On Designing in the Open

Designing in the Open

Designing in the Open

I like designing in the open.  This is not really the same thing as “open source” design, although I love that too.  An open source design means that you’re sharing your source files, ideally with lots of comments to explain what you’re doing and why.  I think of “designing in the open” as talking about1 all the experiments, design ideals, design choices, mistakes, dead ends, and breakthroughs that come along with working on an open source design.

These are really parallel and complimentary tracks.  If you’re designing in the open, anybody can come along, read through your notes, ideas that you’ve considered but not really explored, and build their own project based off your thoughts.  Open source projects allow anyone to come along, build your exact project, and make changes as they see fit.  The two together however, allow the next person to use your source and stand on your shoulders, to learn from all your mistakes, and truly grok the design.

Two of my projects “designed in the open” that I’ve done the most work on was a large wall hanging drawing robot2 and a tiny drawing robot.  At the time of this writing, I’ve got about 83 posts on the large drawing robot (including literally thousands of words about just about every aspect of the design of each plastic part) and 23 posts on the small drawing robot, exploring all the design ideas that didn’t pan out, different approaches other people used, and what did and didn’t work for me, and why.

When it came to building my own big drawing robot, Sandy Noble’s website and forums were absolutely invaluable.  Using these resources and with patient guidance and help from Sandy himself, I was able to build my own robot, making variations informed by the experiences of others.

Designing in the open is more than about just documentation.  Documentation tends to be more about explaining why something is the way it is and now not to go wrong.  It doesn’t tell people about all the mistakes and tragedies that went into the creation of the thing in first place.

So, why am I droning on about blogging about mistakes and dead ends?  I’m embarking on a new project where there has been some truly incredible work so far.  As I look at the designs, it is difficult for me to see what aspects of the designs are absolutely critical, which parts are vestigial remnants of earlier designs, and what parts are merely cosmetic.  When it came to working on my own big drawing robot, I tackled a similar problem3 by creating exhaustive lists of pretty much every variation I could find, examining the differences and similarities, and pondering/brainstorming about why different decisions were made.

Part of the problem with this new project is that so much of the content is in Google Plus or on Thingiverse, both of which are incredibly difficult to sift through for information.  Thingiverse is great for sharing design files, works in progress, and sharing instructions.  However, the comment system handled by Disqus is very finicky and doesn’t allow linking to specific comments.  Google Plus is a fair system for facilitating group discussions and comments, but it requires an invite, doesn’t allow “reshares,” and is pretty much impossible to link to for reference.

All that being said, while a blog is an excellent way for a very small number of people to share their work, it’s kind of terrible for larger collaborative discussions.  Although I haven’t tried collaborative work through a wiki, that might be a reasonable way forward.  While I don’t know the answer to the community conundrum, I know it is not Facebook or Google Plus.  Overall, the best system I’ve seen so far may be Sandy’s blog + forums.

In any case, to the extent you have an open source project you’re working on, please consider how your choice in community platform can facilitate designing in the open so that viewing and searching don’t require invitations/registrations, comments don’t require registrations or log ins, and easy linking to prior discussions and comments.

  1. Probably blogging about – but forums work well too []
  2. Based on Sandy Noble’s excellent Polargraph []
  3. Namely, lots of excellent designs, lots of documentation – but little information about why certain decisions were made []

Google’s breaking their social contract

I’d say I started noticing a change in the keyword stats reported on my websites about six months or so ago.  Instead of seeing all of the keywords and search terms people used to arrive at my websites, most of the search terms were showing up as “Unknown search terms” in my WordPress Jetpack stats plugin and “(not provided)” in Google Analytics.

Apparently this is all due to a number of changes with Google.  As Google pushes more people to be logged in or stay logged in to their Google, Gmail, or Google plus accounts, the more their searches will be done over SSL.  This has the “side effect” of making their searches opaque to website owners.  However, that same data is of course available to Google themselves.  I say “side effect” because I’m not so sure this is unintended, rather than one of their actual goals.

Why then do I accuse Google of breaking their social contract?  Here I am, an owner of multiple domains who has been running Google Analytics tracking bugs in all of my sites since their various inceptions.  The entire point of doing so is that I might be able to better understand the search terms and patterns of people coming to my sites, with an eye towards improving traffic.  In exchange literally allowing Google to insert code inside my websites, they were supposed to help with these insights.  Insights they are no longer providing.

I’m not so naive as to think Google ever promised or contracted to provide this information to me.  I’ve never read their Terms of Service and never plan to.  When every piece of software includes click-shrink-wrapped terms of service, it’s impossible read, comprehend, or provide knowing consent to these things.  All I can go on here is that I’ve continued to let Google inside my websites – and they’re not giving me the very thing I had been lead to believe would be provided in exchange.

That said, Google Webmaster Tools is still pretty useful.

Driving Lessons from Google

Google’s self-driving car

Google’s self-driving car

Last Monday I noticed a funny looking Google vehicle while driving back home from Palo Alto. 1  It was a white SUV with a big Google logo on the back passenger side door.  Traffic was heavy and I didn’t get to look at the vehicle very long.  I’ve seen the Google streetview car before – and this was not it.  The streetview car has a tall device mounted on the roof with what appears to be four cameras pointing forward, right, left, and back.  The vehicle I saw last Monday had a device the size of a small toaster mounted to the roof with four white pipes – and it was spinning very fast.

My guess was this was the Google self-driving car.  When I saw this article the following day, picturing the exact vehicle I saw, I was certain.

I have to admit, when I saw this vehicle I was tempted, for just a moment, to drive slightly recklessly and unpredictably to see what Google’s vehicle would do. 2

My superego won out over my id, and I just observed the progress of the Google self-driving vehicle.  I wish I had seen the vehicle earlier so that I could have observed more of the vehicle’s behavior from behind it.  Here’s what I saw:

  • I was in the #3 lane on I-680 North and the Google self-driving vehicle34  was in the #2 lane.  Traffic was heavy during the late-afternoon early-evening commute and even though they were in a faster lane, we were probably both going no more than about 35 MPH. 5 6
  • They must have left at least at least 5 car lengths worth of traveling distance in front of them.
  • I didn’t see them switch lanes – except to take an exit.
  • Interestingly, with the ebb and flow of traffic, the Google vehicle was at times far behind me and even a little ahead of me.
  • Even though Google as a corporation is a person, and Google was likely present in that vehicle, it did not drive in the HOV/carpool lane.

If Google can drive for 300,000 miles without an accident, including travel in heavy traffic, I suppose there’s a few lessons we can learn:

  • The ebb and flow of heavy traffic is enough to basically normalize any efforts to “get ahead,” so you might as well drive as slowly, conservatively, and with as much following distance as Google
  • When traffic is congested, it might help to be in a lane farthest from the on/off ramps7
  • Always carry two backup passenger/drivers in your vehicle
  1. Photo courtesy of Saad Faruque []
  2. My guess – reduce my website’s PageRank and delete my Google+ page.  That’s worse than a ding on your driving record, right? []
  3. Along with it’s two passengers. []
  4. Prisoners?  How do you tell a self-driving vehicle you need to get out and pee? []
  5. The traffic was so bad that my Android phone, with the Google Maps directions showing me the way back home, displayed the dreaded deep-red path that indicates congested traffic. []
  6. I mention the Google Maps traffic congestion metric because I assume their vehicle was using the same information I was to make informed driving assessments. []
  7. Google didn’t have three physical people present, so they couldn’t be in the fastest HOV/carpool lane []

Wow… the internet just became a friendlier place!

Per Whosawhasis’s suggestion, I installed AdBlock in my FireFox browser.  I also installed a Facebook tracking blocker, since Facebook was really creeping me out.  In this short time, it really feels like the internet just became a friendlier place.

Awesome.  Thanks Whosa!

Google, why you so creepy?

This is actually my second post with the same subject/topic/title.  :/

As a joke I did a google search for “cell phone for elderly” because a friend of mine has this ridiculous habit of taking pictures with his iPhone UPSIDE down.  Sure, it’s easy enough to turn it back upside right – but wouldn’t it just make more sense to simply hold the phone correctly in the first place?

Anyhow, now all the google ads I see are for cell phones for the elderly.  Great.

Has Google become evil?

I’m not a fan of Facebook or Google Plus.  However, Google’s new “real name” policy is really getting on my nerves.  My Google Plus account is under the pseudonym of “MakerBlock,” so I might as well save them the trouble of suspending my accounts and just delete it now.

Eric Schmidt recently publicly stated Google Plus isn’t a social networking service, it’s an identity service.  The justification for this position was that Google Plus would be better able to serve us by knowing who we really are as well as ranking downwards those people who really are evil.  But, really, Google’s business is selling advertising to those people most likely to be interested based on their research of those people by studying, on a grand scale, every aspect of their lives. 12

I get that the person who logs into Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or Google Plus aren’t the real customers, that we’re just the product.  This makes sense and, in some cases, seems a fair trade.  It’s a funny line these businesses must walk, however.  Cater too much to the advertisers, and you lose your audience.  Cater too much to the audience, and perhaps you’ll lose advertisers.  I understand, from a business perspective, wanting to know as much about your users as possible.  But, after a certain point it just gets creepy.

No one was really offended by Facebook’s policies until relatively recently – a few data breaches here, a few account suspensions there.  And then they stopped people from treating the data those people created (or consumed) as portable.  People were fine with Google Plus until Google really started enforcing this position.

I suppose, for me, the fundamental issue may just be respect.  I think Google and Facebook have lost respect for their users.  While their business models clearly require observation of the user, it is the difference between watching animals on a wild life preserve versus watching animals in the zoo.  When those policies start to close in around the user – and they can start to see the high walls and feel like they are being watched – that’s when people start to grumble and leave.

  1. I really doubt Google would dispute that description. []
  2. Hell, it’s probably in their marketing materials… []

My pseudonym is my name

When I began blogging for MakerBot, it was with the stipulation that I would be able to continue to blog under my pseudonym.  This was not a problem at all.  In fact, I was assured that many people go by their adopted ‘nym’s which are more reflective of who they are than their given names ever were.  I’m saddened and disappointed that Google+ does not recognize this and is apparently banning people from their Google accounts for using pseudonyms.

Seriously, guys?  E-mail addresses, logins, Google accounts, they’re all pseudonyms of some fashion.  If Google+ is supposed to be the equivalent of posting my driver’s license online to confirm my name, physical address, and organ donor status, you can delete my account right now.  If, instead, it is about letting people use the names they’ve chosen to participate in social interactions with people who really only know them by those names…  Then stop banning people.

</rant>

Google, why you so creepy?

I’m used to seeing 3D printing services advertising in the Google ads on Thingiverse.

Then I was searching for dog barking collars.  A few hours later, back to Thingiverse…  dog collars?!?!

Cut it out!

Google, what the hell?!

Apparently I can’t access Google Groups.  Which sucks.  I have several different Gmail accounts and I can’t use any of them with Google Groups.  As a result, I can only read what’s going on in the Google Groups on my RSS feed – and not respond to anything.

Google, this may not be evil…  But it is just plain mean.  Cut this out, please, and restore access to Google Groups to Gmail users.