In defence of shiny tools...

10 February 2015

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about how civic tech tools need to be “less shiny, and more useful”. I got some good feedback about this - most people agreeing with the general premise behind it, but some people spoke out in defence of ‘shiny’:

Interestingly, it turned out that all of the people who made comments like the one above are developers themselves. This surprised me at first - the people who are tasked with the literal building and making of such “shallow” tools, defending them?

They know what they’re talking about though, and if you think about it, it does make sense. For people with high technical literacy, demonstrating an idea via a shiny prototype can be a much stronger advocacy tool than simply telling them about it. It might open someone’s eyes to an option they didn’t even know was possible, or give them a low-cost prototype tool to use to convince upper levels of their management that real resource investment into developing the tool further is really worth it.

I’m even slightly proud to say that I’ve used this technique myself, to demonstrate an idea that would have needed a lot more explanation had I done it just with words. In my case, it was the simplest of “shiny” prototypes: I forked a site that performed a similar function to the ones I was talking about, changed some simple styles and a bit of content to make it more relevant to the viewers, and voilà, I had a great demonstration of my idea, and it took less than an hour. Though it was only running on my own laptop, it worked brilliantly as an in-person advocacy tool, showing what could be possible and the style of platform I had meant.

So, based on that feedback and my own subsequent realisations, I’d like to slightly retract, and slightly modify my previous call for less shiny and more useful:

In some cases, un-useable, shiny prototypes are useful. Namely, when the sole purpose is advocacy or championing a certain idea to a user group who might not otherwise understand your idea. However, when the purpose of the tool is more external facing - looking at a certain user group who might be interested in your data, or in accessing/understanding your data - I stand by my original post. In both cases, it’s crucial to define from the very beginning what the purpose is of what you’re building, and who it’s aimed at.

Thanks so much to those people who gave me feedback and helped me come to this (hopefully!) more nuanced understanding - really appreciated. Anything else? Tweet me @zararah!


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