Eliminating the Fear of Being Open

    by David Cohn
    September 12, 2008

    Spot.Us is about to hit the ground running. We hope to have
    something to show in mid-to-late October (assuming everything stays on

    We’ve gotten here through a couple of stages. The Cliffs Note version of that is as follows.

    Stage one: Narratives


    After realizing Spot.Us would become a reality I got writing.
    Essentially this was a chance to toss ideas around and create a vision
    for the site.

    The basic approach was: Define the types of users that would
    interact with spot.us and then write out their experience of the site –
    and what they’d see on each page of the site. I wrote narratives for
    “Rita the Reader” “Johnny the Reporter” and “Harry the News

    Stage two: Test and Design


    This was when spot.us became more public. It included using cheap
    tools (a wiki and a blog) to try and get a caricature of how the final
    site would work. See “Starting Small and the Importance of Being Iterative“ and “Growing a Community and the Importance of Being Iterative.”

    This included the SF Election Truthiness Campaign, Ethanol Investigation and more. If spot.us is “just an idea”  this was an attempt to see if it had merit.

    The beauty of this phase: If I couldn’t make it work using a wiki and a blog – I’d have some serious re-thinking to do.

    Design: I’ve tried to be fairly public with the emerging
    designs – but it essentially included working with two individuals who
    took my narratives from step one and the working examples from step two
    and turning it into a real site. Having the wiki up as a concrete
    example of the narratives didn’t hurt either.

    Along the way – the designers (Jonathan and Anthony
    who are awesome) questioned my assumptions, brought fresh perspectives,
    etc – so the process itself was iterative and required daily check-ins
    and the ability to turn on a dime (change my mind about assumptions).

    Stage Three: Development and scaling
    I’m working with Hashrocket for development.

    Their 3-2-1 process sounds like making a site is incredibly easy,
    but I suppose that’s the marketing trick. Truth is – if you come to
    them without having gone through stage one and two above (each take
    anywhere from 1-3 months) they won’t be able to help you. Or, what is
    probably more accurate, they’ll help you – but your expectations must
    be lowered since you haven’t set them in a deterministic fashion.

    It should really be called 60, 59, 58, 57….1, but they don’t come
    in until the last moments – when all that’s left is to turn the vision
    into a functional site. So far I’m confident I came to them at the right time. There has been some discovery in talking through the site – but for the most part, it was all laid out for them.

    As you can see – it’s not dissimilar from Startup Weekend, which you can learn more about from Andrew Hyde.

    Hashrocket step one was to translate the designs back into narratives,
    this time with a programmers perspective/language. Every button,
    action, view, must be turned into a “story.”

    (Watch this quick video to get a sense of what this looks like).

    Learning to work within restrictions

    The hardest part of this process is leaving things on the cutting
    room floor. We’ve designed an intricate site with a lot of moving parts and a large scope. Of course I’m attached to every link, line and action we designed, but the fact is – you can only get so
    much code shipped in such a short period of time. I’ve had to scale

    The silver lining is that restrictions force one to cut out
    “niceties” and really focus in on the core functionality of your site.
    The question I’m forced to ask with every feature is: what is needed
    right now for launch? This restriction, although painful for me is probably very healthy.
    I won’t suffer from mission creep in this early stage – I simply can’t
    afford it.

    Spot.Us is not waiting for a “ta-da” moment. The site will,
    hopefully, never be “finished.” It will constantly evolve. That’s
    partly why I feel comfortable leaving things on the cutting room table.
    As the site grows, I’ll find out what users need/want and then I can
    easily look at the functions we left out to see if any answer those
    needs. But at least I’m not trying to prescribe or predict what users
    will want/need from the start. The fact is – you never know how people
    will engage and use your site. That’s why you must release early and
    release often.

    I’m sharply contrasting my experience building Spot.Us with Assignment Zero which many people will remember as a highly anticipated experiment in networked journalism from mid-2007.

    I’m trying to keep spot.us as an organically evolving project that is
    light with a reasonable turning radius, simply building Assignment Zero
    ballooned into a massive undertaking that was done behind closed doors
    (despite the best of intentions). When AZ launched it turned like a battleship. (I could talk for hours about my AZ experience. I look back at it fondly, but at the time between grad school and AZ – I was working 20 hour days)

    Fear of being open disappears

    I don’t think fear was the reason why Assignment Zero was done
    behind closed doors and turned into a massive battleship with slow
    turning. It was more because we were trying to grasp at something that
    hadn’t been attempted before. We had no clear vision of what would
    happen other than people collaborating on journalism. I hope projects
    like IAmNews can better capture
    it. My first advice: Don’t prescribe the topic (which AZ
    did…“crowdsourcing”) and stay open and fluid. I would love to see a successful example of networked journalism. To date – I’m left wanting.

    On a regular basis I do hear people that suggest the reason they
    haven’t gone public with their idea is the fear that somebody else will
    take it. Let that fear go. You can hoard your idea, spend all kinds of
    time and money trying to predict what users want – but until you freely
    reveal the idea, you’ll never know. The idea might not have a market,
    might not have a good user-interface, might not be able to grow a
    community, etc, etc, etc. The only way to find out is to determine the
    path of least resistance and start.

    As journalists become more and more independent – I hope this becomes a regular practice.

    Tagged: assignment zero openness spot.us
    • Paul Lamb

      Great post, both for the helpful details on your process, and for walking the talk on openness!

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