespread assualt against any principle of law that might curtail the presumed efficacy of military-style investigations.

One need only to contemplate the similarities between the abuses at Guantanamo with the acts of torture perpetrated halfway around the world to realize that the justice department no longer practices nor preaches anything of the sort. And what with the confirmation of a living torture-apologist, it is quite apparent that the rule of law has been turned into an optional set of guideliness in campaign against “terror” that has blantantly gone awry.

If these remote incidents don’t suade you, consider the plight of Canadian Maher Arar and you’ll realize that Rumsfeld and Ashcroft (and now Gonzales) have followed a broken moral compass, leading moral decay of services that perhaps once were regarded with integrity.

Now it looks like it will take the ACLU to fight for the honor and dignity of the military and justice departments that Rumseld and co. have so brazenly dispensed with.

On designing the CivicSpace logo

CivicSpace LogoIf you haven’t seen it, the latest logo for CivicSpace is an aggressive, don’t-mess-with-us symbol of the new politics. The logotype is a mix between Neutraface Heavy and the wonderful handmade type of Michael Schwab. It’s bold, unique and classic. It’s also intentionally a throwback to 40s-style poster lettering, to invoke a sense of old-world patriotism found in WWII US propaganda.

The graphic elements are obviously stars and stripes, as the predominant leaning of CivicSpace has been towards the overtly political. After all, DeanSpace started out with the Howard Dean campaign, and we see a large number of our users directing the power of CivicSpace to grassroots political campaigns. To that typically American audience, we need to communicate strength, power, innovation and simplicity. The use of the stars and stripes are intended to communicate those qualities, despite the fact that to most folks outside the continent, those same symbols represent American hegemony, imperialism and all that’s so ugly about the United States.

The actual triangular design of the stripes and the detached stars have a greater symbolic meaning than the connotations I sought to invoke. In fact, my intention was to represent the kids in Eminem’s prolific Mosh video… rising up together against a political machine that has made their votes irrelevant and their ideas seem even less valued.

Each star represents a head; the stripe a body. And the triangular shape indicates perspective – that this grassroots “army” is made up of thousands of individuals – as far as the eye can see.

But just because my intention was to communicate these things through my design doesn’t mean that I was successful. Nor does it mean that I think that the current design is final or that I’ve even captured what CivicSpace really means to me yet.

In fact, I still feel like I need to find some way of communicating “grassroots”, “community”, “social networking”, “friendliness”, “ease of use”, and in general, more feminine attributes like “hope” and “inclusivity”. Already, the designs I’ve done for the CivicSpace homepage have started out overly masculine and only when I pulled away from the logo did I start to reveal something much more friendly, feminine and closer to what I actually envision using for the final design.

So after getting additional feedback last from some European and Canadian Drupalites, I’m considering yet another return to the drawing board – perhaps even returning to a prior design. The CivicSpace identity remains elusive and I’m not quite sure what’s going to bring about the kind of finality that I’m so ready for.

Better customer support for CivicSpace

I propose an improved model of software support based on community participation and an integrated support interface.

CivicSpace IconI had a thought this morning while talking to my roommates about the meager help system in CivicSpace. It so happened that we weren’t even talking about CivicSpace, but after the FLOSS Sprint this past weekend, my mind has been circling around ways for making web interfaces not only more usable but simultaneously more helpful.

More specifically, the standard help menu in any software, at least for me, is fairly worthless. It requires a massive investment on the part of the user in terms of time spent searching and reading. And generally, help ROI is quite low, meaning that for the amount of effort I put in to searching, reading and forum-browsing, I rarely get out in support what I put in.

Help is hard

Why is this? Because help is hard.

Help is both hard to write from the developer perspective and it’s hard to know what you’re looking for as a user. Terminology gets in the way as do the various mental models that people use to understand what software is or what it can do.

Therefore, in order for help to be truly helpful, help should not only be presented in a sensible, digestible format, but it should be timely, accurate, contextual and convenient and accommodate the different ways that people might conceptualize the support that they need.

To that particular end, I think that support systems should become more social in nature, providing direct access to communities and networks that can understand and cope with vague, non-descriptive or otherwise unclear assessments of someone’s needs. I propose that CivicSpace adopt a social model of support that increasing reliance on and participation in the greater CivicSpace community. Gmail seems to get this, although they’ve minimized its presence on the help page:

Gmail Groups Help

Support by RSS

So in addition to encouraging more community interaction for support, I also suggest that we tie actual help requests or bug reports into a CivicSpace user’s remote account in order to bring the history of support inquiries into a familiar and convenient environment. As it is now, the Help menu that CivicSpace ships with is all but completely useless for most of our users. You get a handbook for the installed modules and a glossary of terms… ok, not worthless, but certainly not helpful. What would be better, I think, is a menu like this:

New Help Menu

Granted, this is just a quick mockup, I think that it begins to bring the support process more in line with user needs and provides it in situ rather than externally, like bugzilla or the current CivicSpace Issue Tracker. With this kind of system, I imagine that clicking on the main Help menu would return a page with a special search field along with RSS feeds of your recent support tickets, of community support requests and updates of any support communications you’ve recently made.

So now that I’ve outlined this big idea, I wonder if anyone has any additional suggestions or comments on how my thinking could be improved or made to be more in line with your support needs?