Friday, March 18, 2005

Weak Days

At long last, my Monday and Tuesday panels written up by others:

Story Structure and Mobile Media by Josh
How to Inform Design: How to Set Your Pants on Fire by Porter
How to Create Activist Technology by Kate
Deliberative Democracy and Interactive Technology by Kevin
Are Political Parties Obsolete? by Nancy White
How to Think About Democracy and Technology by Nancy White

The Panels on Activist Technology and Deliberative Democracy are also available on Nancy White’s blog. Nancy is a consultant on technology and development based in Seattle. I've come across her work on Communities of Practice in the past. Nancy is also a staunch advocate for women's participation in development projects. You'll notice that her panel notes give the number of women in attendance. Nancy had a number of suggestions for our Women's Participation KN position.

They folks at SxSW really saved the best for last. On Tuesday there were three panels in a row on aspects of technology and democracy. These panels had some of the liveliest post-panel discussion. It was easy to pick out the community of people who are really into this from among the repeat attendees. I also had a chance to go to lunch with about a dozen of the most active of this group. Some great thoughts, connections and discussion came out of these sessions, some of will find its way into later posts.

The unexpected gem of these two days was the session on Story Structure and Mobile Media. There were participants from both gaming and education worlds discussing engaging interactive software. One thing that I took out of the session is the distinction between users who respond best to a very directed storyline--they just want to know here to go next--and users who respond better when given opportunities to play around and explore. The programs that accommodate for both will be the most successful. During the democracy panels on Tuesday, it was difficult not to abstract this idea to political systems as well.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Notable Key Notes

The three most notable key notes at SxSW had the least to do with technology. Malcolm Gladwell, Ana Marie Cox--better known as Wonkette, and Al Franken addressed capacity crowds. Malcolm Gladwell, author of "Blink" and "The Tipping Point," is quite big in blog circles. In short, "The Tipping Point" discusses the sociology of trends and looks at how a notion becomes a phenomenon. Erica Breth has recently been thinking about how one might create a tipping point for political reform in Latin America. Gladwell's talk focused on his most recent book "Blink," which discusses the process of gut decision making. Without having read "Blink," it reminds me of a book called "The Gift of Fear" by Gavin de Becker. Gladwell seems to address more of the perverse effects of gut decisionmaking--such as poor or discriminative choices, which de Becker's emphasis is on instances where gut instinct is superior to rational decisionmaking particularly in the area of personal security. I think that both authors would agree that gut decisions can often be better made with less information and from what I understand that theory applies to both books as well; you really only need to read the first few chapters.

Al Franken fields questions on how to revise the Democratic Party Posted by Hello

Thoughts on web development

In a panel on "How to Make Big Things Happen With Small Teams" Jason Fried of 37signals presented a model of web development that focuses on developing user interfaces and prototyping very early in the process. This approach deemphasizes extensive strategy and requirement definition in advance of the design process and focuses on an iterative process of creating and evaluating working prototypes. Fried's theory is that time spent creating use case diagrams and strategy documents is time not doing "real" work. Furthermore, these documents are of marginal value, as it is common for people to interpret them in different ways. Jason suggests that these documents can be useful for the developer or within the development team, but that client input is best solicited once they have something to play with. This approach is complemented by Fried's philosophy of building light, general software without extensive feature sets.

The panelist of "How to Inform Design: How to set your pants on fire" emphasized the value of usability testing. Actually, it largely assumed that the audience understood the value of usability testing and focused on various methods of designing metrics and collecting quantitative and qualitative data.

These approaches to web development are instructive for the processes that I use in designing web sites. I embrace our current brainstorming and strategy doc system, but beyond that I need to fight my own tendency to over plan larger projects. I should put a greater emphasis on prototyping and markups as a way to solicit "client" input. This will be easier once Vijay and templates allow us to crank out working UI much sooner. I’ve also evolved my mindset from believing that I am 90% of the way “there” once a site is first "launched" internally to thinking that I may not even be half way there.

I believe that as a team we may need to do more to help offices think about the needs of their users and measure how well the site is serving user needs. Currently our strategy discussions identify our audience and our goals, but we are still light on user goals and user experience. I also highly recommend that we consider more robust prototype testing in internal software development projects.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Flash Video-Great things are coming

Flash Player 8 will have greatly enhanced support for video. Current codec doesn’t work well in PCs. Future codec will be by a different company. Next player will allow an index layer and transparency across videos.Also improved resolution. Can use any video authoring tool and take advantage of the features of the new player/codec. Supposed to come out this summer but no promises.

Best thing about Flash video is how you can incorporate video into the design of the site.

Sites to explore: (video archive)

Tip: If you’re going to invest in a good video camera, also invest in a good microphone.

Web Typography

Lots of issues because few options beyond Verdana and Georgia for non-image text.

Code Style Font sampler shows which faces are installed on which systems.

IE doesn’t resize text size if CSS type size is set in pixels, not points. Can try the 76% technique to work around: set base size of text to 76% (which will appear at 12 pt) and use ems to vary the size. 1 em=12 pixel, .3 em=11 px

Check out Mezzoblue’s tips for producing crisp anti-aliased text in Photoshop

Check out siFR-tool that allows you to display non-standard faces without using an image. Use only for headers and don’t use transparency.

20X2 at SXSW

Twenty speakers, one question, 2 minutes...

And the question was "what's the word?" Ian and Jenny shown here trying to decide on their words. Jenny has chosen EXPLODE!

Ian Joins the Fray is a website devoted to celebrating the art of storytelling. Since the dawn of human civilization, storytelling has been used to pass a society's oral tradition through the generations. For the most part, storytelling is an event performed in person, however the rise of new media has allowed the art to flourish on radio, television, and the Internet. For nearly a decade, has provided a space for individuals to share true personal stories online. The site spawned a community of storytellers and storylisteners who in addition to sharing stories on the site organize various events for in-person storytelling. One such event is Fray Cafe, which is a standard at SxSW. At this year's Fray Cafe I shared a story of a canoeing trip gone horribly awry entitled: "My Own Personal Deliverance."

Monday, March 14, 2005

Two things I learned on Sunday

1) The knowledge really is in the network. It's good to be reminded of this from time to time.

2) The value of simplicity. "Just enough is more." To much functionality can be stifling rather than liberating. Harness the creativity of the users by building a minimal amount of functinality. This also seems obvious at the telling. However its good to be reminded of this from time to time.

My Sunday panels by those with better notes:

Blogging showdown
by Josh
Leveraging Solopsism by Liz
Elements of Meaningful XHTML - notes by the presenter
How to Grow an Online Community by Ben Combee

Make haste slowly-big results with small teams

May be useful for framing discussions with directors!

1. Get passionate (and be right). Make sure your goals correspond with those of the organization and feel strongly about them

2. Prototype the future. Take care in how you talk about the future. Talk about what you plan to achieve and not the technical details of how.

3. Target the low hanging fruit. Target the things that are easy to change. Target the resources you have now and the knowledge that is there.

4. Sell in a way that already works. Reference solutions/decisions/projects that have worked whether they are in your organization or another (but especially your own).

5. Track what you launch. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. It’s also ammunition. Think about the ammo you need and what information you need to acquire it.

6. Build quick small successes then point to those for the people who aren’t yet convinced.

7. Cultivate and champion (and make them think it was there idea). Find someone who gets it in the organization and foster a relationship that they think will make them smarter. They need to feel like you can help them in order for them to help you.

8. Have patience.

9. Customize your pitch to the audience. Determine the currency that each audience values and speak to that (money, people, time…)

Ian's Saturday Panels

My Saturday panels blogged by people whose notetaking is better than mine:

Blogs and Blockades by Mike from Eccoditto
Making Big Things Happen with Small Teams by Josh

Accessability is a whole other world

Does NDI need to be more vigilent about designing this way-beyond alt tags and sensitivity to colorblindness? Are we supposed to be designing with section 508 standards because we get government money. Ahhhhhhh! Something else to worry about.

Tools for grassroots organizing...

I had an interesting hallway conversation with two other DCers working in political technology: Sam from Americans United for Separation of Church and State-- an organization whose name pretty much says it all, and Tim from Echoditto, a progressive web consulting shop made up of former Deanies. I eventually realized that I’ve heard of Echoditto before. A close fried in Arizona had an ex-boyfiend working there—Garrett Graff, who recently became the first blogger to be credentialed to attend a White House press briefing.

On the topic of tools for advocacy groups, two tools came up, both suggested by Tim:
Advokit – a volunteer tracking tool (Advokit was also mentioned at IPDI).
Local Ink – a tool under development by Downhill Battle that can be used in campaigns to solicit letters to the editor and to Congress.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Emergent Semantics-say what?

Eric Meyer--CSS--guru disapoints many who didn't read the session description and wanted a CSS talk.

I can't say I fully understood everything that was discussed here but I got the gist that it was basically metadata on steroids or ways to do tagging that (somewhat) satisfy web standardists.

Basic principles:
1. Define a microformat that solves a specific problem
2. Use XHTML that already exists when you can, otherwise create a microfomat.
3. Use or leverage existing standards that aren't immediately expressible in XHTML.

Googles rel="nofollow"
Creative Commons license-link annotation
XHTML Frinds Network (XFN) Metrolling -- rel="met"
hCard & hCalendar-reproduce vcard and icalendar VFCs

Publish a list of people you met at SXSW with a link to each person's site. Add rel="met" to each link:
Eric Meyer An aggregator like will search and show all of the people someone has met. Why?? Most rudimentary purpose is to establish a basic trust level.

Cross XFN with VoteLinks to see what friends like/dislike.
Cross VoteLinks with license annotation to see the most liked/disliked licenses
Cross hCalendar with a music categorization system to see when are some upcoming shows by klemer bands :-)

Search engines are starting to recognize rel values

Digital Divide--still divided

This panel was all over the place and didn’t even scratch the surface of the issue.

Bloggers w/o Borders
Bloggers without Borders is a citizen journalism hub, dedicated to raising conscience for, and about, events around the world. We use the tools and exposure of modern guerrilla journalism as a means to lend a hand in the creation of awareness and outbound information management.

Also a good example of CSS problems with browser incompatibility—tables totally overlap on my browser.

News is information that is less interesting today than it will be tomorrow. Journalists are rabid bloggers.

Hot-Wire the Creative Process--sweet!

Lots of good strategies for keeping those creative juices flowing. Mainly geared for web/print designers but some apply to all creative processes.
1. Don’t doubt your creative powers. Believe in yourself! And if you’re going to question your creative ability, do it later. But when you have a project to do, tell yourself you can do it.
2. Buy Eno/Schmidt’s Oblique Strategy Cards for inspiration.
3. Don’t pursue eureka—just start designing instead of waiting for the perfect design solution.
4. Overwork the conceptual. It’s all about the concept. Better a good concept poorly executed than a poor concept well executed.
5. Blitz—give yourself a fake tight deadline and try to work very quickly. When time is up spend lots of time tweaking.
6. Plunder (pre-Bauhaus) art history—book of Kells, moko (Mauri tattoos), Paul Rand logos, Brut (art for mental patients) Try autogenerative software like n-gen (contextual design templates) and designershock (helps create fonts).
7. Work in layers—create 10 layers and then delete the top 5. Create 20 more and delete the middle layers. See what you get. Try a different combination.
8. Create your own website that is not public. Experiment and publish semi-publicly. Fail early and fail often.
9. Spend some time clearing your head—get away. Spend a few days totally immersed in the net looking for inspiration. Need to do both from time to time.

The key is the design process—the best solution isn’t preconceived but arrived at through exploring and reworking ideas. Don’t just focus on the final solution.

Balance the 5 layers of design context:
1. General aesthetics
2. media constraints
3. audience needs (ultimately the most important)
4. client needs (what designers often put first)
5. ethical considerations (is your work in-line with your principles?)

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Is Austin Ready?

Jenny and Ian triumphant arrival in Austin:

and immediately get to work:

Check back soon as the excitement continues...