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Process: How to ask communities for help

Reaching out to communities can be a powerful way to find talent or resources. Your personal network may take a while to find the right person or file, especially if key people are unavailable. If you ask the right community, though, you might be able to get answers right away.

Here are some tips on asking communities for help:

  • Providing as much information as you can in the subject and message body.
    • Show urgency. Does your request have a deadline? Mention the date in the subject.
    • Be specific. Instead of using “Please help” as your subject, give details and write like an ad: “Deadline Nov ___, Web 2.0 intranet strategy expert needed for 5-week engagement in France” .
  • Whenever possible, create a discussion forum topic where people can check for updates and reply publicly. This will save you time and effort you’d otherwise spend answering the same questions again and again. It also allows other people to learn from the ongoing discussion. If you’re broadcasting your request to multiple communities, you can use a single discussion forum topic to collect all the answers, or you can create multiple discussion topics and monitor each of them.
  • If your request is urgent, send e-mail to the community. Most people do not regularly check the discussion forum, so send e-mail if you feel it’s necessary. You may want to ask one of the community leaders to send the e-mail on your behalf. This allows leaders to make sure their members aren’t overwhelmed with mail. Using a community leader’s name can give your message greater weight as well.
  • Plan for your e-mail to be forwarded. Because your e-mail may be forwarded to others, include all the details people will need to evaluate your request and pass it on to others who can help. Omit confidential details and ask people to limit distribution if necessary. Include a link to your discussion forum topic so that people can read updates.
  • Promise to summarize and share the results, and follow through. This encourages people to respond to you because they know they’ll learn something, and it helps you build goodwill in the community.

Good luck!

Unfinished Business: Design and New Media in the Obama campaign

Last night’s Unfinished Business lecture was about design and new media in the Obama campaign, with insights from Scott Thomas (a designer) and Rahaf Harfoush (a social media strategist). The event was held in the auditorium of the Ontario College of Art and Design, and roughly 300 people attended.

My key take-away from the talk was that a strong and persistent design team, backed by analytics to support decision-making, can make such a difference in the overall experience.

Scott showed us what the campaign webpage looked like before he came on board. It was not a horribly designed webpage (no blinking text, no marquees), but there were numerous typefaces and colors, and every department in the campaign office seemed to want a presence on the first screen of the page.

With some strong-arming, they settled on one palette and focused on the user experience, streamlining it to make it easier for people to get to where they want to go. That meant moving links down or into the site. It wasn’t easy for people to accept the necessary changes. Many groups were worried that if their advertisement or link wasn’t “above the fold”–visible in the first screen without scrolling–then their content might not get viewed. By testing different versions of the site with randomly-selected users (A/B testing), the design team got the hard numbers they needed to make these changes.

The different themes they used in their campaign were also interesting. Scott showed examples of the campaign theme, the “instant vintage” theme, the timeless theme, and the supporters, and each set had a visually distinguishable character. The campaign theme used a blue gradients extensively, and Scott explained the reasoning behind some of the design choices. The “instant vintage” theme drew inspiration from classic photos and posters in order to give people the feeling of being part of something historical, larger than life. The timeless theme drew from classic typesetting and ornamentation (very elegant!), but was dropped because of the backlash about the official-looking campaign seal. The supporters were very creative in coming up with all sorts of designs for campaign posters, too, giving the campaign a vibrant community feel.

Some of the details Scott shared with us were about specific design decisions made during the campaign. For example, the campaign placards used to read “HOPE”. Scott showed this great photo of a bunch of campaign signs that read “HOPE” with a real rainbow in the background. He told us that hope is an emotive word that you can communicate through images, while change is more abstract and more difficult to show visually. That’s one of the reasons why they changed the campaign signs to read “CHANGE” instead.

I was also fascinated by the evolution of the campaign logo through different typefaces, from mixed-case to small-caps, and from a linear layout to a triangular one. Seeing the different logos together, I found it easier to understand the different reactions I had to each of them, and from there, learn a little bit more about design.

Rahaf Harfoush’s talk was on social media. It was similar to the last talk I’d heard her give. I think she felt nervous about fitting it into a shorter timeslot, and it felt a lot more rushed than last time. She did tell a couple of new stories, though.

One story was about a man who had expressed incredible anger on the forums–because the presidential candidate had been televised walking down stairs with his hands in his pockets, and this man was not about to invest all of those hours in calling people and knocking on doors and attending or organizing events just so that his candidate could fall and hurt himself. What a great example of getting people personally invested.

Another story was about a campaign supporter who wanted to show his support through action instead of words. He and a group of other supporters dressed up in lots of Obama gear and went out to quietly perform civic actions, like helping elderly people cross the street. They didn’t talk about politics; they just acted according to what they believed in. I thought that was pretty cool.

The questions from the audience were also insightful and thought-provoking.

One person asked about whether the speakers could see this kind of energy and change happen in Canadian politics. Rahaf answered that one of the energizing things about the Obama campaign was that the candidate was not someone you’d typically see running for office. She found it difficult to imagine any of the prominent Canadian politicians engaging and exciting people like that, but she was open to the possibility of someone new coming along and surprising people.

Another person asked how the speakers convinced the campaign that they were the right people for the job. Scott shared that he’s never really been good at marketing himself, but that his passion for his work helps people decide whether or not he’s the right fit for the job. He said that people can tell by how wide his eyes get when he talks about his work that he’s really passionate about it. He got applause for that one.

Many people were concerned about the potential nefarious use of what we’ve learned about social media. Scott was of the opinion that the genuine enthusiasm expressed by the campaign supporters couldn’t be manipulated or created. Stephen Perelgut (one of my mentors) told me that he still remained skeptical, though, as many horrible things have been perpetrated by equally enthusiastic people. (Nazi Germany comes to mind.)

I learned a lot during the lecture and in the question-and-answer portion. The next Unfinished Business lecture is on February 11 (same day as Techsoup). From their e-mail notice:

… on 11 Feb we will host Larry Keeley, President of Doblin in Chicago, who will talk about open innovation, platform innovation and what it means to work from a disciplined approach to innovation.

Unfinished Business, Torch Partnership

Good stuff. It’ll probably sell out as quickly as this one did. Thanks to Jeff Muzzerall and Stephen Perelgut for making sure I heard about this!

I’ve figured out why I’m here! =)

I love application essays. They make me think about what I’m doing
with my life. Sure, I could probably just make something up or use my
StatementOfPurpose from last time, but I actually like having to stop
and think.

And I’ve figured out a little bit more about how my project with Mark
Chignell fits into the grand scheme of things!

You see, I’d like to make it easy for people to collect and share
Internet resources that they’ve found useful. For example, consultants
in large software companies should be able to find out which documents
other consultants in their group found useful. They should be able to
find experts on a given topic, and they should be able to explore
other people’s interests too.

Although several web-based services allow social search and discovery,
they haven’t yet been widely adopted. My thesis will give me time to
think about what we can to do make these systems easier to use. My
human-computer interaction coursework will teach me how to measure the
effects of the changes we make to the interface. My background in
programming and computer science will allow me to quickly prototype
new interface designs.

And the grand scheme of things?

I think it would be fantastic if teachers could have that kind of
network. Imagine if I could filter my search for programming exercise
ideas according to what other introductory computer science teachers
found useful, or if I could explore what other people found useful.

Imagine if teachers could choose a set of useful webpages and make it
easy for students to prioritize those pages when searching. Imagine if
students could contribute their own hyperlinks. I think that would be
really cool.

But the interface needs to be much simpler, and it needs to be robust
and accessible. We can’t rely on constant high-speed Internet
connections. Consultants use laptops and teachers in the provinces
might connect only once in a while. Both sets of people are Really
Busy and don’t have the time or patience to muck about with
complicated interfaces. It needs to be simple and distributed, and it
needs to pack a lot of value.

Right.

That sounds like a great challenge. That’s what I want to do, and I
can see how it might be useful. If only because I would _love_ to know
what other teachers bookmark, and I want to have a quick and easy way
to tell people about interesting websites without flooding their
mailbox…

Mmkay. I’ll formalize this after I wake up, but I think I’m onto
something here.

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Squidoo now on public beta

Squidoo opened its doors to the public today. Open beta. Try it out if you’re into Web 2.0 stuff.

I’m personally a little underwhelmed, although I can see how something
like this might be useful for all the niche site probloggers who don’t
have their own server/space or who want to take advantage of extra
visibility through squidoo, although I’m not sure how much better that
would be compared to, say, making a new website that’s indexed by
Google.

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What gets me excited about social bookmarking?

First, there’s personal organization. I could never get the
hang of bookmarks and folders, and it was hard to remember what to
search for.

Then there’s social discovery. I check my del.icio.us once in a
while in order to find out what the latest bookmarks are in a certain
area, although I’m now slightly annoyed about the fact that most
bookmarks are either stuff I’ve already seen or stuff I don’t care
about.

So that’s not what I really like, either.

I somewhat like using del.icio.us to share URLs, but those tend to be
special-purpose tags we’ve agreed on beforehand. I don’t really tell
people to check out my http://del.icio.us/sachac/social links, for
example, because there are just too many links for people to sort
through properly. It’s the problem of navigating through someone
else’s personal information space.

Social search a la http://myweb2.search.yahoo.com isn’t that big for
me either because (a) I’m not connected enough to get much better
search results, and (b) I don’t trust that all the relevant sites have
been bookmarked, so I may as well go through a regular search engine.

Hmmm.

On the other hand, using event- (http://del.icio.us/tag/torcamp) or
issue-oriented tags like digitalpinay
(http://del.icio.us/tag/digitalpinay) made it easy to quickly gather
bookmarks without having to set up some kind of groupblog or wiki.

And I totally, totally, totally love checking out people’s bookmarks
and getting an idea of their interests.

Totally.

That’s my killer app for del.icio.us. Stalking. ;) No, no, it’s called
keeping up with old friends and making new ones.

And that’s why people check out my bookmarks,
too. Okay, well, they don’t really have a choice because
I include my bookmarks in my blog feed for my tech-savvy friends who
read lots of blogs, so other geeks can’t help but notice whenever I
bookmark tango websites and whatnot.

I wonder if there’s a business use for this, like the way I would
_really_ like being able to flip through other people’s
bibliographies. Stuff like that.

I CAN DO THIS. I just have to make sure that it’s not a solution in
search of a problem! <laugh>

See, PhD students can spend time figuring out what the problem is and
then thinking up a solution. What’s a master’s student supposed to do?

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