October 7, 2006

Promoting OSS: Show, don't tell

Author: Brad Jackel

Recently I gave a professional development seminar on effective Internet searching to about 25 colleagues, most of whom have higher degrees in the humanities. The response was overwhelmingly positive and, although it was not the intent of the seminar, they are now enthusiastic about the use of Firefox over Internet Explorer to the point where a number of them asked for my notes to give to friends and family. As the presentation was focused specifically on increasing the productivity of online searching, it was a pleasant surprise to have my co-workers respond so positively to the use of Firefox, to the point where they were even promoting it themselves. There are some lessons for OSS advocacy that can be drawn from this.

The audience for the seminar was test developers like myself who write questions for a range of tests at all levels of education, as well as for the private sector. Finding good material to ask questions about is at least half the job. We use a range of material -- nonfiction, fiction, poetry, art, cartoons, diagrams -- anything, basically, that is appropriate to the age of the candidates and the required complexity of the test. Online search is a major way for us to source material; we have a permissions department to track down the holders of copyrights on any material we want to use. My colleagues are a bright, experienced, and well-educated group of people, but with a couple of exceptions they are not interested in IT or any of the political or technical issues surrounding OSS. Computers are tools, pure and simple; there is little enthusiasm for IT for its own sake.

The reason my colleagues responded so positively to my presentation was that I used focused and relevant examples to explain my points. The first thing that I demonstrated was tabbed browsing. Say, for example, that we needed a unit of questions on a cartoon. At least 90% of the cartoons we might look at would not be suitable, for a variety of reasons. Using IE to go to an index page of cartoon thumbnails and then open one, think about it, go back, open the next, think about it, and so on, is time-consuming and painfully ineffective. Opening them all up in separate windows is confusing, and mass bookmarking in IE is impossible. In Firefox, on the other hand, you can go to an index page (cartoons, maps, diagrams, Google results) and open up all possibilities in background tabs, staying focused on the index page until one has about 40 tabs open in the background. You can click through the tabs and close the ones that are not obviously suitable.

For people not intrinsically interested in technology, this was staggering news. But explaining what tabs are and how they work wouldn't have caught my audience's interest. Showing my colleagues what tabs were, with examples that were directly relevant to their jobs, is what impressed them. I was able to point out that if 90% of what they look at is unsuitable, then being able to deal with 40 items at once means a successful search almost every time. They could see how the ability to bookmark all the material (tabs) in one hit so that it can be recovered with one mouse click months later would help them in a practical way that was directly relevant to their work.

The other Firefox feature that impressed my audience was extensions. For a non-technical user, the range of extensions available is intimidating. What I did was choose a number that were of obvious use to my colleagues and showed them in action -- DownloadThemAll, CustomizeGoogle, ScrapBook and a few others. Again, my examples were specific. Say I find some good stimulus material on Google Books. I want to be able to save that page, save the title page, write my questions, then take a copy of the saved pages to our permissions department to seek use from the copyright holder (read: give them money). Because Google switches off the ability to save the pages, Google Books is effectively useless for my purposes -- cropping screen shots is not, in practice, doable, as I will be dealing with 20-30 books at once from any given search in tabs (most of which, when it gets to writing the actual questions, will prove unsuitable). CustomizeGoogle reinstates the ability to save a page with a right click. Again, this is immediately useful and relevant from the point of view of a test developer.

The lesson for OSS advocacy that can be drawn from this is that when you are dealing with people who view software as a tool, don't enthuse about a better tool and expect to be listened to. Rather, show them the better tool in practice in a way that is specifically relevant to the problems that they need to solve by using it. That is, focus on their task, not your technology. Changing from one platform or software package to another then becomes a non-issue, as the focus is the task, not the tool.

People who are focused on IT are used to seeing the possibilities of new features quickly. People who are not focused on IT are not. Simply explaining what tabs do is not enough -- users need to be shown specifically how to use them.

It is well worth the time to take the trouble to learn what a given audience does with its computers (and how) and then focus any presentation or advocacy on improving that work. Users will enthusiastically embrace a better tool when they are not just told what it can do, but shown how they will be able to use it.


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