Dedicated to being adaptive

The last 9 months we used n0tice to put into practice some of the things that I’ve learned the last decade or so about development and some of the things that I always wanted to try but didn’t have the chance.

Anyone who has ever worked in a startup will recognize most of what I describe here, but I think the way the n0tice team operates also has some lessons for larger projects happening in larger groups, as well.

The n0tice team is made up of 1 lead developer (Daniel Levitt) who drives the web site and most of the new concepts, 1 community strategist (Sarah Hartley) who sets the tone and spends time working face-to-face with customers, 1 infrastructure man (Tony McCrae) who not only handles plumbing but also builds services like the API, a mobile development pair (more on them later) who are designing and writing the iOS app, an apprentice (Andre Moses) supporting our social media efforts, and a host of volunteers, occasional contract help, and a cast of supporters who help us out along the way when they can (or when we ask).

Almost everyone has a hand in at least one other major project in addition to n0tice.

We chat most mornings at 11am for about 30 minutes, not always. None of us sit together physically. We try to work together in the same space every two weeks for an afternoon, not always. There are no other meetings.

We decide what to build as individuals, though everyone shares what they’re doing so we can talk about the work and feed ideas to each other.

I like the principles of agile development, but I’ve never found it great at handling multidisciplinary activity, particularly when you are dependent on the talents of the people around you as opposed to the timeline or milestones.

So, as a result, we just let everyone work at their own pace, doing what they can do when they can do it, united on a direction of travel.

We choose release dates based on when something is ready or when it might make sense for co-dependencies to join up. In some cases, a date is a codependency, but generally we care more about what is built rather than when it’s built.

Everyone uses their favorite tools to build whatever they are building. That means we’re running multiple programming languages, but you don’t have to trade simplicity for creativity if you can loosely join separate systems through a service-like approach…even with a relatively small stack like the n0tice stack. It seems to actually make scalability easier, too.

I’m as guilty as the next person who cares about their work of micromanaging, but I think I’ve solved that problem for myself and the team and the effort by attracting individuals who are not just talented but also very very creative. We can therefore deflect any tendencies I may have to define solutions to things because we all know that I could never have a better solution to a problem than the person responsible for the problem.

They force me to stay focused on where we’re going rather than how we’re getting there.

We pay close attention to what our users say. We setup a Google Group early in the process and invited people to say whatever they want. And they do. We also spent time face-to-face with many of the beta users to ask their opinions of changes before we completed them. We know what we want to do, but we take care to marry our ideas with their desires.

The whole effort is guided by a few principles that everyone on the team can interpret individually.

Everything ultimately serves the vision: “what’s happening near you.” Observe constantly and respond quickly. Think in a network native way. Technologies and tools are there to empower people, not the other way around.

We certainly benefit from being close to the Guardian, too.

We have internal advisors looking over our shoulders like Guardian platform architect Graham Tackley, and we get bursts of insight from UX specialists like Martin Belam and Alastair Jardine. We can test ideas out on the Guardian editors, mobile teams and ad sales teams. We also get informal advice from some of the Guardian executives and some very insightful external advisors who check that we’re not being stupid.

Now, all of this is less of a method and more like a state of play.

We can be sure that the next 12 months will change around us and that users will change what n0tice means. But we’ve taken great care to make adaptation a core competency so that the core factors that got us to where we are now continue to help us do well.

That’s a principle inherent in the medium itself.  The Internet is a messy, ever-changing, human-powered, technically and creatively diverse platform that means different things to different people.  In my view, succeeding online means aligning what you’re doing with how the Internet works and the characteristics that make it meaningful and interesting and important in the world.

It feels like we’re on that journey with n0tice, so far.

Of course, all of this is a recipe for building stuff.  What we haven’t yet proven is whether or not what we’re building fully captures people’s imaginations and becomes important in their communities.

Hopefully, I’ll have a blog post like this in about 6 or 9 months time describing an approach for successfully empowering healthy community activity, too.

Start noticing everything again

Today we are removing the invite-only door on and opening up for the world to join us. The announcement details are posted on the n0tice blog here. But I’ll use this space to share some of the thinking behind what we’re doing.

There’s a really interesting film from the mid-90’s called Smoke. Harvey Keitel plays a shopkeeper who takes a picture of the street from his shop every day for several years.

Looking at his pictures it seems that nothing changes in some ways, but the little details that do change begin to surface. It turns out that the characters that pass through his shop are loosely connected and that their personal stories actually impact each other profoundly.

It’s a great reminder to look around and to be part of what’s happening right in front of us, something that is increasingly difficult when the network follows us everywhere we go – it’s always with us right in our pockets.

While the temptation to escape reality and spend more time in digital land is increasingly challenging, the network can unify and amplify things in meaningful ways when the digital and physical worlds come together for a purpose.

The catalysts for this symbiotic effect include things like festivals, protests, art, sports, debates, gatherings, etc. All of these things can be planned, promoted and chronicled digitally while the real experiences are shared with real people in real places physically.

The digital and physical experiences reinforce each other and make a stronger experience possible together than either the digital or physical experience operating without the other.

Can you imagine a protest without twitter or youtube today?
Mobile phone cameras capture protest moments - #Jan25 Egypt Revolution
Photo By sierragoddess

With headphones on and eyes locked to a screen we are missing both the beauty and the danger that coexist around us. But perhaps by unifying the things happening around us with the power of the network our lives will be more meaningful, not less.

And maybe as a result we will become more interested in participating in what’s happening around us with more commitment and enthusiasm, too.

It’s this idea and many other inspirations that set the stage for us to build n0tice:

We applied some ideas from a fun little game developed by Tom Taylor and Tom Armitage called noticings – a game about learning to look at the world around you. It was also inspired by aspects of the street art movement – an attempt to wake people up, and an attempt to have conversations in, about and because of public spaces.

Of course, we’ve learned a lot from Twitter, Foursquare and many other successful platforms, too. We’ve witnessed incredible innovation over the last 3 years or so, and n0tice is benefitting from those advances. We are standing on the shoulders of giants.

But we’re also hopeful that n0tice can play an important new role in your world, helping you to become part of your surroundings.

Take a moment every day to notice what’s happening near you. Look closer. Listen carefully. Get to know the stories that you didn’t notice before.

Help others notice what’s happening nearby, too. Post photos. Report what you notice.

If there’s one thing we hope n0tice can do it’s that it may encourage us to be better participants and keen observers in the world.  By using the power of the digital network to amplify what’s important and interesting in the world around us perhaps the concept of a community will be more meaningful to everyone.