Category Archives: mozilla

Mission Driven Orgs: Don’t Alienate Alumni, Leverage Them (I’m looking at you, Mozilla)

While written for Mozilla, this piece really applies to any mission-driven organization. In addition, if you are media, please don’t claim this is written by Mozilla. I’m a contributor, and Mozilla is at its best when it encourages debate and discussion. This post says nothing about Mozilla official policy and I’m sure there Mozillians who will agree and disagree with me.

The Opportunity

Mozilla is an amazing organization. With a smaller staff, and aided by a community of supporters, it not only competes with the Goliaths of Silicon Valley but uses its leverage whenever possible to fight for users’ rights. This makes it simultaneously a world leading engineering firm and, for most who work there, a mission driven organization.

That was on full display this weekend at the Mozilla Summit, taking place concurrently in Brussels, Toronto and Santa Clara. Sadly, so was something else. A number of former Mozillians, many of whom have been critical to the organization and community were not participating. They either weren’t invited, or did not feel welcome. At times, it’s not hard to see why:

You_chose_Facebook

Again this is not an official Mozilla response. And that is part of the problem. There has never been much of an official or coordinated approach to dealing with former staff and community members. And it is a terrible, terrible lost opportunity – one that hinders Mozilla from advancing its mission in multiple ways.

The main reason is this: The values we Mozillians care about may be codified in the Mozilla Manifesto, but they don’t reside there. Nor do they reside in a browser, or even in an organization. They reside in us. Mozilla is about creating power by foster a community of people who believe in and advocate for an open web.

Critically, the more of us there are, the stronger we are. The more likely we will influence others. The more likely we will achieve our mission.

And power is precisely what many of our alumni have in spades. Given Mozilla’s success, its brand, and its global presence, Mozilla’s contributors (both staff and volunteers) are sought-after – from startups to the most influential companies on the web. This means there are Mozillians influencing decisions – often at the most senior levels – at companies that Mozilla wants to influence. Even if these Mozillians only injected 5% of what Mozilla stands for into their day-to-day lives, the web would still be a better place.

So it begs the question: What should Mozilla’s alumni strategy be? Presently, from what I have seen, Mozilla has no such strategy. Often, by accident or neglect, alumni are left feeling guilty about their choice. We let them – and sometimes prompt them to – cut their connections not just with Mozilla but (more importantly) with the personal connection they felt to the mission. This at a moment when they could be some of the most important contributors to our mission. To say nothing about continuing to contribute their expertise to coding, marketing or any number of other skills they may have.

As a community, we need to accept that as amazing as Mozilla (or any non-profit) is, most people will not spend their entire career there nor volunteer forever. Projects end. Challenges get old. New opportunities present themselves. And yes, people burn out on mission – which no longer means they don’t believe in it – they are just burned out. So let’s not alienate these people, let’s support them. They could be a killer advantage one of our most important advantages. (I mean, even McKinsey keeps an alumni group, and that is just so they can sell to them… we can offer so much more meaning than that. And they can offer us so much more than that).

How I would do it

At this point, I think it is too late to start a group and hope people will come. I could be wrong, but I suspect many feel – to varying degrees – alienated. We (Mozilla) will probably have to do more than just reach out a hand.

I would find three of the most respected, most senior Mozillians who have moved on and I’d reach out privately and personally. I’d invite them to lunch individually. And I’d apologize for not staying more connected with them. Maybe it is their fault, maybe it is ours. I don’t care. It’s in our interests to fix this, so let’s look inside ourselves and apologize for our contribution as a way to start down the path.

I’d then ask them if them if they would be willing to help oversee an alumni group. If they would reach out to their networks and, with us, bring these Mozillians back into the fold.

There is ample opportunity for such a group. They could be hosted once a year and be shown what Mozilla is up to and what it means for the companies they work for. They could open doors to C-suite offices. They could mentor emerging leaders in our community and they could ask for our advice as they build new products that will impact how people use the web. In short, they could be contributors.

Let’s get smart about cultivating our allies – even those embedded in organizations with don’t completely agree with. Let’s start thinking about how we tap into and help keep alive the values that made them Mozillians in the first place, and find ways to help them be effective in promoting them.

The Journal News Gun Map: Open vs. Personal Data

As many readers are likely aware two weeks ago The Journal News, a newspaper just outside of New York city, published a map showing the addresses and names of handgun owners in Westchester and Rockland counties. The map, which was part of a story responding to the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was constructed with data the paper acquired through Freedom of Information requests. Since their publication the story has generated enormous public interest, including a tremendous amount of anger from gun owners and supporters. The newspaper and its staff have received death threats, had their home addresses published and details of where their kids attend school published. Today the newspapers headquarters are guarded by… armed guards.

While there is a temptation to talk about this even in terms of open data, I don’t think this is a debate about open data. This is a debate about privacy and policy.

Let me clarify.

There is lots of information governments collect about people – the vast majority of which is not, and should not be available. As both an open data advocate and a gov 2.0 advocate I’m strongly interested in ensuring that – around any given data set – peoples sense of privacy is preserved. There are of course interests that benefit from information being made inaccessible, just as there are interests that benefit from it being made accessible, but when it comes to individually identifying pieces of information, I prefer to be cautious.

Ven-pers-vs-open

So, from my perspective, it is critical that this debate not get sloppy. This is not about open data. It is about personable identifiable data – and what governments should and should not do with it. Obviously “open” and “personal identifiable” data can overlap, but they are not the same. A great deal of open data has nothing to do with individuals. However, if we allow the two to become synonymous… well… expect a backlash against open data. No one ever gave anyone a blank check to make any and everything open. I don’t expect my personal healthcare or student record to be downloadable by anyone – I suspect you don’t either.

This is why – when I advise governments – I try to focus on data that is the least contentious (e.g. not even at risk of being personally identifying) since this gives public servants, politicians and the public some time to build knowledge and capacity around understand the issues.

open-vs.-pers-details

This is not to say that no personalbly identifiable data should be made available – the question is, to what end? And the question matters. I suspect privacy played a big part if the outcry and reaction to the Journal’s gun map. But I suspect that for many – particularly strong pro-gun advocates – there was a recognition that this data was being used as a device (of VERY unclear efficacy) to accelerate public support for stricter gun laws. So they object not just to the issue of privacy, but to the usage.

In the case of guns, I don’t know what the right answer is. But here is an example I feel more confident about. Personally I (and many others) believe businesses license data should be open, including personal identifiable data. But again, these are issues that need to be hammered out, debated and the public given choices. This is not where the open data discussion needs to start, and this is certainly not how it should be defined in the public, as it is much, much more that that and includes touches many issues that are far, far less contentious. But we need to be building the capacity – in the public, among politicians and among public servants – to have these conversations, because disclosure, or the lack thereof, will increasingly be a political and policy choice.

And many of these questions will be tricky. I also believe data should be made available in aggregate. While I understand there are risks I believe  researchers should be allowed to use large data sets to try to find out how age or other factors might effective a terrible medical condition, or to gain insights into how graduation rates of at risk groups might be improved. These are big benefits that are – again, for me, worth the risk. But they will of course need to constantly be weighed and debated. What personal data should also be allowed to become open data, under what circumstances and to whose benefit… these are big questions.

So, if you are an open data advocates out there – please don’t let people confuse Open Data with Personal Data. The two can and almost certainly will overlap at times. But that does not make them the same thing. If these two terms become synonymous in the public’s mind in ANY way, it could take years to recover. So educate yourself on privacy issues, and be sure to educate the people you work with. But above all, help them get ready for these debates. More are coming.

Some additional Thoughts

Of course, when it comes to data, if you are really worried about personally identifiable stuff, there is a lot more to fear that isn’t maintained by governments. The world of free and purchasable data contains a lot of goodies (think maps, stock prices, etc…) but there is also plenty of overlap with personal data as well.

3way-ven

Indeed, much of the retaliatory data about the employees of The Journal News was data that was personally identifiable and readily available. A simple look at who I follow on twitter would likely reveal a fair bit about my social graph to anyone. And this isn’t even the juicy stuff. One wonders how many people realize just how much about them can be purchased. Indeed accessing some information has become so common place people don’t even think about it anymore: my understanding is that almost anyone can get a copy of your credit score, right?

3way-ven-detailed

That siad, I recognize the difference between data the state forces you to disclose (gun ownership) and that which you “voluntarily” submit and cede control over so as to take part in a service (facebook friends). I don’t always like the latter, but I recognize it is different from the government – it is one thing to have a monopoly on violence it is another to have a terrible EULA. That said, I suspect that many people would  be disturbed if they saw exactly how many people were tracking all of the things they do online. Mozilla’s Collusion project is a fun – if ultimately fruitless – tool for getting a sense of this. It is worth doing for a day just to see who is watching what you watch and do online.

I share all this not because I want to scare anyone – indeed I suspect these additional notes are old hat to anyone still reading, but recognize how complex the public’s relationship with data is. And as much as it will upset my privacy advocacy friends to hear me say this: my sense is that public is actually still quite comfortable with vast amounts of data about them being collected (Facebook seems to be able to do whatever it wants with almost no impact on usage). Where people get finicky is around how that data gets used. Apparently, be sold to more effectively doesn’t bother them all that much (although I wish some algorithm could figure out that I’ve already bought a fitbit so there ads need no longer follow me all over the web). However, try to use it to take away their guns… and some of them will get very angry. Somewhere in there a line has been drawn. It has all the makings of an epic public policy and corporate policy nightmare.

Not Brain Candy: A Review of The Information Diet by Clay Johnson

My body no longer kills me when I come back from the gym. However, I had a moment of total humiliation today: theoretically my ideal body weight is 172 pounds and I weigh 153 Ibs. The woman at the gym calibrated my fat/water/meat/bone ratios, made an inward gasp and I asked her what was wrong. She said (after a tentative, you-have-cancer pause), “You’re what’s technically known as a ‘thin fat person.’ ”

– Douglas Copeland, Microserfs

We know that healthy eating – having a good, balanced diet – is the most important thing we can do for our physical health. What if the same is true of our brains?  This is the simple but powerful premise that lies at the heart of Clay Johnson’s excellent book The Information Diet.

It’s also a timely thesis.

Everyone seems worried about how we consume information, about what it is doing to our brains and how it impacts society. Pessimists believe Google and social media are creating a generation of distracted idiots unable or unwilling to steep themselves in any deep knowledge. From the snide ramblings of Andrew Keen in The Cult of the Amateur to alarmed New York Times executive editor Bill Keller – who equates letting his daughter join Facebook to passing her a crystal meth pipe – the internet and the type of information it creates are apparently destroying our minds, our society and, of course, our children.

While I disagree with the likes of Keen and Keller, your humble author admits he’s an information addict. I love reading the newspaper or my favourite columnists/bloggers; I’m regularly distracted by both interesting and meaningless articles via Twitter and Facebook; and I constantly struggle to stay on top of my email inbox. I’m a knowledge worker in an information society. If anyone should be good at managing information, it should be me. Reading The Information Diet forces me to engage with my ability in a way I’ve not done before.

What makes The Information Diet compelling is that Johnson embraces the concerns we have about the world of information overload – from those raised by New York Magazine authors and celebrated pundits to the challenges we all feel on a day to day basis – and offers the best analysis to date of its causes, and what we can do about it. Indeed, rather than being a single book, The Information Diet is really three. It’s an analysis of what is happening to the media world; it’s a self-help book for information-age workers, consumers and citizens; and it’s a discussion about the implications of the media environment on our politics.

InfoDietIt is in its first section that the book shines the brightest. Johnson is utterly persuasive in arguing that the forces at play in the food industry are a powerful mirror for our media environment. Today the main threat to Americans (and most others living in the developed world) is not starvation; it’s obesity. Our factory farms are so completely effective at pumping out produce that it isn’t a lack of food the kills us, it’s an overabundance of it. And more specifically, it’s the over-consumption of food that we choose to eat, but that isn’t good for us in anything greater than small quantities.

With information, our problem isn’t that we consume too much – Johnson correctly points out that physically, this isn’t possible. What’s dangerous is consuming an overabundance of junk information – information that is bad for us. Today, one can choose to live strictly on a diet of ramen noodles and Mars bars. Similarly, it’s never been easier to restrict one’s information consumption to that which confirms our biases. In an effort to better serve us, everywhere we go, we can chomp on a steady diet of information that affirms and comforts rather than challenges – information devoid of knowledge or even accuracy; cheaply developed stories by “big info” content farms like Demand Media or cheaply created opinion hawked by affirmation factories like MSNBC or FOX News; even emails and tweets that provide dopamine bursts but little value. In small quantities, these information sources can be good and even enjoyable. In large quantities, they deplete our efficiency, stress us out, and can put us in reality bubbles.

And this is why I found The Information Diet simultaneously challenging, helpful and worrying.

Challenging, because reading The Information Diet caused me to think of my own diet. I like to believe I’m a healthy consumer, but reflecting on what I read, where I get my information and who I engage with, in parts of my life, I may be that dreaded thin-fat person. I look okay, but probe a little deeper and frankly, there are a few too many confirmation biases, too many common sources, leaving my brain insufficiently challenged and becoming a shade flabby. I certainly spend too much time on email, which frankly is a type of information fix that really does sap my productivity.

Helpful, because in part The Information Diet is a 21st-century guide to developing and honing critical thinking and reasoning skills. At its most basic, it’s a self-help book that provides some solid frameworks and tools for keeping these skills sharp in a world where the opportunities for distraction and confirmation bias remain real and the noise-to-signal ratio can be hard to navigate.  To be clear, none of this advice is overly refined, but Johnson doesn’t pretend it is. You can’t download critical thinking skills – no matter what Fox News’s slogan implies. In this regard, the book is more than helpful – it’s empowering. Johnson, correctly I believe, argues that much like the fast food industry – which seeks to exploit our body’s love of salty, fatty food – many media companies are simply indulging our desire for affirming news and opinion. It’s not large companies that are to blame. It’s the “secret compact” (as Johnson calls it) that we make with them that makes them possible. We are what we consume. In this regard, for someone that those on the right might consider (wrongly) to be a big government liberal, The Information Diet has an strong emphasis on personal responsibility.

There is, of course, a depressing flip side to this point: one that has me thinking about the broader implications of his metaphor. In a world of abundant food, we have to develop better discipline around dieting and consumption.

But the sad fact is, many of us haven’t. Indeed, almost a majority has not.

As someone who believes in democratic discourse, I’ve always accepted that as messy as our democratic systems may be, over time good ideas – those backed by evidence and effective track records – will rise to the top. I don’t think Johnson is suggesting this is no longer true. But he is implying that in a world of abundant information, the basic ante of effective participation is going up. The skills are evolving and the discipline required is increasing. If true, where does that leave us? Are we up for the challenge? Even many of those who look informed may simply be thin fat people. Perhaps those young enough to grow up in the new media environment will automatically develop the skills Clay says we need to explicitly foster. But does this mean there is a vulnerable generation? One unable to engage critically and so particularly susceptible to the siren song of their biases?

Indeed, I wish this topic were tackled more, and initially it felt like it would be. The book starts off as a powerful polemic on how we engage in information; it is then a self-help book, and towards the end, an analysis of American politics. It all makes for fascinating reading. Clay has plenty of humour, southern charm and self-deprecating stories that the pages flow smoothly past one another. Moreover, his experience serves him well. This is man who worked at Ask Jeeves in its early days, helped create the online phenomenon of the Howard Dean campaign, and co-founded Blue State Digital – which then went on to create the software that powered Obama’s online campaign.

But while his background and personality make for compelling reading, the last section sometimes feels more disconnected from the overall thesis. There is much that is interesting and I think Clay’s concerns about the limits of transparency are sound (it is a prerequisite to success, but not a solution). Much like most people know Oreos are bad for them, they know congressmen accept huge bundles of money. Food labels haven’t made America thinner, and getting better stats on this isn’t going to magically alter Washington. Labels and transparency are important tools for those seeking to diet. Here the conversation is valuable. However, some of the arguments, such as around scalability problems of representation, feel less about information and more about why politics doesn’t work. And the chapter closes with more individual advice. This is interesting, but his first three chapters create a sense of crisis around America’s information diet. I loved his suggestions for individuals, but I’d love to hear some more structural solutions, or if he thinks the crisis is going to get worse, and how it might affect our future.

None of this detracts from the book. Quite the opposite – it left me hungry for more.

And I suspect it will do the same for anyone interested in participating as a citizen or worker in the knowledge economy. Making The Information Diet part of your information diet won’t just help you rethink how you consume information, live and work. It will make you think. As a guy who knows he should eat more broccoli but doesn’t really like the taste, it’s nice to know that broccoli for your brain can be both good for you and tasty to read. I wish I had more of it in my daily diet.

For those interested you can find The Information Diet Blog here – this has replaced his older well known blog – InfoVegan.com.

Full disclosure: I should also share that I know Clay Johnson. I’ve been involved in Code for America and he sits on the Advisory Board. With that in mind, I’ve done my best to look at his book with a critical eye, but you the reader, should be aware.

Calling all Mozilla Contributors Past & Present

As some friends know, I’ve been working with Mozilla, helping them design an engagement audit, something to enable them assess how effective they are at engaging and empowering the community. This work has a number of aspects, much of which builds on ideas I’ve blogged about here and spoken about in the last year or so (most recently at DjangoCon and the Drupal Pacific Northwest Summit).

The hardest thing of course, is getting feedback from volunteer contributors themselves. This group of talented people are dispersed and, unsurprisingly, busy. But they also have the best data about their experience and so capturing it, sharing it, and using it to provide recommendations to help Mozilla is essential.

DinoheadIn pursuit of that goal I’ve worked a number of staff at Mozilla, and sought the advice of survey expert Peter Loewen to create a Mozilla Volunteer Contributor Survey.

So…! If you are a Mozilla contributor, or have been in the past, we would be deeply indebted to you if you took the time to fill this out. We are trying to push the survey link into various networks we think contributors will see it, but anything you can do to let e fellow Mozillian know about the survey would be great.

Really, really can’t thank anyone who takes this survey enough.

The Science of Community Management: DjangoCon Keynote

At OSCON this year, Jono Bacon, argued that we are entering a era of renaissance in open source community management – that increasingly we don’t just have to share stories but that repeatable, scientific approaches are increasingly available to us. In short, the art of community management is shifting to a science.

With an enormous debt to Jono, I contend we are already there. Indeed the tools for enable a science of community management have existed for at least 5 years. All that is needed is an effort to implement them.

A few weeks ago the organizers of DjangoCon were kind enough to invite me to give the keynote at their conference in Portland and I made these ideas the centerpiece of my talk.

Embedded below is the result: a talk that that starts slowly, but that grew with passion and engagement as it progressed. I really want to thank the audience for the excellent Q&A and for engaging with me and the ideas as much as they did. As someone from outside their community, I’m grateful.

My hope in the next few weeks is to write this talk up in a series of blog posts or something more significant, and, hopefully, to redo this video in slideshare (although I’m going to have to get my hands on the audio of this). I’ll also be giving a version of this talk at the Drupal Pacific Northwest Summit in a few weeks. Feedback, as always, is not only welcome, but gratefully received. None of this happens in a vacuum, it is always your insights that help me get better, smarter and more on target.

Big thanks to Dierderik Van Liere and Lauren Bacon for inspiration and help as well as Mike Beltzner, Daniel Einspanjer, David Ascher and Dan Mosedale (among many others) at Mozilla who’ve been supportive and a big assistance.

In the meantime, I hope this is enjoyable, challenging and spurs good thoughts.

The Geopolitics of the Open Government Partnership: the beginning of Open vs. Closed

Aside from one or two notable exceptions, there hasn’t been a ton of press about the Open Government Partnership (OGP). This is hardly surprising. The press likes to talk about corruption and bad government, people getting together to talk about actually address these things in far less sexy.

But even where good coverage exists analysts and journalists are, I think, misunderstanding the nature of the partnership and its broader implications should it take hold. Presently it is generally seen as a do good project, one that will help fight corruption and hopefully lead to some better governance (both of which I hope will be true). However, the Open Government Partnership isn’t just about doing good, it has real strategic and geopolitical purposes.

In fact, the OGP is, in part, about a 21st century containment strategy.

For those unfamiliar with 20th century containment, a brief refresher. Containment refers to a strategy outlined by a US diplomat – George Kennan – who while posted in Moscow wrote the famous The Long Telegram in which he outlined the need for a more aggressive policy to deal with an expansionist post-WWII Soviet Union. He argued that such a policy would need to seek to isolate the USSR politically and strategically, in part by positioning the United States as a example in the world that other countries would want to work with. While discussions of “containment” often focus on its military aspects and the eventual arms race, it was equally influential in prompting the ideological battle between the USA and USSR as they sought to demonstrate whose “system” was superior.

So I repeat. The OGP is part of a 21st century containment policy. And I’d go further, it is a effort to forge a new axis around which America specifically, and a broader democratic camp more generally, may seek to organize allies and rally its camp. It abandons the now outdated free-market/democratic vs. state-controlled/communist axis in favour of a more subtle, but more appropriate, open vs. closed.

The former axis makes little sense in a world where authoritarian governments often embrace (quasi) free-market to reign, and even have some of the basic the trappings of a democracy. The Open Government Partnership is part of an effort to redefine and shift the goal posts around what makes for a free-market democracy. Elections and a market place clearly no longer suffice and the OGP essentially sets a new bar in which a state must (in theory) allow itself to be transparent enough to provide its citizens with information (and thus power), in short: it is a state can’t simple have some of the trappings of a democracy, it must be democratic and open.

But that also leaves the larger question. Who is being contained? To find out that answer take a look at the list of OGP participants. And then consider who isn’t, and likely never could be, invited to the party.

OGP members Notably Absent
Albania
Azerbaijan
Brazil
Bulgaria
Canada
Chile
Colombia
Croatia
Czech Republic
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Estonia
Georgia
Ghana
Guatemala
Honduras
Indonesia
Israel
Italy
Jordon
Kenya
Korea
Latvia
Liberia
Lithuania
Macedonia
Malta
Mexico
Moldova
Mongolia
Montenegro
Netherlands
Norway
Peru
Philippines
Romania
Slovak Republic
South Africa
Spain
Sweden
Tanzania
Turkey
Ukraine
United Kingdom
United States
Uruguay
ChinaIran

Russia

Saudi Arabia

(Indeed much of the middle East)

Pakistan

*India is not part of the OGP but was involved in much of initial work and while it has withdrawn (for domestic political reasons) I suspect it will stay involved tangentially.

So first, what you have here is a group of countries that are broadly democratic. Indeed, if you were going to have a democratic caucus in the United Nations, it might look something like this (there are some players in that list that are struggling, but for them the OGP is another opportunity to consolidate and reinforce the gains they’ve made as well as push for new ones).

In this regards, the OGP should be seen as an effort by the United States and some allies to find some common ground as well as a philosophical touch point that not only separates them from rivals, but that makes their camp more attractive to deal with. It’s no trivial coincidence that on the day of the OGP launch the President announced the United States first fulfilled commitment would be its decision to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The EITI commits the American oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments made to foreign governments, which would make corruption much more difficult.

This is America essentially signalling to African people and their leaders – do business with us, and we will help prevent corruption in your country. We will let you know if officials get paid off by our corporations. The obvious counter point to this is… the Chinese won’t.

It’s also why Brazil is a co-chair, and the idea was prompted during a meeting with India. This is an effort to bring the most important BRIC countries into the fold.

But even outside the BRICs, the second thing you’ll notice about the list is the number of Latin American, and in particular African countries included. Between the OGP, the fact that the UK is making government transparency a criteria for its foreign aid, and that World Bank is increasingly moving in the same direction, the forces for “open” are laying out one path for development and aid in Africa. One that rewards governance and – ideally – creates opportunities for African citizens. Again, the obvious counter point is… the Chinese won’t.

It may sounds hard to believe but the OGP is much more than a simple pact designed to make heads of state look good. I believe it has real geopolitical aims and may be the first overt, ideological salvo in the what I believe will be the geopolitical axis of Open versus Closed. This is about finding ways to compete for the hearts and minds of the world in a way that China, Russia, Iran and others simple cannot. And, while I agree we can debate the “openness” of the various the signing countries, I like the idea of world in which states compete to be more open. We could do worse.

Design Matters: Looking at a Re-themed Bugzilla

I’ll be honest. There was a time when I thought design didn’t matter. To my credit, it was a long time ago… but I used to think, if the tool was good enough, the design won’t matter, people will use it cause it is helpful. (This may or may not have influenced some fashion choices earlier in life as well – I’d like to think things have improved – but not everyone may agree it has improved sufficiently).

Being useful may be sufficient (although take a look at the government website at the bottom of this post – it’s a very useful website). But it’s no excuse for not making things easier to use. Especially when you are running an open source community and want to encourage participation and ease people up the learning curve faster.

Hence why I enjoyed recently discovering ActiveState’s implementation of Bugzilla (re-themed by Tara Gibbs). Bugzilla is the software many open source projects use to identify, track and resolve bugs.

Here we have two identical pieces of software (so the “usefulness” is the same) but what makes ActiveState’s version of Bugzilla so nice are a few simple things they’ve done to make it more user friendly (doubly pleased to see them implement some ideas I’d blogged earlier as well – great minds think alike!).

So let’s start with the Mozilla instance of Bugzilla – as this was the one I was used to.

I’ve circled a couple of the key features to zero in on. Let me go through them as I want you to be thinking about them when you look at the ActiveState version:

  • Red circle: Notice that this has a lot of key items in it, but it is lost next to the “search” button, which pulls your attention away
  • Dark orange arrow: the search button! most often you won’t find a search box located here in an application.
  • Green circle: Tons of useful stuff down here, but arranged in one long horizontal list, that makes it hard to find what you’re look for (and another search box!)
  • Light orange arrow: another log out option… didn’t I see that somewhere else as well?

I want to be clear, the Bugzilla team at Mozilla is awesome. Recently hired they are trying to do a ton of stuff and this is not where I’d expect them to start (and they’ve been super responsive to everything I’ve blogged about so I’m a huge fan), I want to flag this because everyone, from software engineers to government officials need to recognize that we rely on good design to make our lives easier, to help with decision fatigue and streamline our work, every day.

Now check out the ActiveState version of the exact same software, but re-designed.

So, my cartoonish circles and arrows are mucking up the design and ascetics of both theses sites, so please forgive that. (I suggest opening them in adjacent tabs – Mozilla here, ActiveState here – so you can see them uninterrupted).

So, a few things:

  • Red circle: Now everything to do with the administration of your account is in the top, top right hand corner. This is where Google, Facebook and most websites put this info now, that’s why you’re expecting to find it there!
  • Dark orange arrow: now the search button is in the top right hand corner. Pretty much the same location it appears in Firefox (and safari, IE, chrome, OS X, etc…) and so where users have come to expect it.
  • Green circle: This part really is genius. Did you know there were saved searches in the above version? There are, but the feature didn’t stand out. This theme sorts the users options and displays them vertically within a menu: much, much easier to digest quickly.
  • Light orange arrow: Features appear only once! For example, the sign out and search feature do not appear at the top and bottom. This helps reduce clutter and allows the user to find things more quickly

My point is that a few minor changes can dramatically improve the usability of a website or tool. Is Mozilla’s bugzilla radically worse than ActiveState’s? No, but I definitely prefer ActiveState’s design. Moreover, when you are relying on volunteer contributors and attracting new contributors is something that matters to you, this is an important gateway and so you want it to be as seamless as possible.

What’s interesting is that often it is in the non-profit and government sector that design gets neglected because it is deemed a luxury, or the “substantive” people don’t think design matters and so ignore it.

The results can be disastrous.

I mean, especially if you are in government, then you’ve really got to be advocating for better design. Consider the website below. Remember, this may be the most important citizen facing website in the Canadian government – the one stop shop to find every service you need. It is better than most government website, and yet, you’ve got a site that is still maddeningly difficult to navigate. Where am I supposed to look??? Eyes… being… pulled… in… so… many… directions…

Personally, I think you could solve 80% of the problem with this page just by getting rid of the left hand column and put a search button in the top right hand corner. But I’m supremely confident that would violate some arcane website design rule the government has and so will remain a post for another day…