Changes

Today I turn 41. It’s also the end of my quasi-leave of absence, and on Monday I’ll be returning to full-time work at Automattic on the Dot Org Team. When I do so, it will be in a new role; I’m posting about it here so that all concerned will know what I’m doing, why, and that yes, it’s intentional.

For 4+ years, I was the UX/Design lead for core. At some point in the first year or so, I also started project managing the core team/core development. Then I started doing some community work, events, and general contributor community management. There were also other things here and there, like trademark for a while, being the team lead of the Dot Org Team at Automattic, and various design forays. You might remember that this was too much. I’m not ashamed to admit that I burned out, and needed a break.

It’s my birthday, so it’s a natural time to reflect on where I’ve come from, where I’m at, and where I’m going. When Matt convinced me to take the job at Automattic, one of the things that got me in was that he said I could work on programs to bring women and girls into the WordPress community, especially around programming. In that lunch on a San Francisco sidewalk, I laid out a vision including mentoring programs, school projects, summer camps, trips to the moon… okay, not trips to the moon, but just about everything under it. And then I never did any of those things because I didn’t prioritize it over my work on core.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think core is mega-important. Core *is* WordPress. Without it there would be no community. That said, core doesn’t need me to pour my life into it; my offering feedback, some sketching, and advice occasionally can be as much of a help as my doing research, creating wireframes, reviewing every trac ticket, and testing every ui patch.

In 3.5, I was meant to be on leave (aside from the summit planning), so I  answered some questions and gave some feedback early in the cycle to Dave/Helen/Chelsea/Koop, but otherwise stayed out of it. (P.S. Kudos to Nacin on the project management of 3.5!) My only real involvement was at the end of the community summit, when I spent several hours the last morning sitting with Koop going though the media uploader screen by screen, asking questions (“What about _____?” “What problem does that solve?”), sketching alternate approaches, and generally dumping every reaction and idea I had about it into Koop’s head before he left for the airport. Then I didn’t think about it again. From Skype a few weeks later:

Andrew Nacin 11/27/12 12:28 PM
feeling good about 3.5?

Jane Wells 11/27/12 12:31 PM
i wasn’t really involved with it aside from media morning with koop before he left tybee

Andrew Nacin 11/27/12 12:31 PM
that morning was huge. completely re-shaped a lot of our thinking.

That has me thinking that 4 hours here and there will do just fine instead of ALL THE HOURS.

So! Where does that leave me, if I don’t need to do core design or project management anymore? I keep going back to that sidewalk lunch and how exciting it was to talk about possibilities around using WordPress as a gateway for women, girls, low-income kids, and minorities of all stripes who are under-represented in our community to get into the web industry (see also #2 in this post).

My first week back at Automattic (starting Monday) I will be doing a week’s rotation on wordpress.com support with my team, but will then be jumping into a new role focused on our contributor community. It will involve a lot of projects, but one of the first will be aimed at increasing diversity in the contributor groups, starting with the gender gap. These efforts will all happen under the aegis of the new Community Outreach contributor group, so if you are interested in working on this with me (and Andrea Rennick, and Amy Hendrix, and Cátia Kitahara, etc), please join us! I’ve got a giant list of projects that I’d like us to tackle in the new year, and we’ll need people to help make things happen.

But what about core? And other stuff? I’m reserving Wednesdays to do design so I don’t get rusty. These “office hours” can be used by the core team to have me look at something, or by an Automattic team. Otherwise, I’ll use that day to work on designs to improve areas of the WordPress.org site to help with our goals, and/or tools to help us get things done.

So that’s the plan.

What do you think?

A Bakery? Also, OMGOMGOMG!

This post has the potential to be as long as the scarf I made Matt for his birthday. Knowing that, I’ll try to keep it short and to the point. Opportunity knocked last week and I decided to answer. No, I’m not leaving WordPress or Automattic; get your mind out of the gutter. The owner of a small restaurant here on Tybee (Charly’s) is retiring and selling his place, and $10,000 was plunked down as a deposit to buy it so that it could house:
Jitterbug: eat. drink. blog.
I want to turn it into a bakery/internet cafe/WordPressy community gathering space. Bake in the morning to force some non-computer time, then do my usual WP stuff in the lulls. I wrote a 20-page business plan full of stats and projections, and some smart money types tell me it looks good. But wait! I’ve spent all my money in the last few years on things like raising my brother’s kids, buying braces for same, helping my mom buy her house down here, and stuff like that. I am broke! I can’t afford to turn this place into the vision of awesomeness I see in my head, despite the below-market price and my plan to take a loan out against my 401k. So: crowdfunding!

The project — the Jitterbug Bakery — was accepted to Kickstarter yesterday, and on Monday once I finish their project setup, I’ll launch a fundraising campaign there. I also set up a WordPress site with a paypal plugin for the non-Kickstarter types, which would mean less lost to fees. If you want to help me make this thing a reality, I’d love it if you’d pitch in (rewards range from my brownies and Jitterbug swag to website setups and reviews), but will in no way hold it against you if you don’t.

small green house with a deck with seating

The building in question: the future Jitterbug

Did you know a decent refurbished espresso setup costs up to $15k? And I don’t even drink coffee!

So if you ever thought to yourself, “I wish I could buy Jane a [drink, dinner, iPad, car] to show her how much I appreciate all she does,” here’s your chance! I’ll provide the drinks and dinner if you come visit the Jitterbug, I don’t like iPads, and I have a car I like. I put up a site at BuyJaneABakery.com that is pretty much just what it sounds like. It has all the info on what I (we, if you include my mom and Morgan!) want to create for my local community. The Contribute page has a donation widget at the bottom. Yes, a bit hidden. The Personal Fundraising plugin I wanted to use was pretty and awesome but more trouble than it was worth. If you’re a Kickstarter type of person, I’ll update this post by Monday when the project goes live there.

If you ever really loved me, help me buy a bakery!

Blackout

The blackout on WordPress.org is active. It is an interstitial, but you have to scroll all the way to the bottom to get the clickthrough link. It will go away if you click that link and be replaced by the Stop Censorship ribbon for 1 hour, at which point the cookie expires and you have to do it again. We’ll run the blackout for 24 hours. Yes, it will annoy you. I wanted to shut everything down, so count your blessings.

The reason we did this instead of a full shut-down is that there are many businesses and people who help drive the independent web that need access to the WordPress Codex, forums, plugin/theme repos, and APIs. We wouldn’t want to penalize them in our protest, so we just made it impossible to ignore instead.

The action on WordPress.com has also started. The primary home page of WordPress.com has blacked out all of its normal “Freshly Pressed” content. The WordPress.com official blog is sporting a ribbon — if we blacked out the blog, then WordPress.com bloggers would lose access to the post telling them how they can black out their sites using the option we deployed this evening. We launched on option tonight for all blogs on WordPress.com to either blackout (8am-8pm EST) or add a ribbon. In the couple of hours since we launched it, it looks like more than 10k have chosen full blackout, and around 3k have added the ribbon. People who chose blackout will have a ribbon before and after the blackout. Ribbons will remain until January 24, when PIPA comes up for vote in the Senate.

Both the WordPress.org and the WordPress.com blackout pages include a short message that includes a text link to the sopastrike.com site, the Fight for the Future video, the email form, the call form, and the non-U.S. petition form.

These things are what I spent the last consecutive 18 hours working on.

For more information, check out americancensorship.org.

Starting a WordPress Meetup

2012 is going to be the year of the WordPress Meetup.

WordCamps are more or less running pretty well under the guidelines and policy changes of the past year. We have a few smaller pain points that we’re still working out like dealing with petty cash, some international shipping stuff, and the like, but by and large WordCamp Central is going great. But what about meetups? One of the adjustments to WC policy was the idea of a WC being tied to a local meetup or meetups — the pinnacle of the local community’s year, rather than a one-off event that is cool but doesn’t do much to build an ongoing community.

There are some great meetups out there, and obviously there are millions of WordPress users that are potential meetup participants all over the world, but how do you get one going? It can be intimidating, I know! To show that it can be done — that YOU can do it — I’m going to start two meetups this month and document the process of how I did it, which I can then turn into a Field Guide to Organizing a WordPress Meetup.

Meetup #1: I live in Tybee Island, a tiny little town on the ocean, about 20 blocks long and 5 blocks deep. There are 3 or 4 thousand residents, plus a booming summer tourist trade. There are no tech companies based here, there aren’t a bunch of other meetups, there’s not a great local community website… in short, this is a small town, where I’ll have to actively go out and find people to join this meetup, and there aren’t that many people to choose from. It will be work. It may not, er, work. But this situation is similar to that faced by people in other small towns, so it will be a good example.

Meetup #2: The nearest city is Savannah, GA, about 20 miles away. As it happens, I now belong to a co-working space there and I go work from there once or twice a week (to be around other people vs working from home, alone, 24/7). Savannah has a burgeoning tech community, a handful of freelancers building WordPress sites, a lively downtown, lots of meetups and a very social culture, and a population of just under 140,000 people. There are groovy coffeeshops with wifi, an art college (SCAD), and pretty much everyone has a website. Getting this meetup going will hopefully take a little less effort if I’m smart about where I do the early publicity.

At the same time I’m acting locally, I’ll be thinking globally. I’ve wanted to do more to encourage, support, and facilitate local WordPress meetups via the Foundation for a while, but until we had the WordCamp program running smoothly there just wasn’t time. We’re now looking into a number of options (talking to meetup.com, looking at rolling our own plugin, thinking about working with schools/universities, etc), and I’ll be reaching out to current WP meetup organizers over the coming weeks to find out their pain points and the things that have worked or not worked for them.

The goals is meetups, meetups, meetups. Whether you call it a meetup, a wordup, a hackfest, a dev day, whatever… if you’re bringing together local WordPress users and/or developers on a regular basis, we want to support that.

Wish me luck, and watch this space to see how it goes. I’m scheduling the first Tybee WordPress Meetup for next Wednesday — if I get even one other person to show up and work on their wp site, that means it’s working.

 

Testing 1, 2, 3: Usability and WordPress

I did some lo-fi testing of WordPress 3.3 pre-beta on Sunday/Monday with local users, but since in the next set I want to get more multisite users, finding good participants will be tougher. Savannah has an art school, a music scene, and a burgeoning tech culture, so I can’t spend an hour at The Sentient Bean without overhearing someone tell their co-caffeineators about some new WordPress site they’re working on — a flyer posted for half a day gets plenty of individual users.

Multisite superadmins, though, are a bit harder to come by without effort, so I’m going to test out using some fancy web technology called “the skype” + “quicktime recording” as an experiment.

A Bit of Testing History

Once upon a time, usability testing was done in a lab, and was very expensive. Costly software like Morae was used, whole research teams were needed to recruit participants, moderate test sessions, and analyze results, and sometimes things went really high-end and lasers were involved. We’ll call this “formal usability testing.” The testing done in Spring 2008 on WordPress 2.5 and the Crazyhorse prototype was formal, included laser eye-tracking, and led to/strongly influenced the 2.7 admin redesign. Read all about it.

If you couldn’t afford formal testing, lo-fi setups involving a camcorder and a tripod allowed capturing the screen and participant speech, but even with a decent camera, the screen images were never fantastic. Also, unless you set up two cameras, you would miss things like facial expressions (which are hugely informative during observational testing). Although you could set it up anwhere and didn’t have to rent a lab, it was a clunky solution.

It is hard to believe it’s been so long, but I have been doing usability testing –both formal and informal — for more than 12 years now.

In July 2008, Clearleft released their Silverback app, and popularized the concept of  ‘guerrilla’ usability testing. Armed only with your Mac and their app, you could get screen capture and user video/audio thanks to your Mac’s built-in iSight. This was a game-changer. Though it didn’t have the hardcore analysis features of Morae, simply getting a high fidelity screen cap on your own was huge… and it was only about $50! Suddenly, you didn’t need to rent a big lab, you could use your regular office or even set up shop at the local caffeine vendor. Just stick people in front of your laptop and you were good to go. Suddenly testing costs could be a tenth of what they had been, and guerilla testers cropped up everywhere. By the time 2.7 was ready for testing in Autumn 2008, that’s how I was doing it, too.

I had grand plans to introduce a distributed testing model to create an avenue for usability testing professionals to have a way of contributing to WordPress that would be analogous to writing patches or helping in the forums. I put up a post about it, corresponded with potential volunteers, and tried to work out the logistics. Having each volunteer running Silverback and then uploading their videos to a central repository for analysis was the plan, but infrastructure was a problem in two ways:

  1. How would we match volunteer test moderators/usability professionals with volunteer participants? Well, there were some more grand plans around building a volunteer database tied to the .org profiles, but when the person who was working on it left, that basically sputtered, so finding participants remained a normal logistical nightmare.
  2. It would mean only Mac users could conduct testing, and non-Mac users would be using an unfamiliar OS during the test.
  3. We didn’t have a good way to collect the session videos.

So that plan never really got off the ground.

Skip to Today

Guerilla testing is still going strong, and if the number of people proposing sessions about it at SXSW is anything to go on, the fact that it’s been more than 3 years since Silverback was introduced hasn’t made it any less exciting a concept. That said, it’s still not a perfect solution. Let’s look at pros and cons…

  • Pro: Output video content and quality on par with tools like Morae
  • Con: Lacking in the post-test analytic tools of Morae.
  • Pro: Works on Macs! Morae is still PC only.
  • Con: Works on Macs! 3 years later, Silverback is still Mac only, excluding all our PC users from participating in tests in a familiar environment, and preventing non-Mac usability pros from getting involved this way.
  • Pro: Much cheaper than buying Morae.
  • Con: If the plan is to have many people doing testing all over, each moderator needs a copy of Silverback. While markedly less expensive than copies of pro software like Morae, adding up all the copies of Silverback would wind up being more than one person or team running Morae.
  • Pro: Can conduct testing in convenient locations such as an office, a coffee shop, etc. or travel to participant location. Great flexibility.
  • Con: Limited to in-person-only testing unless test participants download and install Silverback on their machines. We don’t want to require people to install software (even a free 30-day trial version) just to be a volunteer test participant, so anywhere we want to test with real users, we would need volunteer moderators with the software to be co-located.
  • Con: Non-realistic experience when using a moderator-provided laptop during in-person tests. Real-world things influence how a user interacts in the browser with any web app — saved passwords, form auto-fill, chat windows popping up, email notifications, torrent downloads of Doctor Who hogging your bandwidth, screaming kids in the background, a ringing phone, you name it. To get a more realistic picture of usage/behavior, the researcher always prefers the setup that is as close to normal as possible. Using someone else’s laptop just doesn’t cut it.* And just as Morae limited us to PCs, Silverback is limited to Macs, but we want to test with users of both platforms. (And Linux! Don’t forget Linux!**)

So while guerilla testing with Silverback is cheaper/and more flexible than hiring a lab, and provides you with deeper observational information than an online service like usertesting.com, you’re still limited to doing testing in a place where you can have both a moderator and participants, which makes the participant pool quite limited, and not representative of the WordPress user base as a whole.

With the advent of Skype screensharing and Quicktime screen recording, we may finally be getting to a point where we can bridge that gap and include participants who are not local to the moderators — where we can get good recordings and can let participants use their own machines without significant cost or requiring unfamiliar software downloads. The drawback to this is that if you’re using skype to screenshare, you can’t also continue the video chat talking head.*** Still, observing real-time usage in a far-away participant’s own environment while being able to ask questions is a big step forward. So, I’m trying it out. We’ll see how it goes… Skype screensharing can get jumpy or laggy if you’re not on a reliably blazing internet connection.

If you are someone who uses WordPress multisite as a superadmin and would like to be a guinea pig to help me work out the kinks of this method (and get a look at some new UI stuff we’re considering at the same time), leave a note in the comments and I’ll get in touch over the next couple of days. Thanks!

When we get into Beta, assuming the trial run of this goes okay, I’m hoping to try and revive the distributed testing idea, so if you are a professional usability tester and would like to get involved with that in a couple of weeks, a note in the comments will get you added to the email list for when that’s ready to try again.

All that said, why do we do testing? It’s time-consuming and expensive, even when the software is cheap or free. Most agencies do it to show their clients that the design decisions they made were good ones. Most companies do it to find out what problems customers/users have with their products. With WordPress, we don’t so much have a “client” and our users tell us straight up in the forums what things cause them problems. So why should we do testing at all?

  • Define benchmarks. One of the things we’re always trying to improve with WordPress is making it faster. How long it takes to complete various tasks in wp-admin is one benchmark of performance and usability that can be measured. Testing can provide a sample data pool with these stats.
  • Test assumptions. With so many people weighing in on every design decision for WordPress, sometimes we have to forge ahead in what we think is the best direction despite siren songs from contributors who would prefer a different UI approach to something. Design by committee, camel, etc. That said, when’s there’s more than one UI idea or suggestion that seems reasonable for a given task, we don’t want to cling dogmatically to the status quo, either. Testing a few different design approaches allows us to see which designs people seem to respond to better.

So, could we live without testing? Sure. But do we want to? No. Seeing our work being used by regular people — not code contributors, not designers, not WordPress insiders with a vested interest in the choices made in the UI — keeps us humble. I challenge you to watch someone who’s not especially web-savvy figure out how to embed a video the first time. Change the tagline. Create a custem menu. I think the perpetual praise of WordPress as the most user-friendly platform for blogging and content management is justified, and we’ve worked hard to earn that reputation, but everyone on the core team is painfully aware of how much further we still need to go. Good testing can help us get there faster.

P.S. I haven’t even touched on testing with people of different abilities, different languages, etc., but that all needs to get more attention as well.

*And also means the researcher will have to re-arrange all her keys to be QWERTY for the sake of testing, then swap back to Dvorak afterward. Hmph.

** We usually forget Linux.

*** If we wanted to do another Mac-only thing, people with iPhones could use FaceTime for the talking head part while Skype was in screen share mode.

Crossover Sensation

Fair warning: this post is long. If you’re not interested in education issues, go ahead and skip it. 

Jane = Name I go by as UX Designer for WordPress and related projects

Jenifer = Legal identity used in academic settings, interested in 1) the relation between pop culture and the acquisition of historical knowledge, and 2) ways of improving educational opportunities and programs using digital technologies to bridge the gaps between geographically/demographically disparate groups of students. 

The Jane nickname came about in 2001, and stuck. Jenifer is my legal name, is what I’m known by to family and friends who pre-date the 2001 nickname, as well as to my academic connections. These two identities had been very separate until recently, when the WordCamp Ed community began to develop and I started to get involved. Suddenly there were people who knew me as Jenifer wondering why my business cards said Jane, and people who knew me as Jane the WordPress girl wondering why WordCamp attendees were calling me Jenifer.  As I stood at a podium to talk about WordPress design, I also talked about the ways WordPress could be used to educational ends. 

The crossover between my two identities has gotten to the point that they aren’t separate anymore. While I lament this on one hand (it’s always nice to have a separate world you can step into for a change now and then), on the other hand it’s exponentially more interesting to be able to work with two amazing communities to try and accomplish things that benefit everyone. 

I’ve been talking for a while with people about the various education-oriented projects I’m interested in developing, but I’ve never posted about them, which has meant that I’m not really on the hook to do anything about them. This post is meant to be a kick in my own ass to get going with these ideas, find some co-conspirators and start trying to change the way we approach a few different slices of the educational pie. 

In no particular order, then, a few ideas:

1. Using technology to broaden educational horizons. My nieces are the product of a really crappy Georgia school district. I’ve listened to their stories about racist teachers (and lesson plans), curriculums that involve little to no reading, and the failure to instill skills like spelling under the reasoning that “you can always use spellcheck” (!!!)(Seriously!), and the worst part about it is that the kids don’t realize the subpar education they are receiving and many students are internalizing the bad attitudes of these subpar teachers. If only they were in schools with better curriculums, had more enlightened teachers, and were part of a more diverse student body!

So, what if…. students from around the country (and eventually the world?) were placed in online study/discussion groups that mixed up students from different geographic regions, socio-economic profiles, racial/ethnic groups, family makeups, etc.? Would a discussion about slavery or immigration take on a different tone? Would talking about civil rights have different results? What if instead of just reading (often biased and/or just plain inaccurate) textbooks, students engaged in group projects using online video, photos, documents, blogs, chats, and other forms of communication? Would a more immersive experience requiring personal investment of time and energy bring about a kind of learning that goes beyond memorization and regurgitation, requiring kids to develop critical thinking skills and an open mind?

I think so. I think a study to test this theory would be awesome. We’d need to pick a course topic to use for a pilot (I’m thinking a unit or two of U.S. History would be ideal), get enough teachers/classes to participate so we could have test and control groups including:

  • Traditional class, no interactive element 
  • Class using interactive assignments, but only working within own class group
  • Class using interactive assignments with students from different areas/profiles

For a pilot, would be nice to include 4-5 regions. Maybe students from a NYC magnet school, a rural south public school, somewhere in Idaho, some from East LA, etc. To get enough students to cover integrated test groups plus controls it would require a number of teachers and students, so it would take a fair amount of coordination. Would be ideal to run study through a university and if possible get a grant to cover costs and pay the teachers for participating, etc. 

2. Developing a generation of geek girls. Enough has been written on how girls (often right around middle school/junior high) are tracked away from math and science despite there being many girls with high aptitudes and interests in these areas. In addition, I think a lot about how the web industry really doesn’t require much formal education… it’s largely a meritocracy, and you can learn most of what you need for free online. Why, then, aren’t more low-income kids guided toward this area? They could have awesome careers and jump ahead socio-economically based on their own merits rather than being stuck in a dead-end job because college isn’t a financial option. 

Combining these two thoughts, I’d like to see a program designed to get girls, and especially girls from low-income situations, who might have an interest into fields like social media, computers, design or related jobs. Starting with middle school, there could be summer camp-style programs or online groups or some combination thereof that provided guided lessons and exposure to the kinds of opportunities available to people with these skills. 

One thing I’ve talked about with Matt in regard to this is the idea of bringing together some girls who fit this profile and teaching them how WordPress works, maybe doing workshops for them that gets them working together to create a plugin or design and build a good web site, bringing them to San Francisco or New York and doing tours at some of the cool offices/campuses where people in our industry work. A visit to the Google campus? Might be kind of inspiring to someone whose parents work 3-4 jobs between them to support the family. Getting to meet web luminaries for lunch and hearing how they spend their workdays, same thing. 

So that would be cool. There are a number of programs out there that do girls in tech camps, etc., but I haven’t seen anything that starts with social media or focuses specifically on the demographic I’m interested in supporting. 

3. Open Source online educational software that is awesome instead of aggravating. Blackboard sucks. Angel sucks. Moodle is a good project, but is a little clunky. The Courseware plugin for WordPress is a good first step toward building an educational system on top of WordPress. Scriblio is also fantastic. We need a set of plugins that address the need for testing/grade reporting according to AICC/Scorm standards that many educational institutions still require, multimedia collaboration and non-sucky ways of discussing content. I’d volunteer to do the UX/interface stuff on this if any badass developers wanted to step up to build the thing. Anyone?

4. This one isn’t WordPress related, but it’s been pinging around in my head for a few years. I’m interested in how people learn about history from non-academic sources. Films, novels, songs… more people learn about history from these sources than they do from textbooks or non-fiction publications. That wouldn’t be bad, except that most of the time these sources are heinously inaccurate, and media consumers don’t know/don’t care. I think a study the looked at where information came from, how it affected attitudes/historical knowledge/perceptions of how knowledgeable one is would be really interesting. 

Okay, so now all that stuff is off my chest. I’m going to try and attend the Edupunk panel at SxSW this week and see what they have to say. If you’re in town, you should come too. 

(And if you are interested in maybe working on any of these projects, let me know!)