Sometimes you learn the most when you are taught something you already know. As a 30 year old working for a United Way in new media, I often find myself projecting lessons I have learned in the online world back into my local United Way. I think technology has accelerated a shift in public expectations of what individual interactions with institutions should look like. More than ever I see the need for organizations to recognize and retool in order to become more user-friendly, open and adaptive institutions.
After attending The Harwood Public Innovators Lab the ethos of the Web 2.0 movement and Harwood's perspective became tightly intertwined in my mind. Harwood challenges us as agents of these institutions to face today’s reality and therefore shift to a more open and outward-turned cultural orientation. My experience at United Way combined with the lessons I learned at the Harwood Lab gives me a unique perspective on the driving forces behind Harwood's message of turning outward and the beneficial interlinking of Web 2.0.
Usability is the key to creating a website focused on the experience of the user. This seems simple enough but without realizing it most designers end up catering more to what the organization wants then what the user wants. The only way to break this habit and make websites work for users is to go right to users for input. Similar to what we learned in the Public Knowledge portion of the Lab. A great example of this Philosophy is the book “Dont Make Me Think”, which pushes designers of web pages to avoid big usability studies and find time to watch everyday people use their system periodically throughout development. In this way the site becomes something much more connected to the way people actually use the Internet.
The teaching of the lab compels us to take time to talk to everyday people directly about their aspirations. This ultimately gives us an understanding of people's reality beyond the data, and as a result better at organizing community responses to problems. Much like the constant check-ins with users as a grounding “reality check” for website developers, conversations with regular people help institutions to find an underlying truth about how the man on the street views our world. This concept also goes hand-in-hand with the concept of “constant beta”. With the greater understanding of people's realities United Way would be empowered to constantly adjust, refine or rethink our approach to problems. In a world that is rapidly changing this cultural acceptance of a constant feedback loop is critical.
Finally, I saw a strong connection between how Rich Harwood talked about social movements and the way that the open source movement operates. Both require leadership to capture the shared aspirations of a group to productive ends. A lesson I took from the workshop is that successful movements combine the technical opportunities of expert knowledge and timed momentum of public knowledge.
Although an oversimplification of Harwood's lessons I think key web 2.0 concepts echo what I learned at the Harwood Innovator's Lab. Just like he is asking United Way to turn outward, Rich Harwood has turned outward himself sees the potential in United Way. I am happy to know he and his team is working to nudge United Way, to turn outward and more aptly lead a national movement for the common good.
J.R. Logan is Director of New Media Strategies for United Way of Greater New Haven and United Way of Coastal Fairfield County