Fluid and Sakai

I’m sure this will be the first of many entries about Sakai and Fluid. At least it should be if we’re both doing our jobs.

As you probably know, the Fluid Project is, in their own words:

a worldwide collaborative project to help improve the usability and accessibility of community open source projects with a focus on academic software for universities. We are developing and will freely distribute a library of sharable customizable user interfaces designed to improve the user experience of web applications.

Last week was the Fluid Summit, where a number of folks from the community gather to work, plan, share information, debate and even socialize. I was there only two days (Thursday and Friday) but that was enough for me to understand Fluid a lot better and even to dispel some misconceptions I have. Here’s a quick summary of my observations:

Fluid will directly impact Sakai

Improving usability and accessibility in Sakai is a core part of the Fluid mission and plan. Not only do they plan to make their work available to Sakai, but they will be doing the work to actually put it into trunk (the code parts of their work, that is). Not that we should expect them to do all of that work, of course, but it is great to know that the project will deliver results to Sakai as well as potential solutions.

Fluid is Sakai

Looking around the rooms at the Fluid Summit I saw a lot of familiar faces from places like UC Berkeley, Cambridge and Georgia Tech. These folks know Sakai inside and out and that knowledge will ensure that what gets worked on is relevant to Sakai. Of course Fluid is other things as well, including uPortal and Kuali Student and Moodle, which should benefit everyone. But I stopped thinking about Fluid as a project that is somehow separate or “in parallel to” Sakai.

Benefits will come quickly

One of the things I was worried about was how quickly Fluid could impact Sakai. I’m pleased to say that I think it will be relatively soon. While a lot of the Fluid plans will evolve over a longer time scale, there is work that is happening in Fluid that can and will impact the 2.6 release of Sakai. Heck, even the 2.5 release will see an improved handling of site tabs. I was pleased to see that a portion of the time was actually spent designing and developing, not just talking about what to design and develop.

Also remember that the initial grant is for 2 years. That’s not a long time and the Fluid team is motivated to show results. So get to work.

It’s far more than interface widgets

The word “component” is thrown around in the Fluid world quite a bit. My interpretation of that was, initially, an interface widget. I’ll use the ubiquitous “date picker” as the prototypical interface widget. I know that some people (embarrassingly, I was one of them) were worried that the concrete outputs of Fluid would be nothing more than a set of (very nice and accessible) widgets. While certainly valuable, I think it was hard to understand how that could have a big impact on usability in Sakai. Many usability issues boil down to a sensible workflow that maps well to user’s mental models of the tasks they are trying to complete.

The folks on Fluid are obviously well aware of this. They are still grappling with issues of granularity, of course, especially since there mission is to impact multiple projects where workflows necessarily diverge. But a good example is the Lightbox component, which certainly goes well beyond what I think of as an interface widget.

Cats and dogs, living together

While I didn’t do a formal count, there were a roughly equal number of “designers” and “developers” at the meeting. I put those in quotes because it was clear that there are plenty of technology-savvy designers and design-savvy developers. While recognizing that there are issues that clearly belong in once place rather than the other, the Fluid team is really working together. The benefit will be designs that are implementable and implemented. Not to mention, I hope, cross-education that will benefit everyone far beyond the context of the project.

So, all in all, a very valuable couple of days. The attendees are building a summary of the summit on their wiki. My thanks to everyone at the University of Toronto for their hospitality and energy. Next time you see me, though, ask me about how what I learned about passports and FedEx.

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2 Responses

  1. […] is to getting real results (designs and code) into these community source products. Michael wrote a great blog entry about the Fluid and Sakai as a result of his attendance at the summit. One of his statements that […]

  2. […] those of you who are interested in Sakai, if you haven’t already read Michael Korcuska’s blog entry about his impressions of the summit, I’d encourage you to take a look. He’s done a great job of outlining his perspectives […]

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