The Chandler Project

Almost 20 years ago, in my old stomping grounds at Dr. Dobb’s Journal, Mitch Kapor published an article on software design. He wrote:    (MU0)

The lack of usability of software and poor design of programs is the secret shame of the industry. Given a choice, no one would want it to be this way. What is to be done? Computing professionals themselves should take responsibility for creating a positive user experience. Perhaps the most important conceptual move to be taken is to recognize the critical role of design, as a counterpart to programming, in the creation of computer artifacts. And the most important social evolution within the computing professions would be to create a role for the software designer as a champion of the user experience.    (MU1)

His manifesto stuck with me over the years, and when I started organizing the first FLOSS Usability Sprints with Aspiration, one of the first people I contacted with Mitch. Mitch not only agreed to sponsor our event, but he put me in touch with Mimi Yin and Katie Capps Parlante, two of the leads of the Chandler project. Both Mimi and Katie were enthusiastic about working with us, and Chandler became one of our first participating projects.    (MU2)

At the time, Chandler was a lot of design and very little code. What intrigued me, though, was their design approach. They were aggressively committed to User-Centered Design, which was totally unique for an Open Source project. In many projects, Open Source or otherwise, interface design plays a secondary or worse role in the overall project. The interface is often designed after the fact. With Chandler, interface design played a core role in the overall design.    (MU3)

Last fall, Chandler participated in the fifth incarnation of our sprints, and it was amazing to see how much progress the team had made. Not only was there working code, but there was an active developer and user community, and there was an ongoing commitment to their design approach. The project was also about to face a major transition, having reached the end of its incubation phase under Mitch.    (MU4)

After reconnecting with Mimi and Katie, I decided it was time for me to start using Chandler. The timing for me was good. I had been a very happy user of todo.txt for personal use and a reluctant user of Basecamp for group projects. I wanted something that could replace both. The fact that it was a cross-platform desktop application was also appealing, because I regularly use three different platforms (Linux, Mac, and Windows) and because some of the people I’m currently working with do not have consistent access to the Internet.    (MU5)

The Why of Chandler    (MU6)

At its core, Chandler is a task manager in the spirit of David Allen‘s Getting Things Done methodology. You have items that you can organize into collections and prioritize as “Now,” “Later,” and “Done.” If you add a date to an item, it will appear on your calendar. And you can assign items to others.    (MU7)

You can view your list of “To Do” items by collection, in a calendar (if they have dates), or in a dashboard view that provides an overview of all the different things you have to do.    (MU8)

Simple, right? Well, yeah. That’s a good thing. But if you dig a bit deeper, you can see that this simple design has some very powerful consequences, and it all centers around this notion of the item.    (MU9)

Items have titles and descriptions, which are free-form text. They have priorities and possibly dates. Items can belong to as many or as few collections as you’d like. Items can be shared with or assigned to others.    (MUA)

The notion of an item is pretty generic, and in fact, you can see it in a lot of other applications as well. Email is the classic example. An email message can be thought of as an item. In fact, many people use their email as task managers. If they want to share an item, they email it to others (which is how Chandler works as well). If they want to categorize an item, they move it to a folder. If they’re lucky (for example, if they use Gmail), they can give an item multiple tags.    (MUB)

But email has downsides. The interface is not optimized for task management, although there are plugins that help. Most clients do not support tagging, which means that you have to copy items to multiple folders, and those items do not stay in sync. And email messages are static, whereas an item should be able to evolve over time.    (MUC)

Other applications that use this exact concept of an item are, well, other task managers: Basecamp, Remember the Milk, Bugzilla, RT, Trac, etc. In many ways, these are competing products, but in the Chandler world, they are actually complementary products.    (MUD)

This is the hidden beauty of Chandler. Chandler recognizes that people will be using a lot of different tools, from email to RSS to other task managers. It doesn’t try to be The One Tool. Instead, it is designed to be interoperable. You can write plugins that synchronize items in other applications with items in Chandler, so that you can use Chandler to do what it does best, and other applications to do what they do best, and all the data stays in sync.    (MUE)

Chandler essentially becomes a dashboard for knowledge work, a place where Knowledge Workers can live and get things done. Right now, email fulfills that role for most people. A tool like Chandler has a very good chance of supplanting email in this department, because it offers an interface that is more in line with what Knowledge Workers want to do. More importantly, it works with email rather than trying to replace it.    (MUF)

Chandler works right now. I use it every day, and I’m productive in it. However, its great potential is still largely unfulfilled. The interface is still rough, and there are very few plugins that take advantage of the synchronization capabilities. Every once in a while, I find myself longing for todo.txt (although it should be relatively straightforward to write a command-line based interface to Chandler that emulates it).    (MUG)

However, I believe that this roughness still works in Chandler’s favor. Why? Because as I noted earlier, Chandler is perhaps the only Open Source project in existence that aggressively integrates Open Source development principles with user-centric design. What we’re seeing right now is a spike, a product of Release Early And Often. But if you follow the design discussions — and you can, because it’s Open Source — you can see the ethos of User-Centered Design come through. The interface for the upcoming 1.0 release is going to be significantly better than the current design (0.7.4.1), and that will merely be scratching the surface of what is to come.    (MUH)

Chandler has the potential to be a really great tool relatively soon. It’s not there yet. But if you’re excited about the idea that an Open Source development process can actually result in better software for real people, you should take a look now. More importantly, you should participate in the community, which is fantastic, thanks largely to the expert guidance of Ted Leung and the development team’s active participation. Chandler is definitely a project to watch.    (MUI)

Nonprofit Geek Trivia Winner

I spent two days this past week at Aspiration‘s Nonprofit Software Development Summit. I’ve organized several events with Allen Gunn (Gunner), so it was fun to take off the organizer hat and just be a participant. I had no agenda going into the conference, which was also quite pleasant. I attended because I love the people in this community and because Gunner asked me to facilitate a session on usability. The summit did not disappoint. I caught up with old friends, made several new ones, gave the ol’ noggin a vigorous workout, and had a ton of fun overall.    (LUH)

I ended up participating more actively than I had originally planned. It started with my usability session, which caused many to mistakenly assume that usability was my specialty. I decided to rectify this the following day by offering an ad-hoc skill-sharing session on throwing kick-ass collaborative events. We had a great group of high-energy people in that crowd, and the wisdom sharing was decidedly bi-directional.    (LUI)

At the last minute, Gunner asked me if I would do a Speed Geeking session on HyperScope. I was hesitant at first, because it had been months since I last spoke about HyperScope and because I had never quite gotten my presentation down to five minutes. The best I had done previously was half an hour. Plus, people were already confused enough as to what I did for a living. Nevertheless, the hesitation quickly dissipated. I live for challenges like this.    (LUJ)

It turned out to be even more difficult, because there were 14 presentations. For those of you counting at home, that meant giving the same five minute presentation 14 times in a row, with no breaks in-between. My first and last two presentations were mediocre — it took me a few rounds to get my pitch down, and I was exhausted by the end — but I had a nice little streak in the middle.    (LUK)

Here’s some cute historical trivia: I presented at the very first Speed Geeking session (at the first AdvocacyDev three years ago). In my commentary then, I expressed doubts as to whether Speed Geeking was a great format. Since then, I’ve seen it performed several other times, and I’ve watched it become popular in other venues, although I hadn’t participated in another one until this past week. I’m now a full-fledged convert. My original criticisms still stand. What’s swayed my opinion is that, when done right, Speed Geeking is all about movement and positive group energy. (Gunner, of course, always facilitates them beautifully.) When executed poorly, it’s an energy suck that degrades into hallway conversations.    (LUL)

Speaking of trivia, I couldn’t bow out of the conference without participating in the Nonprofit Geek Trivia Contest. Evan Henshaw-Plath, Michal Mach, Lena Zuniga, and I formed The Flying Luas and dueled several other teams over questions such as:    (LUM)

  • To the nearest power of two, how many kilobytes was the ROM BIOS on the original Macintosh?    (LUN)
  • Name the now-defunct U.S. branch of the Association for Progressive Communications.    (LUO)
  • And my personal favorite: What is a “link condom”?    (LUP)

Clearly, only the deeply disturbed had any chance of winning this competition. Guess who won?    (LUQ)

https://i1.wp.com/farm1.static.flickr.com/141/399585464_384c7e0280_m.jpg?w=700    (LUR)

I’m on a bit of a roll with these things. My secret? I’m the John Salley of the conference contest circuit.    (LUS)

The last question of the night was a five-point bonus question: Write a haiku about data loss. I took a short video of the results. In our collective defense, we consumed much alcohol that evening.    (LUT)

Leadership Learning Community

In the second half of 2006, I took a hard look at my list of projects and opportunities. I decided that I needed to be brutally honest about what I wanted to accomplish with Blue Oxen Associates, and that ultimately, I wanted two things:    (LTL)

  1. To have a wider impact    (LTM)
  2. To give more quality time to fewer projects.    (LTN)

That meant not renewing existing commitments and saying no to a lot of great people.    (LTO)

In the midst of all this, I got an email from Elissa Perry asking if I’d be interested in becoming a board member of the Leadership Learning Community (LLC). LLC is a community that takes a network-centric approach to leadership development, focusing particularly on the graduates of the many foundation leadership programs across the entire sector. Elissa had participated in our first two FLOSS Usability Sprints, and we had chances here and there to chat about our respective work and organizations. We were definitely on the same philosophical plane, and I loved hearing about the great work LLC was doing.    (LTP)

That said, my first instinct was to say no. But I decided to sleep on it, and I started having second thoughts. When I started Blue Oxen Associates, I originally wanted to focus on the nonprofit sector, and while we shifted our strategy midway through our first year, my heart never left that space. Over the years, I met many great people in the sector, I worked with a number of foundations and two nonprofits (Planetwork and People for the American Way) as clients, I joined the board of a nonprofit (Tomorrow Makers), and I did several projects with Aspiration, most notably the usability sprints. But I never got the chance to really get my hands dirty with one particular group. Focus was always the issue.    (LTQ)

Joining the board of LLC would give me the chance to focus my energies on one nonprofit and simultaneously impact the entire sector. If I were going to make that commitment to one organization, I wanted to make sure it was a good fit. I decided to research LLC a bit more, and the more I read, the more I felt kinship to the mission and the execution. In many ways, they were trying to do the same thing for leadership that I was trying to do for collaboration. I loved their emphasis on learning as well as their methodology. Most importantly, I saw ways that we could learn from each other.    (LTR)

In the end, I said yes. I was confident about my decision, but after participating in a board meeting and in one of their learning circles last month, I am ecstatic about it. Everyone there is smart, action-oriented, and full of heart, starting with the executive director, Deborah Meehan. That also goes for its board. The board meeting felt like… well, like one of Blue Oxen‘s workshops. Except it wasn’t a workshop, it was a board meeting! This was not your typical, sign-off-on-the-budget-so-we-can-go-drink meeting. This was a welcome-to-the-family, stretch-your-mind, now-get-down-to-business meeting, and it was infinitely more effective and fulfilling that way.    (LTS)

The learning circle, for me, sealed the deal. Not only did I get to watch the LLC staff do their thing, I was also blown away by the caliber of the participants, who were mostly from foundations. I live in an area and work in a field where I am constantly surrounded by brilliant people, and to be very frank, I have always been underwhelmed whenever I’ve attended gatherings of foundation people. This was a notable exception. I was struck by the breadth of experience, the depth and rigor of thinking, and the respectful and authentic discourse among the participants. My brain was overflowing by the end of the workshop.    (LTT)

As I said a few weeks ago, a week with the LLC generated enough thoughts to fill a thousand blog posts. I won’t write that many, but I hope to spit out a few, starting with this one. In the meantime, if you’re interested in leadership, check out the web site, participate in one of the learning circles, and come participate in the annual Creating Space workshop in Baltimore, April 11-13, 2007.    (LTU)

February 2007 Update

A month has passed, and the blog has been silent, but the brain has not. Time to start dumping again. But before I begin, a quick synopsis:    (LR8)

  • The month started off inauspiciously, with a catastrophic system failure that occurred over the holidays. Quite the story. I hope to tell it someday.    (LR9)
  • Last year, I joined the board of the Leadership Learning Community (LLC). It was an unusual move on my part, since I was also in the process of clearing commitments off my list in order to focus more on my higher-level goals. In the midst of saying no to many, many people, I found myself saying yes to LLC. We had our first 2007 board meeting earlier this month, and I participated in their subsequent learning circles. Let’s just say I have no regrets. A week with these folks generated enough thoughts to fill a thousand blog posts.    (LRA)
  • This past week, I co-facilitated a three day Lunar Dust Workshop for NASA, using Dialogue Mapping and Compendium. It was an unbelievable experience, also worth a thousand blog posts. For now, check out some pictures.    (LRB)
  • For the past few months, I’ve been actively involved with a project called Grantsfire. The project’s goal is modest: Make foundations and nonprofits more transparent and collaborative. How? For starters, by getting foundations to publish their grants as microformats. I’ve hinted about the project before, and I’ll have much more to say soon.    (LRC)
  • For the past year, I’ve been helping reinvent Identity Commons. Again, I haven’t blogged much about it, but I’ve certainly talked a lot about it. Not only are we playing an important role in the increasingly hot Internet identity space, we’re also embodying a lot of important ideas about facilitating networks and catalyzing collaboration.    (LRD)

In addition to a flood of blog posts, other things to look forward to this month include:    (LRE)

FLOSS Usability Sprint III

This weekend, Aspiration and Blue Oxen Associates are once again co-hosting FLOSS Usability Sprint III, the pre-eminent event for bringing usability to Open Source projects. This year, we’ve moved venues from San Francisco to Mountain View. Thanks to Google and especially Rick Boardman for sponsoring the event!    (LET)

As always, we have a great set of participants, and it should be both productive and fun. What’s even cooler for me this year is that one of my projects, HyperScope, will be a participant. I love it when things converge! The other projects are Drupal, Social Source Commons, Socialtext Open, and Sustainable Civil Society. Really looking forward to it!    (LEU)