Author: Doug Belshaw (page 1 of 38)

Crawling before you walk

Alberto Corado, Moodle’s UX Lead, sent me an article by Rebecca Guthrie entitled Crawl, Walk, Run. It’s contains good, concise, advice in three parts:

Crawl. Do things that don’t scale at the beginning. Talk to 50 potential customers, listen, discover pain points, and then begin to form a product to solve that pain. Use this feedback to develop your MVP. Don’t fall in love with your solution. Fall in love with their problem. I’ve mentioned this before, read Lean Startup.

This is what we’ve been doing so far with the MoodleNet project. I must have spoken to around 50 people all told, running the idea past them, getting their feedback, and iterating towards the prototype we came up with during the design sprint. I’d link to the records I have of those conversations, but I had to take down my notes on the wiki, along with community call stuff, due to GDPR.

Walk. Create mock-ups. Start to develop your product. Go back to your early potential customers and ask them if your MVP (or mockups) solve their problem. Pre-sell it. If you really are solving a problem, they will pay you for the software. Don’t give it away for free, but do give them an incentive to participate. If you can’t get one person to buy before it is ready, do not move onto the next stage with building your product. Or, you will launch to crickets. Go back to your mock-ups and keep going until you create something at least one person wants to buy. The one person should not be a family member or acquaintance. Once you have the pre-sale(s), conduct a Beta round where those paying users test out what you’ve built. Stay in Beta until you can leverage testimonials from your users. Leverage this time to plan for what comes next, an influx of customers based of your client’s testimonials.

I’m not sure this completely applies to what we’re doing with MoodleNet. It’s effectively a version of what Tim Ferriss outlines in The 4-Hour Work Week when he suggests creating a page for a product that doesn’t exist and taking sign-ups after someone presses the ‘Buy’ button.

What I think we can do is create clickable prototypes using something like Adobe XD, which allows users to give feedback on specific features. We can use this UX feedback to create an approach ready for when the technical architecture is built.

Run. Once your Beta is proven, RUN! Run as fast as you can and get Sales. The founder (or one of the founders) must be willing to hustle for sales. I recommend downloading the startup course from Close.io. Steli gives amazing advice.

While MoodleNet needs to be sustainable, this isn’t about huge sales growth but about serving educators. We do want as many people to use the platform as possible, and we want to grow in a way where there’s a feedback loop. So we may end up doing something like giving our initial cohort a certain number of invites to encourage their friends/colleagues to join.

Food for thought, certainly.

Source: Rebecca Guthrie

Issue 308: World Cup(cake)

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Higher Education and blockchain

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the most useful applications of blockchain technologies are incredibly boring. That goes in education, too.

This post by Chris Fellingham considers blockchain in the context of Higher Education, and in particular credentialing:

The short pitch is that as jobs and education go digital, we need digital credentials for our education and those need to be trustworthy and automisable. Decentralised trust systems may well be the future but I don’t see that it solves a core problem. Namely that the main premium market for Higher Education Edtech is geared twards graduates in developed countries and that market — does not have a problem of trust in its credentials — it has a problem of credibility in its courses. People don’t know what it means to have done a MOOC/Specialization/MicroMasters in X which undermines the market system for it. Shoring up the credential is a second order problem to proving the intrinsic value of the course itself.

“Decentralised trust systems” is what blockchain aficionados refer to, but what they actually mean is removing trust from the equation. So, in hiring decisions, for example, trust is removed from the equation in favour of cryptographic proof.

Fellingham mentions someone called ‘Smolenski’ who, after a little bit of digging, must be Natalie Smolenski, who works for Learning Machine. That organisation is a driving force, with MIT, behind the Blockcerts standard for blockchain-based digital credentialing.

Smolenski however, is a believer, and in numerous elegant essays has argued blockchain is the latest paradigm shift in trust-based technologies. The thesis puts trust based technologies as a central driver of human development. Kinship was the first ‘trust technology’, followed by language and cultural development. Things really got going with organised religion which was the early modern driver — enabling proto-legal systems and financial systems to emerge. Total strangers could now conduct economic transactions by putting their trust in local laws (a mutually understand system for transactions) in the knowledge that it would be enforced by a trusted third party — the state. Out of this emerged market economies and currencies.

Like Fellingham, I’m not particularly enamoured with this teleological ‘grand narrative’ approach to history, of which blockchain believers do tend to be overly-fond. I’m pretty sure that human history hasn’t been ‘building’ in any way towards anything, particularly something that involves less trust between human beings.

Blockchain at this moment is a kind of religion. It’s based on a hope of things to come:

Blockchain — be it in credential or currency form …could well be a major — if not paradigmatic technology — but it has its own logic and fundamentally suits those who use it best — much as social networks turned out to be fertile grounds for fake news. For that reason alone, we should be far more cautious about a shift to blockchain in Higher Education — lest like fake news — it takes an imperfect system and makes it worse.

Indeed. Who on earth would want wants to hard code the way things are right now in Higher Education? If your answer is ‘blockchain-based credentials’, then I’m not sure you really understand what the question is.

Source: Chris Fellingham (via Stephen Downes)

On ‘instagrammability’

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” (John M. Culkin)

I choose not to use or link to Facebook services, and that includes Instagram and WhatsApp. I do, however, recognise the huge power that Instagram has over some people’s lives which, of course, trickles down to businesses and those looking to “live the Instagram lifestyle”.

The design blog Dezeen picks up on a report from an Australian firm of architects, demonstrating that ‘Instagrammable moments’ are now part of their brief.

The Six Universal Truths of Influence

I’m all for user stories and creating personas but one case looks like grounds for divorce, Bob is seen as the servant of Michelle, who wants to be photographed doing things she’s seen others doing

One case study features Bob and Michelle, a couple with “very different ideas about what their holiday should look like.”

While Bob wants to surf, drink beer and spend quality time with Michelle, she wants to “be pampered and live the Instagram life of fresh coconuts and lounging by the pool.”

In response to this type of user, designers should focus on providing what Michelle wants, since “Bob’s main job this holiday is to take pictures of Michelle.”

“Michelle wants pictures of herself in the pool, of bright colours, and of fresh attractive food,” the report says. “You’ll also find her taking pictures of remarkable indoor and outdoor artwork like murals or inspirational signage.”

It’s easy to roll your eyes at this (and trust me, mine are almost rotating out of their sockets) but the historian in me finds this fascinating. I wonder if future generations will realise that architectural details were a result of photos been taken for a particular service?

Other designers taking users’ Instagram preferences into account include Coordination Asia, who recent project for restaurant chain Gaga in Shanghai has been optimised so design elements fit in a photo frame and maximise the potential for selfies.

Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger told Dezeen that he had noticed that the platform was influencing interior design.

Of course, architects and designers have to start somewhere and perhaps ‘instagrammability’ is a useful creative constraint.

“Hopefully it leads to a creative spark and things feeling different over time,” [Krieger] said. “I think a bad effect would be that same definition of instagrammability in every single space. But instead, if you can make it yours, it can add something to the building.”

Instagram was placed at number 66 in the latest Dezeen Hot List of the most newsworthy forces in world design.

Now that I’ve read this, I’ll be noticing this everywhere, no doubt.

Source: Dezeen

F*** off Google

This is interesting, given that Google was welcomed with open arms in London:

Google plans to implant a “Google Campus” in Kreuzberg, Berlin. We, as a decentralized network of people are committed to not letting our beloved city be taken over by this law- and tax-evading company that is building a dystopian future. Let’s kick Google out of our neighborhood and lives!

What I find interesting is that not only are people organising against Google, they’ve also got a wiki to inform people and help wean them off Google services.

The problem that I have with ‘replacing’ Google services is that it’s usually non-trivial for less technical users to achieve. As the authors of the wiki point out:

It is though dangerous to think in terms of “alternatives”, like the goal was to reach equivalence to what Google offers (and risk to always lag behind). In reality what we want is *better* services than the ones of Google, because they would rest on *better* principles, such as decentralization/distribution of services, end-to-end encryption, uncompromising free/libre software, etc.

While presenting these “alternatives” or “replacements” here, we must keep in mind that the true goal is to achieve proper distribution/decentralization of information and communication, and empower people to understand and control where their information goes.

The two biggest problems with the project of removing big companies such as Google from our lives, are: (i) using web services is a social thing, and (ii) they provide such high quality services for so little financial cost.

Whether you’re using a social network to connect with friends or working with colleagues on a collaborative document, your choices aren’t solely yours. We negotiate the topography of the web at the same time as weaving the social fabric of society. It’s not enough to give people alternatives, there has to be some leadership to go with it.

Source: Fuck off Google wiki

 

"Search for the seed of good in every adversity. Master that principle and you will own a precious shield that will guard you well through all the darkest valleys you must traverse. Stars may be seen from the bottom of a deep well, when they cannot be discerned from the mountaintop. So will you learn things in adversity that you would never have discovered without trouble. There is always a seed of good. Find it and prosper."

(Og Mandino)

Where memes come from

In my TEDx talk six years ago, I explained how the understanding and remixing of memes was a great way to develop digital literacies. At that time, they were beginning to be used in advertisements. Now, as we saw with Brexit and the most recent US Presidential election, they’ve become weaponised.

This article in the MIT Technology Review references one of my favourite websites, knowyourmeme.com, which tracks the origin and influence of various memes across the web. Researchers have taken 700,000 images from this site and used an algorithm to track their spread and development. In addition, they gathered 100 million images from other sources.

Spotting visually similar images is relatively straightforward with a technique known as perceptual hashing, or pHashing. This uses an algorithm to convert an image into a set of vectors that describe it in numbers. Visually similar images have similar sets of vectors or pHashes.

The team let their algorithm loose on a database of over 100 million images gathered from communities known to generate memes, such as Reddit and its subgroup The_Donald, Twitter, 4chan’s politically incorrect forum known as /pol/, and a relatively new social network called Gab that was set up to accommodate users who had been banned from other communities.

Whereas some things ‘go viral’ by accident and catch the original author(s) off-guard, some communities are very good at making memes that spread quickly.

Two relatively small communities stand out as being particularly effective at spreading memes. “We find that /pol/ substantially influences the meme ecosystem by posting a large number of memes, while The Donald is the most efficient community in pushing memes to both fringe and mainstream Web communities,” say Stringhini and co.

They also point out that “/pol/ and Gab share hateful and racist memes at a higher rate than mainstream communities,” including large numbers of anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi memes.

Seemingly neutral memes can also be “weaponized” by mixing them with other messages. For example, the “Pepe the Frog” meme has been used in this way to create politically active, racist, and anti-Semitic messages.

It turns out that, just like in evolutionary biology, creating a large number of variants is likely to lead to an optimal solution for a given environment.

The researchers, who have made their technique available to others to promote further analysis, are even able to throw light on the question of why some memes spread widely while others quickly die away. “One of the key components to ensuring they are disseminated is ensuring that new ‘offspring’ are continuously produced,” they say.

That immediately suggests a strategy for anybody wanting to become more influential: set up a meme factory that produces large numbers of variants of other memes. Every now and again, this process is bound to produce a hit.

For any evolutionary biologist, that may sound familiar. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a process that treats pHashes like genomes and allows them to evolve through mutation, reproduction, and selection.

As the article states, right now it’s humans creating these memes. However, it won’t be long until we have machines doing this automatically. After all, it’s been five years since the controversy about the algorithmically-created “Keep Calm and…” t-shirts for sale on Amazon.

It’s an interesting space to watch, particularly for those interested in digital literacies (and democracy).

Source: MIT Technology Review

"Whenever we get swept up in the self-reinforcing momentum and seductive logic of some new technology, we forget to ask what else it might be doing, how else it might be working, and who ultimately benefits most from its appearance. Why time has been diced into the segments between notifications, why we feel so inadequate to the parade of images that reach us through our devices, just why it is that we feel so often feel hollow and spent. What might connect our choices and the processes that are stripping the planet, filthing the atmosphere, and impoverishing human and nonhuman lives beyond number. Whether and in what way our actions might be laying the groundwork for an oppression that is grimmer yet and still more total. And finally we forget to ask whether, in our aspiration to overcome the human, we are discarding a gift we already have at hand and barely know what to do with."

(Adam Greenfield)

Inequality, anarchy, and the course of human history

Sometimes I’m reminded of the fact that I haven’t checked in with someone’s worth for a few weeks, months, or even years. I’m continually impressed with the work of my near-namesake Dougald Hine. I hope to meet him in person one day.

Going back through his recent work led me to a long article in Eurozine by David Graeber and David Wengrow about how we tend to frame history incorrectly.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality?’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

Graeber and Wengrow essentially argue that most people start from the assumption that we have a choice between a life that is ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ (i.e. most of human history) or one that is more civilised (i.e. today). If we want the latter, we have to put up with inequality.

‘Inequality’ is a way of framing social problems appropriate to technocratic reformers, the kind of people who assume from the outset that any real vision of social transformation has long since been taken off the political table. It allows one to tinker with the numbers, argue about Gini coefficients and thresholds of dysfunction, readjust tax regimes or social welfare mechanisms, even shock the public with figures showing just how bad things have become (‘can you imagine? 0.1% of the world’s population controls over 50% of the wealth!’), all without addressing any of the factors that people actually object to about such ‘unequal’ social arrangements: for instance, that some manage to turn their wealth into power over others; or that other people end up being told their needs are not important, and their lives have no intrinsic worth. The latter, we are supposed to believe, is just the inevitable effect of inequality, and inequality, the inevitable result of living in any large, complex, urban, technologically sophisticated society.

But inequality is not the inevitable result of living in a civilised society, as they point out with some in-depth examples. I haven’t got space to go through them here, but suffice to say that it seems a classic case of historians cherry-picking their evidence.

As Claude Lévi-Strauss often pointed out, early Homo sapiens were not just physically the same as modern humans, they were our intellectual peers as well. In fact, most were probably more conscious of society’s potential than people generally are today, switching back and forth between different forms of organization every year. Rather than idling in some primordial innocence, until the genie of inequality was somehow uncorked, our prehistoric ancestors seem to have successfully opened and shut the bottle on a regular basis, confining inequality to ritual costume dramas, constructing gods and kingdoms as they did their monuments, then cheerfully disassembling them once again.

If so, then the real question is not ‘what are the origins of social inequality?’, but, having lived so much of our history moving back and forth between different political systems, ‘how did we get so stuck?’

Definitely worth a read, particularly if you think that ‘anarchy’ is the opposite of ‘civilisation’.

Source: Eurozine (via Dougald Hine)


Image CC BY-NC-SA xina

Issue #307: Home on the range

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