Open Source Jam (osjam) – designing stuff that gets used by people

On Thursday I went to Google’s offices to check out the Open Source Jam. I’d meant to check them out before and since I was finally free on the right night and the topic was ‘Designing stuff that gets used by people’ it was perfect timing. A lot of people spoke about API design issues, which was useful in light of the discussions Jeremy started about the European Digital Library API on the Museums Computer group email list (look for subject lines containing ‘APIs and EDL’ and ‘API use-cases’).

These notes are pretty much just as they were written on my phone, so they’re more pointers to good stuff than a proper summary, and I apologise if I’ve got names or attributions wrong.

I made a note to go read more of Duncan Cragg on URIs.

Paul Mison spoke about API design antipatterns, using Flickr’s API as an example. He raised interesting points about which end of the API provider-user relationship should have the expense and responsibility for intensive relational joins, and designing APIs around use cases.

Nat Pryce talked about APIs as UIs for programmers. His experience suggests you shouldn’t do what programmers ask for but find out what they want to do in the end and work with that. Other points: avoid scope creep for your API based on feature lists. Naming decisions are important, and there can be multilingual and cultural issues with understanding names and functionality. Have an open dialogue with your community of users but don’t be afraid to selectively respond to requests. [It sounds like you need to look for the most common requests as no one API can do everything. If the EDL API is extensible or plug-in-able, is the issue of the API as the only interface to that service or data more tenable?] Design so that code using your API can be readable. Your API should be extensible cos you won’t get it right first time. (In discussion someone pointed out that this can mean you should provide points to plug in as well as designing so it’s extensible.) Error messages are part of the API (yes!).

Christian Heilmann spoke on accessibility and make some really good points about accessibility as a hardcore test and incubator for your application/API/service. Build it in from the start, and the benefits go right through to general usability. Also, provide RSS feeds etc as an alternative method for data access so that someone else can build an application/widget to meet accessibility needs. [It’s the kind of common sense stuff you don’t think someone has to say until you realise accessibility is still a dirty word to some people]

Jonathan Chetwynd spoke on learning disabilities (making the point that it includes functional illiteracy) and GUI schemas that would allow users to edit the GUI to meet their accessibility needs. He also mentioned the possibility of wrapping microformats around navigation or other icons.

Dan North talked about how people learn and the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, which was new to me but immediately seemed like something I need to follow up. [I wonder if anyone’s done work on how that relates to models of museum audiences and how it relates to other models of learning styles.]

Someone whose name I didn’t catch talked about Behaviour driven design which was also new to me and tied in with Dan’s talk.