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Open Design

April 18th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

Over the last few weeks I have been thinking hard about the role of different stakeholders and potential partners in the Learning Layers project. As regular readers will know by now, Learning Layers is a large scale EU funded project, seeking to develop the use of technology and particularly mobile technologies for (informal) learning, initially in the construction and medical sectors.

The project has adopted a user centred design approach. This involves a series of use cases and studies, with direct involvement of potential end users in design workshops, leading towards iterative software development.. At present Layers is working on four design ideas, looking at functional requirements but more importantly sketching wireframes and designs and sharing these with users.

This is a fairly labour intensive job. And even in a generously funded project, it is dubious whether we will have the resources to develop all four as full and mature applications. Furthermore, the more we talk with end users, the more ideas they are giving us for possible applications. So should we stop collecting design ideas? And how do we prioritise development activities?How do we overcome the limited resources we have in terms of developers?

I was talking with Raymond Elferink last week in Dublin. Raymond runs Raycom, a Dutch software SME. I asked him if he would like to join our stakeholder group of Layers Associate partners. And naturally he asked me what Raycom would get out of such involvement. Well, I stuttered, you will get early access to our products. And we will invite you to an annual stakeholder meet up. Oh, and yes, we will send you a half yearly bulletin. None of this really seemed to cut the ice. So we talked longer about what a project like Layers could offer to engage software developers. In line with most information technology projects funded by the EU, Learning layers is committed to releasing code under an open source license. It is also envisaged that we will try to build a community of developers to guarantee the future development of teh project following the end of EU funding. But to Raymond it was not the code that was so important. As he siad, he can write the code himself. But what he saw as potentially valuable was access to design ideas – and in particular to design ideas that have been codeveloped and validated with end user groups.

This got me thinking. Instead of waiting until we have code and developing an open source community around that code, could we develop design ideas and build communities around that. We could even run hack days and launch competitions around the best prototype for a particular design idea. And instead of shutting out new ideas and designs, we could continue to develop such designs, with the community being encouraged to come in early, take the deigns and build applications. Layers could help and advise developers, as well as giving access to user groups for feedback and validation. In other words we could open up the project at an early stage to a wider community of developers. OK, I don’t know of any European project which has done this before but this does not seem impossible to do.~ At the moment, most of our design activities are coordinated through a closed wiki. But we could ensure that each design idea has a corresponding page or space on the project web site and make sure this is updated as each ‘mature’ version of the design idea comes out, rather in the same form of versioning which is used with open source software.

In fact, we have sort of started this process. In February, we had an ‘Application Partner Day’, with medical practitioners and administrators, in Bradford in England. Jen Hughes got talking to a doctor who said the main barrier to learning for him was lack of time. The only real time he got for reflection was when he was travelling in his car between meetings, appointments and visits ot patients. Jen and me dreamt up a mobile app to allow him to structure his thoughts and ideas whilst he was in his car. And through Andreas Schmidt, a professor at the HsKa institute in Karlsruhe, in Germany, we got to pitch the idea to a group of students on a business iCT course. they have a semester long course where they undertake a project for a commercial client. happily to say, the students voted to develop our app, codenamed ‘Reflect’. So the project is based on a design idea which has come out of the Layers project, but the resources to develop it further are external to the project. I will write more about this as the project takes shape.


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