Mozfest and the “let’s make it” paradigm


MozFest 2013

I think I know now why it took me three years to feel at ease at Mozfest. It is not because I am not a coder, it is because it exemplifies a paradigm shift. The fundamental attitude in an academic conference is “sit and listen”, while the one at MozFest is “move and make”. The first approach to learning is theoretical and  slow pasted – it takes a long time to un-tackle a complex concept with words – the other is quick and practical – prototype lots and a few good ideas will survive. The first is secretive and copyright based (don’t distribute the paper until it is published with your name) and the other is public and copyleft based (write the notes of the session together and them make them available to all through the web).

These are two worlds using their own working methods to understand and shape the world. They are a good example of how we can speak about the same things using such different approaches that the findings seem to belong to two completely different realities. Do we really need to choose between these two ways of seeing the world? Can we think, speak, write AND make, prototype, play?

I attended the “Privacy Drama: Scare and Educate People” (see the Etherpad notes) hosted by Ben Moskowitz (Mozilla), Dan Schultz (, Margauz Missika (Upian) and Brett Gaylor. The brief was to “produce an  interactive “wake up call” app to illustrate user  data problems like third party tracking, metadata, entropy theory,  electronic surveillance, and social graph mining”.

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In my mind the political implications of tracking online users  behaviours and the creation of  an anti-tracker software such as Lightbeam – or an i-doc such as Do Not Track – can (must?) be linked. Long term view and short term making need to be connected to be effective, no doubt of that. How come it is so rare to find events where both logics are linked?
As I participated to the Privacy Drama session I wondered what was the clear agenda of the session. Was it to have fun imagining possible ways to visualize how much we are tracked online? Was it to start new ideas that could be come real products? Was it to mingle and find the potential coders we need for a total different project? Or maybe to generate ideas that could be used by Upian for Do Not Track? Or simply to apply the “brainstorm and prototype” methodology in a fun context so that it can become the ethos of potential new adepts?

Brett Gaylor & Philo taking notes

What is really going on while you participate to such a “making it together” event? What is it that you are creating? Prototypes or ethos? Is this ultimate creativity or ultimate propaganda?

As I learned quite a lot about online tracking (on this: do download Lightbeam on your browser and see what you are unawarely building a virtual persona online) and I enjoyed looking at Take this Lollipop (a scary narrative that takes your Facebook details and incorporates them in the story to make it personal and immersive) I did also feel the strange excitement of hacker-like disruptive creativity while my group (lead by Brett Gaylor) started imagining a site that could allow you to swap, or buy, personas online – in order to trick all the people that are dealing with our digital self (insurances, online mortgages, but also Facebook friends and Linked in professional contacts!).

sketches & notesBerto Yanez (from A Navalla Suiza, Spain) paired with another coder and did manage to design a simple prototype for the final show (but I cannot not find it online…).

So what do I keep from my  “make it in 3 hrs” session?? Well… a mixture of excitement and frustration… Excitement because it is true that the more, the merrier! It was fun brainstorming together, it was fun coming up with a simple design in such a short time, and fun being in a group of people that really engaged with the process. Frustration because those are people I’ll might never see again, time is too short, you leave just when you are about to get into something, and frustration because the ideas presented are all equally good – criticism (critical thinking?) is a no no attitude at MozFest (even if, eventually, some ideas do seem to get through more than others).

Most of all I kept the “let’s make it” buzz… a buzz that is utterly refreshing indeed…

The way the “let’s make it” paradigm got expressed in the second session I attended,  “Design Thinking for More Meaningful Stories”, was by adding a little methodology to the creative process. This really got my interest going: effectively Aron Pilhofer, from the New York Times, paired with UX specialist and researcher Miranda Mulligan, to train creatives in the skill of interactive journalistic storytelling. Now… if the New York Times gets into training… it is a sign that “design thinking” is getting into the newsroom – and soon into interactive storytelling in general! This is the sign I was waiting for, as I am convinced that we cannot keep designing interactive stories without embracing more the UX techniques that web designers have been experimenting for the last 15 years! If we are designing FOR the web, we have to think WITH web techniques – wether we are designing a retailing business or an interactive story (as you have maybe noticed, we are so convinced of this shift, that we are dedicating a whole part of our i-Docs 2014 conference to it! Watch this space…).

So what happened during this session?

Our brief was to design an interactive version of the NY Times 36 HRs travel column. But the emphasis this time was not into the “feel free to brainstorm what you would like to play with”, but rather “design with the user in mind”. And, our facilitators insisted, design thinking does offer us a methodology to place the user at the centre of the design brief – use constraints to design better!

Here is the sequence that was proposed (coming straight from design methodologies) and that each group worked on:

Journalism & design thinking session

Step 1 : Empathise — Start asking open-ended questions of your persona
ie When was the last time this person read a 36 hours piece? What was that experience like? How did it go? What was your favorite part?
Step 2: Digging deeper — Interview iteration
Ask “why?” often. Try to forget about the specific experience and try to get at what is really important to your persona. The point of this iteration is to indicate an assumption, and the ask a question to test whether your assumption is valid.
Report back – Who is your persona? What is this context?
Step 3:  Capture your findings about your persona into NEEDS and INSIGHTS.
Needs are verbs – This about it like this: In the process of consuming 36 hours content, what is your persona actually trying to accomplish? What does this experience DO FOR THEM? Any solution must address these needs, or it not actually a solution for your persona
Insights are discoveries about your persona – These are bits for you to leverage while designing a new 36 hours experience for them. The may or may not be overt or explicitly expressed.
Write a problem statement that allows you to have a point of view and to take a stand
This is the challenge that you will address with your design.
This should be actionable and feel like a challenge that you want to solve
  test it with a sentence: complete the following:
___________________ needs a way to ________(needs)___________________ [Because] / [Surprisingly] / [But] … ________________________(insights about your persona)____________________
Step 4:  Sketch to generate ideas
Sketching is not about being a good artist it about proper thinking and brainstorming process.
Step 5: Build a prototype
        Report back – Pitch your idea
                What is you product in one-sentence?
                What is the persona/use-case/context?
                How is your product delivering on your problem statement

(see the Etherpad notes for the full notes on the session)

The ideas that each group developed were fun and engaging, but most of them were apps to be used while traveling. Is this the compromise to be accepted: write an article if you want to tell a story, do an app if you want people to access the data of your story? The question that came to my mind is: can we use design thinking when we do not have a problem to solve? Can we treat a “story inter-actor” as a “user” (when there is nothing to “use” in a story)?

Those are the questions I will ask to both Aron Pilhofer and Miranda Mulligan in a future interview – as I intend to start a whole series of UX in i-docs interviews soon.

I also attended two other session (“How to grow a community of web-native storytellers?” and “Mobile Storytelling with hard to reach communities”) but, as this blog is becoming way too long already, I think I will keep the rest for another post.

Concluding: thinking back to the whole experience of the MozFest week-end I would say:

1. MozFest is about mixing people and doing together: this type of event has an amazing energy that could become incredibly productive if one had more time (one week?) and managed to attract an even broader range of people. Is there a space where projects could develop in such creative atmosphere?

2. Design thinking and storytelling: for me this is the new area to develop and research. How can we include the user (inter-actant?) in our stories from the very beginning? How can we incorporate design methodologies with storytelling ones?

To be continued…