August 27, 2008
I've been working a lot recently on polishing MyKidsLibrary. I felt that it was essentially feature-complete and that I was ready to move on to the hard part, doing all of the marketing and advertising to build up a good community of users. I had a haunting, nagging feeling that it wasn't really ready, but I attributed it to the normal jitters that come from the anticipation of launching a web project that -- hyopthetically -- very large numbers of people could see and use.
Almost on a whim, I sent the address of the site to one of my oldest friends, the illustrious Jessamyn. She is, after all, a librarian and is deeply web-savvy, so it seemed likely that she might have a valuable insight or two. In just a few minutes, she compiled a lengthy list of concrete, specific weaknesses that I could act on. I was stunned. I'd been asking friends, family and professional associates to give me feedback for at least eight months, and I'd rarely heard anything other than that it lacked "flash", needed "stickiness" and wasn't "pretty." I was already well-acquainted with those grim facts, and I had tried to address them in my own way. I am, however, a software engineer, not a User Experience Designer, so my efforts were -- by my own judgement -- weak, half-hearted and not necessarily better than what preceded them.
I've been working for four-or-five days now implementing the wonderful suggestions that Jessamyn made. None of the changes are deep ones, requiring large-scale modifications to the architecture or refactoring of code. Changing code is the easy part; it's the seeing that is tricky. Given how close I have been to this project, it's no wonder that I lack the perspective to see the deficiencies.
What I do find troublesome is that it was so hard to find the right person to give me the specific, tangible ideas that I could act on. There's likely no substitute for having a rock-solid User Experience Designer involved in a web project every step of the way; however, such folks seem to be in dreadfully short supply, leaving capable software engineers with good ideas at a bit of a loss.