Is community-based participatory design viable?

By now you’ve probably heard that Mitch Kapor, one of the founders of the EFF (among many other great things) has started the Open Source Applications Foundation which is working on what basically amounts to an open source (and free as in freedom?) version of Outlook that works without a back-end server. (This is more exciting than it sounds.)

In a recent post to his blog, Mitch writes, “On the other hand, decisions must be made, and voting, even if it is non-binding, isn’t the way to go.” and then later asks, “How do we create a user experience which is sufficiently familiar to provide a smooth transition for new users yet is sufficiently different to support major new capabilities?”

It’s good to see that Mitch understands that design by committee doesn’t work. Unfortunately, right now, it seems the OSA Foundation will adopt the status-quo for open-source projects: software design by programmers for programmers.

I for one, will appeal to Mitch to adopt a model that includes user advocates, namely trained experience design professionals and specifically, interaction designers.

I encourage you, as readers of brad lauster (dot com) and members of the experience design community (probably) to do what you can to help the OSA Foundation make this a successful project, not just for the programmers working on it, but for everyone.

It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out.

4 thoughts on “Is community-based participatory design viable?”

  1. Brad,

    What do you think of Jef Raskin’s book:
    “The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems”

    Especially in regards to the OSA Foundation’s effort?


  2. Hi Darius!
    Good question. In general, I think Raskin is right. There are serious problems with the WIMP model of software interface design.

    That said, I think the OSA is taking the right approach given the tools available and the expectations that a majority of users have today for a PIM application.

    For the Chandler project to be successful, they need an application that any Outlook/Entourage user can be productive with immediately after installing it.

    As a designer, I’d love to see something revolutionary out-of-the-gate, but email/PIM applications carry a lot a baggage in terms of expectations, so I think the OSA is doing the right thing.

    I have to applaud Mitch, because it sounds like he’s truly interested in exploring some new interface paradigms. The challenge, as he wrote (quoted above) will be slipstreaming those advances into an existing product.

    I don’t have the answers for how to do that, but I’m going to help in any way I can. Fun stuff!

  3. Hi Brad,

    I only noticed after sending my last message that you already had Raskin’s book in your poster.

    OK, what do you think of this book?
    Train of Thoughts: Designing the Effective Web Experience
    by John Lenker

    Here’s the first chapter:

    Also, did you know Jef Raskin has his project going in open source now?

    Here’s one of my ideas based on Jef Raskin’s:

    Regarding OSA Foundation’s Vista & cognitive psychology:

    It seems to me that much mileage can be gained from the fundamental concept of a spreadsheet. Imagine all content in one long (shared) spreadsheet (like Raskin suggests, getting away from documents). Default views in the form of nested tables would be provided in certain places. Lines can be hidden. Cells locked. Cells shared. Each cell is like a stack so you can view its history and pop it (or a range of them) back to prior values (per change date, value, reason, etc.). Each cell would also parallel an object in object oriented programming with types & properties which also have a representation in the spreadsheet by expanding the cell as in an outline.

    This supports the linear thinking of most people/users. This could also support Raksin zoom idea by making the giant spreadsheet collapsible like an outline. Each sub-spreadsheet would be identified by an label or hierarchy of labels and every cell could have a unique identity in relation to that label.

    Used as a platform, application dev. could be like formulas in cells (also lockable & shareable).

    I have more details of the idea to answer some criticisms, but, this gives you the general idea.


  4. Participatory design has been quite successful in Europe, especially the Scandinavian countries. They even have a conference just around participatory design. I haven’t tracked it recently but I would say the late 90s had many research articles and practical case studies of this method of application development.

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