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titlePosted by Colin Clark on 2007-05-08


There's been a lot to celebrate here at the ATRC recently.

We've started work on the FLUID Project, a collaboration among members of the Sakai, uPortal, and Moodle communities to improve the user experience of community source software. We've got a very strong team of partners from universities and corporations around the world who are working to address both the design and technical improvements required to make these applications more usable and accessible. FLUID recently received a two-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to do this work, and we're committed to ensuring that the project has a sustainable future providing technology and services to improve user experience broadly within open source web applications.

FLUID Goals

Our goal for FLUID is to combine both design and technology to create a living library of user interface components that can be reused across Sakai, uPortal, and eventually other web applications. These components will be built specifically to support flexibility and customization while maintaining a high standard of usability, accessibility, internationalization, and security. The FLUID framework will enable designers and developers to build user interfaces that can more readily accommodate the diverse personal and institutional needs found within community source. We will integrate these rich, client-side UI components and the framework to support them into the existing presentation technologies used in Sakai and uPortal, such as Cambridge's RSF framework.

Equally important as our technology, FLUID will encourage user-centered design practices within community source projects by creating a designer's toolkit that will offer useful design, accessibility, and usability strategies and documentation. This toolkit will include the results of several heuristic analyses and usability studies, a collection of design models such as user profiles and personas, and a growing library of UI design patterns. Members of the FLUID team will be available to provide usability and accessibility support within the Sakai, uPortal, Kuali Student, and Moodle communities.

We will work closely with our communities to ensure that the priorities and deliverables of the project are aligned to the needs of our participating projects. FLUID will contribute all of the design and technical work back to the communities under ECL and Creative Commons licenses. A thumbnail sketch of the FLUID deliverables includes:

  1. A collection of well-designed, accessible, and reusable UI components
  2. Integration of the FLUID framework and components into uPortal 3 and Sakai
  3. New usability and heuristic studies of Moodle, Sakai, and uPortal
  4. Ongoing user research and synthesis of usability data in Moodle, Sakai, and uPortal
  5. A library of user interface design patterns
  6. A collection of user research documentation including personas, profiles, scenarios, and other design models
  7. Increased involvement and input from skilled designers, accessibility experts, and UI developers

The FLUID Launch Meeting

On April 19-20 we hosted the official launch meeting for FLUID here in Toronto. We had attendees from Cambridge University, UC Berkeley, UBC, York University, Michigan State, and of course a large contingent from the ATRC. The meeting was an opportunity for the core partners to get together, plan our upcoming work, and coordinate amongst team members. On the first day, Daphne Ogle and I presented a lengthy overview of the project, including our ideas for a design/development process that will ensure our team is able to produce highly usable and accessible interfaces. I've posted the slides of our overview presentation to the web in PDF format in case you're interested. We also discussed communication strategies, technologies for collaboration, and the governance relationships between our Board of Directors, the FLUID Advisory Committee, and the working community.

Our goal for FLUID's governance strategy is to ensure that the working groups have the freedom to shape the future of the FLUID project while enabling ready access to expert advice and input. We will have an advisory committee consisting of experts in the areas of HCI, usability, accessibility, security, and software architecture who will be available to consult on technical and design issues during the development process. The board of directors will have a largely hands-off role; they are primarily responsible for handling the financial and reporting requirements of the project. The board is ultimately accountable for the deliverables of the project, but the project coordinators and working community members are responsible for the day-to-day decisions. We hope this will foster an open community where anyone can get involved and contribute productively to the project.

The second day consisted of separate board and working meetings. We were treated to an extremely interesting talk by Clayton Lewis entitled Human Centered Computing and the Future of Computer Science. A webcast of Clayton's talk is available, and I would highly recommend that you check it out. This set the stage for our working meeting, during which we went through the entire set of project deliverables and split up the work according to our individual expertise. One of my tasks over the next couple of weeks is to start work on a new project road map that better articulates the priorities and timelines for FLUID. Keep an eye out for that document soon.

We're also planning a working meeting via Breeze to discuss protocols for our upcoming heuristic evaluations and usability studies of Sakai, uPortal, and Moodle. These studies and analyses will provide a critical baseline for the project; they tell us where we are in terms of the status of usability and accessibility in community source, what the major "pain points" are, and how to prioritize our work. The goal here is to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of Sakai, uPortal, and Moodle, and to start working as soon as possible on new designs and reusable components that best address the high-priority usability and accessibility problems. Gary Thompson from Unicon has done some excellent work on heuristics for uPortal;with his blessing, we hope to use this as the basis for our own heuristic analysis protocols within FLUID.

We had a huge agenda of things to discuss during Friday's working meeting, but ended up only covering a few of the top-priority items. While it would have been great to delve into more detail, the ultimate goal for a face-to-face meeting was to build the working relationships that are critical to the long-term success of an open source project. In this respect, the meetings were a huge success. It was great to have an opportunity to get to know our partners better and to start the process of community building in person.

Up Next

We're making a concerted effort to blog regularly, providing updates on our development progress as we go. At the ATRC we are using an agile development process, complete with pair programming and test-first design. The blog is one way that we can share insights about developing FLUID and better reflect the goings-on within the collaborative FLUID space here. Michelle is planning to blog more about the new space and our agile process soon, so stay tuned.

I'd like to thank everyone who was able to attend the launch meeting here in Toronto and for making it such a success. I'm really looking forward to working with you all over the coming months. If you weren't able to make it to the face-to-face meeting, consider this an open invitation to come and visit us at U of T any time.