Startup Product and Iteration Z

In February, I attended the inaugural Startup Product Summit, which was a fabulous one-day conference event in San Francisco.  Startup Product is part movement, part community of passionate product people, and part embodiment of one of the most talented people-organizers and evangelists of product excellence that I’ve ever met, Cindy F. Solomon.  The event itself was packed with useful information delivered by dynamic speakers.  Still fairly small, it had a sort of underground tone, which left me feeling like I was in on a great secret.  It is no great secret, though, when you learn what Cindy has accomplished.  The community she has organized includes:

  • ~1500 members of the local SF Bay Startup Product Meetup Group, which meets to hear wonderful speakers every couple of weeks at Atlassian HQ in San Francisco
  • A budding new regional Startup Product group in Boston – Cindy is on the East Coast now to work with the Boston team
  • ~25,000 weekly listeners of her Global Product Management Talks – a broadcast every Monday morning where Cindy interviews interesting people from across the entire product ecosystem

Along with these regular events, Cindy has also been working hard on planning the next Startup Product Summit, scheduled for October 11, 2013, and rallying some troops to assist with the event and other Startup Product related stuff.  I’m happy to announce that I’m one of those troops, having recently connected with Cindy over my comparison of Sprint.ly and Pivotal Tracker.  In past incarnations, I’ve been a business analyst, project manager, developer, and played many other roles in the software/product spectrum, and I’m thrilled to be contributing to a movement that focuses on cross-functional collaboration in the product space.  I fully believe that it takes a village and I look forward to bringing some excellent content and perspectives to this growing community.

Another recent development for me is that I’m returning to my entrepreneurial roots and will be doing independent product work through my new company, Iteration Z.  I’ve co-founded two successful companies in the Iterationpast, but since 2005 have been either working for other startups or small consulting firms, or in school, finishing a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and getting a Master’s in Organizational Leadership.  With those things crossed off my to-do list, I felt it was time to dive back in, and this time, focus on product management.  There are so many really great startups in the Bay Area that are bringing cool, innovative apps to the world, and it’s my hope that I’ll be able to work with a variety of them to help them reach their goals.

So, sign up now for the Startup Product Summit SF2, visit me at my new site, and give me a holler if you’re looking for some assistance with product work!

Compare and Contrast: Sprintly and Pivotal Tracker

PTvsSPPivotal Tracker is a pretty popular cloud tool for managing agile product development, and while there are many things I like about it, I have also been messing around with Sprint.ly since I heard the CEO, Joe Stump, speak at a product management event a few months ago.  I compared and contrasted a few aspects of each tool and below are some of my thoughts.  Note:  This is by no means a comprehensive review of either product.  I’m not using either of them for production work at the moment, so I don’t cover things such as integration with source code repositories, APIs, etc.  The perspective I was most interested in was that of a product manager creating and managing high volumes of user stories, and trying to do so efficiently.

Screen Real Estate:

The first major item of note is that Pivotal Tracker uses the full available width of the browser screen, while Sprintly does not.  I can debate the merits and drawbacks of both choices, but I tend to prefer Sprintly’s approach because I believe the noise ratio is much higher in the Pivotal Tracker view.  The more information you see on the screen, the harder it is to find what you’re actually looking for.  On the other hand, in a tool that gets heavy use, I find getting used to the interface and using search frequently can help overcome that issue.

Terminology:

Pivotal Tracker uses the term Icebox for wish list items that may or may not end up being worked on, while Sprintly uses the term ‘Someday’ for those items.  New stories are added to these categories by default.  Pivotal Tracker uses Story Points (0, 1, 2, 3) for estimating, while Sprintly uses what it refers to as T-shirt sizes (S, M, L, XL).

Working Views:

Both products have what I’ll call an “abbreviated card view,” which lists user stories in columns according to the phase each story falls into.  These views would be the place I’d likely spend the most time in creating and managing user stories.  This is where you can add stories, estimate them, shuffle them from one phase/state to another, and start or complete them.

In Pivotal Tracker’s Organizer view, the default phases are Current, Backlog, and Icebox (you can add ‘Done’ and ‘Epics’ if you like – I added ‘Done’ to make the comparison with Sprintly more consistent).

PT1

Pivotal Tracker ‘Organizer’ View

In Sprintly’s Items view, the default phases are Someday, Backlog, Current, Complete, and Accepted, though Sprintly’s view does not display all five columns at once.  Instead, a banner bar above the columns that implies progression through phases acts as a filter to display the two most relevant phases.  Note the ‘Triage’ label that is highlighted in the image below displays the ‘Someday’ and ‘Backlog’ queues.  Were I to click on ‘Underway,’ I’d see the ‘Backlog’ and ‘Current’ queues.  ’Pending’ displays ‘Current’ and ‘Complete,’ and ‘Done’ displays ‘Complete’ and ‘Accepted.’

Sp1

Sprintly’s ‘Items’ view with ‘Triage’ phase selected

One key difference in layout of the views is that Pivotal Tracker displays its columns in what I think of as reverse order of completeness (Done, Current, Backlog, Icebox).  Sprintly displays the columns in order of completeness (Someday, Backlog, Current, Complete, Accepted).  Sprintly’s order makes more sense to me because I am accustomed to reading/working from left to right.  This is probably a matter of personal preference, and Pivotal Tracker may assume that most time is spent in the ‘Current’ category, but I would argue that more time is spent in the Someday/Icebox and Backlog categories.  Once stories are created, estimated, and moved into the Current phase, I’m interested in monitoring progress, but am probably doing less data entry.  Sprintly does have a 3-column Dashboard view that can be compared with Pivotal Tracker’s default 3-column display, but  the central categories (Backlog, Current, Complete) are still displayed in reverse order as compared to Pivotal Tracker’s.

Inline Editing:

Both tools offer a lot of inline story editing functionality directly from the views described above.  Stories can be estimated, they can be dragged and dropped (or moved by other means) from one category to another, and they can be started or finished.  Tags assigned to stories can be clicked to quickly apply filters.  The images below show the functionality for both story cards.

Pivotal Tracker Inline Story Editing

Pivotal Tracker Inline Story Editing

Probably the single thing that bothers me most about the Pivotal Tracker UI is the placement of the tags assigned to stories.  If you add tags to stories, they appear ahead of the story text itself, which I think is very distracting.

Sp2

Sprintly Inline Story Editing

Sprintly places the tags after the story text, which makes it much easier to read the primary story text.  I do think they could improve on the question mark icon for estimating stories, though.  A question mark means ‘Help’ in practically every context on the Internet, so it’s not at all obvious that this is where you click to estimate the size of the story.  Given that they use T-shirt size for estimating, a simple solution could be to replace the question mark with the outline of a t-shirt.

Pricing:

Pivotal Tracker wins hands down on pricing.  Sprintly charges a whopping $14/month/user, while Pivotal Tracker has much more reasonable pricing plans.  First, they offer a free plan for a single user that doesn’t need collaborators or many projects.  Sprintly has no free plan.  Additionally, Pivotal Tracker has a variety of packages that allow multiple collaborators and multiple projects for very reasonable fees.  The Startup L package includes 7 collaborators and 10 projects, for $18/month.  7 collaborators on Sprintly would run $98/month.  That’s a huge difference in price.

Conclusions:

While both products do a great job presenting and organizing complex information in a relatively clean and intuitive way, I like Sprintly’s UI better.  It feels more natural and seems designed to narrow focus while presenting information in a logical and really pleasing way.  Besides just stating this was a main driver of the product itself at launch, the terminology and some functionality Sprintly has chosen indicates that they view the product development process as one that will include non-technical people (T-shirt size vs. story points; an Accepted state for stories).  I like this more inclusive approach to product planning and development.

Given that Sprintly has only been around for about a year and a half, and Pivotal Tracker has been around for about five years, I’m definitely impressed with what Sprintly has accomplished.  I’m the type of person that likes the underdog and wants to throw my support behind companies and products I truly love and admire.  However, for many users, price is going to be a deal-breaker.  When you can get essentially equivalent or even broader functionality with other more mature tools, it’s hard to justify such a large price differential unless, perhaps, those other tools have truly horrible user experience, and in this case, they don’t.  Perhaps as Sprint.ly grows they’ll be able to offer different pricing packages that make it more reasonable.  I hope they will, because I’d like to see them succeed.

Coursera: Leading Strategic Innovations in Organizations

I’m about half-way through the course offered by David A. Owens, Professor of the Practice of Management and Innovation at Vanderbilt’s Graduate School of Management, where he directs the Executive Development Institute.  I’m enjoying the course, partly because I’m highly interested in innovation and how it happens, but also because Owens delivers the course well.  He’s comfortable in front of the camera, and the approach he takes to analyzing innovation is somewhat innovative itself.  As opposed to digging into what makes innovation work, the course is entirely framed from within the perspective of what gets in the way of innovation.  The framework itself is very logical and easy to follow, and Owens breaks down innovation constraints into a number of logical categories, such as individual, group, organizational, industry/market, societal, and technological constraints.  Each week he reviews one of these areas, using examples from industry, and proffering means to overcome the constraints that are typical in these categories.

InnovationScreenshot

Though it’s a minor detail, the way he places himself in the weekly videos stood out for me.  Of the 8 or 10 courses I’ve looked at, he’s the only person to record himself standing and show his entire body as though he’s standing next to the slides and images he presents.  It was nice to see a different approach, and it works well because it allows him to use lots of body language which livens up the presentation.  He also enlisted an illustrator to create cartoon-ish sketches that appear throughout each lecture.  Again, something that seems like a small touch, but as someone who has seen a ton of online course video, it’s something that I think increases engagement, and that will be vital to creating some separation among professors and courses that are offered on platforms like Coursera.  I’m not sure when the course will be offered again, but I’d recommend it as an interesting overview of the challenges associated with innovation.

Courses: Gamification and Human-Computer Interaction on Coursera

courseraI’m a learning junkie, and have just completed my fifth course on Coursera, with three others underway.  Two of the courses I particularly enjoyed were Gamification and Human-Computer Interaction, and both are set to begin their next run in the next few days.  Human-Computer Interaction begins on March 31, and Gamification on April 1.  If you have an interest in developing or refreshing software design skills, I highly recommend both of these courses.  For more on my thoughts on the Gamification course, see this post and this post.  For my previous thoughts on the HCI course, see this post.  I’ve decided to take the HCI course again because I enjoyed the process so much, and have a new product idea that I plan to flesh out in the course.  The HCI course, like many Coursera courses, offers multiple “tracks.”  Last time around, I wasn’t able to devote enough time, so I landed in the Apprentice track, but this time, I hope to make it through the Studio Practicum.  Anyone else that’s taking the course, let me know, and I’ll look for you in the forums.

A Glimpse of the Next Generation of App Designers

bullischarterschoolCheck out this Balsamiq blog post about a group of 8th-graders from Bullis Charter School who are being taught how to design and build apps.  Totally inspiring!  I was born before most of the world could conceive of “apps,” though by the time I was in high school, we did have a handful of computers with 5.25″ floppy drives and I learned how to print my name in blocks of repeating letters using BASIC.  It’s amazing how much has changed!  Kudos to the curriculum developers and instructors at Bullis Charter School, Google for supporting their efforts, Balsamiq for providing their awesome Mockups tool, and to the kids that tackled this project head on to find solutions to their everyday problems using technology.

First Impressions: Sprintly for Agile Product Management

Items View

Items View

A few weeks ago, I attended the first StartUp Product Summit in San Francisco, and I was really happy with the event.  I shared some thoughts about my favorite speakers after I attended, but since then, I’ve also been checking out the products some of those speakers make.  I’ve been kicking around an idea for a web-based service for a while now, and I thought I’d start to log some user stories for it with Sprintly, whose CEO was a speaker at the Summit.  As Joe outlined in his speech, there are a ton of products in this space, and I have experience with a handful of them (RallyDev, Jira with Greenhopper, OnTime).

First impressions are incredibly important when choosing software in a space where there are a lot of choices available, and my first impression with Sprintly is that they get it.  When I signed up for my 30-day free trial, it was very easy for me to create my first product and my first items, and I really love the UI.  It’s simple and clean, while still achieving a lot in terms of presenting a significant amount of information without overwhelming me with it. In minutes, I had 20+ items created, and though I haven’t yet done much with those items (I’m just too early in my own process), I did have reason to make edits after I created the items, and to reorder them.  Those basic functions in the Sprintly UI are implemented perfectly – intuitive in-line editing for every piece of info on my story cards, drag-and-drop re-ordering of items on the screen.  I can say without reservation that I’m really looking forward to further using the product, and I intend to upgrade to a paid account at the end of my trial.

That said, there are a few minor changes I’d make.  First, while it was very easy to set up my first items, I couldn’t tell immediately where they went.  That’s because Sprintly defaults to their ‘Dashboard’ view.  While I imagine I’d use this view more often later in the process, right now, I’m only creating user stories, so I’m working entirely in the ‘Items’ view (Item being the generic top-level data object that acts as a user story).  It would make more sense in the on-boarding process to dump a new user into the Items view first, since all new items fall into a queue called ‘Someday’ as soon as they are created, and this queue is only displayed in the items view.  The Dashboard view only displays items that are in the backlog, currently being worked on, or are completed, and that’s the disconnect.

As soon as I figured out that’s where I needed to be, though, I’ve had no issues with navigation in general.  I’ll also add that the other main views offered in the app seem intuitive, though I don’t yet have useful data to look at.  When I load the screens, they don’t show me my items because I haven’t put any of them in the backlog or estimated them, or begun working on them, so things like velocity and the team cadence don’t yet have data.  The other thing I’d recommend is that Sprintly place their logo on all the screens.  As you can see in the associated screenshot, the logo is nowhere to be found on a working view, and it’s a really nice-looking logo.  The little sprinting man is perfect for dropping into a page header unobtrusively, and they do use it as a sort of ‘loading’ indicator when you switch from one view to the next, but it goes away after your screen loads.

A final note is that while I had the opportunity to hear Joe Stump speak, and that piqued my curiosity about the product, I also really like what I’ve found online.  In the company’s blog, Joe explains how they made some recent major performance improvements, and talks about his philosophy about the Agile Manifesto, and I really like his style.  It tells me that the company isn’t just making another product to track user stories.  They expose what agile means to them, how they use it, and lift the covers on some of their code along the way.  In terms of first impressions, after spending maybe an hour with the product, I’m walking away thinking this is the kind of company that wants to contribute to a community, and if Sprintly can leverage that and bake it into their culture and operations on an on-going basis, it may be a valuable tool in their quest to collapse  and consolidate what is now a pretty heavily segmented market.  I think the tech community is made up of people that largely want to support other people that give back, and this is a fresh new start-up that I’m happy to get behind.

Book Review: Sketching User Experiences

buxton_sketchingLast fall, I took a Human-Computer Interaction course offered by Stanford’s Scott Klemmer on Coursera, and one of the books he recommended was Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences.  Subtitled, ‘getting the design right and the right design,’ the book is highly engaging and full to the brim with rich content.  Published in 2007, the title is a few years’ old in a space that is constantly evolving as technology continues to advance and innovations in design abound, but the principles Buxton espouse transcend specific technologies or implementations of design paradigms, and thus, I believe the book will have a premiere place on the shelf of anyone that has anything to do with user experience design for a long time to come.

Best Practices +

A major goal of the book is to discuss best practices, specifically in an area that is common to the design of all things, whether physical products, software, hardware/software combo, or services.  The central thread among what could be perceived as a disparate collection of “things,” is the concept of “sketching the user experience.”   Buxton’s use of the term “sketching” is much more broad than you might think, which could be a drawback for someone that wants to focus on developing better literal sketching-with-a-pencil-or-marker skills, though he does address the topic, and has since published a companion workbook with some colleagues that supplements this  book well in that regard.

When I put the book down, I felt “sketching” referred to a collection of activities, perhaps best described by “discovering, thinking of, experimenting with, tinkering with, planning, and ultimately, capturing and representing” various complete user experiences, including less tangible things like the space between objects, screens, points in a process, and states, and the motivation for choosing to engage or not, deciding when to disengage, and whether to return.  A designer or design team’s ability to accomplish that set of activities relies on using many, many tools that go beyond the pencil and paper sketch, though the simple sketch holds a very significant place in the arsenal of design weapons.

Reasoning

One of the things I liked best about this book is the way Buxton reasons about design.  For every point he makes, he raises and tackles the counterpoint as well, making for some very convincing reading.  His writing has a noticeable scholarly bent to it, which I found refreshing in a field where many books are about passing trends or the latest technological approaches to design.  Buxton makes a strong case for the development of much more robust curricula and design programs in higher education, while also imploring industry to take design more seriously, especially at the C-level.  Still, this book is full of practical advice; it just happens to be very well backed up by research.

Passion

Buxton’s passion for design jumps off of every single page, and I think this makes his writing very compelling.  It’s hard not to get sucked in by a writer who is not just excited about what he writes about, but also frustrated at every turn that there are so many gaps in the literature, so many companies that don’t “get” design, and little to no formal study of the history of the field, as you would see in other arts.  Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a book that’s about complaining.  To the contrary, when Buxton points out issues, he also offers solutions, which is largely what makes this book so useful.  I particularly liked that one of his aims was to “lift up the covers” about design thinking for the benefit of non-designers, while placing responsibility on both groups to put some effort into understanding each other’s language, challenges, goals, and processes.  He repeatedly emphasizes that different types of resources belong in the design process playing different roles at different stages, and I think he does an excellent job illustrating, for example, how engineers and designers complement each other, but do so best when they are utilized the right way.

I strongly recommend this book for designers and non-designers alike, along with its Workbook companion.  Even if you think you have a job that has nothing to do with experience design, you will walk away richer for the experience of having read it.

My take on the StartUp Product Summit

startup-logoYesterday was the first “StartUp Product Summit,” co-produced by Cindy F. Solomon and Nadia Eghbal, and I felt it was an unqualified success.  The energy in the room was palpable, and the team designed the day to be not only informative, but also very interactive.  The crowd was welcoming; it small enough to have the opportunity to connect with lots of people, yet large enough to bring people with various backgrounds and perspectives.   The line-up of speakers was excellent, and the pace quick, so hearing from 15 domain experts in a single day wasn’t too overwhelming.  The day’s talks were broken into three major categories, ‘Design Thinking and Rapid Prototyping,’ Roadmapping and Execution,’ and ‘Marketing and Getting Traction.’  I enjoyed speakers in all categories, but this list of 5 were my favorites (listed in the order they appeared):

Design Thinking and Rapid Prototyping

Jonathan Smiley, Partner and Design Lead, Zurb – I’m a bit biased on this pick, because I’ve had the opportunity to work with Jonathan before, so I can vouch for his and Zurb’s approach, the quality of their work, and their effectiveness.  As the first of a number of speakers to reference Star Wars, he kicked the day off on a good note discussing the importance of ideation and iteration.  He implored us all to ‘make 10 more sketches,’ and ‘get feedback on one more iteration.’  Simple advice, and considering Zurb’s success, I think they know what they’re talking about.

Evan Hamilton, Head of Community, UserVoice – Evan’s presentation was about combining data and story to arrive at the real kernels of wisdom that can be gained by considering them both together.  It sounds obvious on the surface, but he gave some great examples about data interpreted in a vacuum often points us in a direction – just not always the right direction.  Dig into the story underneath – the ‘why’ behind the data, and you may find that the ideal solution is something else entirely when compared to your first intuition.  Combine his content and message with the humor in his delivery, and you have a big winner.  I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation.

Roadmapping and Execution

Joe Stump, co-Founder, Sprintly – Joe tackled improving products through great communication, and emphasized how important it is to shift to asynchronous communication (his target is 100%), minimizing time lost in interruptions and meetings.  He proclaimed his love for failing, and failing quickly, a mantra that is often given lip-service, but in my experience, not supported enough in the real world.  Joe was convincing, though, as he was when he discussed how important it is to ‘check your ego,’ when building products.

Nick Muldoon, Agile Program Manager, Twitter – Nick’s discussion of dog-fooding, constantly deploying your latest unreleased code into an environment as close to your production environment as possible, then forcing your internal team to ONLY use the dog-fooded app was great, too.  While he acknowledged that this may be more possible in the case of Twitter, where every employee likely uses the product at hand, I still walked away with some ideas about how this could be really beneficial even when your product isn’t something the whole team uses multiple times a day.

Marketing and Getting Traction

Mariya Yao, Founder and Product Strategist, Xanadu Mobile - Mariya’s presentation was absolutely fantastic.  Every bit of content in her deck was illustrative and supportive of her message, and she painted a cohesive picture using some clear examples of the difference between attempting to solve a problem vs. a nuisance, and what it takes to succeed in either case.  Her analysis of usage and growth statistics of major mobile app categories gave a clear picture of what that ecosystem looks like, and her presentation was a real hit.

The rest of the speakers also had tons to offer, so I don’t mean to minimize the contribution they made to the event.  They represent great thinking, are working on some very exciting projects, and I am grateful to each of them, as well as the event organizers for being part of such a great event.  I will definitely be back next time.  Thanks, everyone!

A couple of side notes:

The most oft-mentioned prototyping tool was Balsamiq Mockups – go Balsamiq!

While each of the speakers clearly had a product or service to represent, they did so largely without seeming as though they were just there to plug their products.

Many of the speakers really built upon what other speakers had discussed before them, which added a nice sense of continuity throughout the day – kudos to Nadia, who were told curated the speaking engagements, for putting together a schedule that really made sense.

If you get a chance to meet or hear from any of the speakers that were in this event, take it!

UPDATE:  Here’s a link to the slides from the event.

Guest Post: MOOCs – Boon or Bane

While I’ve been knee-deep in Udacity’s CS-253 Web Development course, I’ve also been exchanging emails with Soumabha of Bytes and Banter. He, too, has been taking advantage of courses at Udacity and Coursera, so I asked him what he thought the pros and cons of these new educational systems are. Below are a few of his thoughts.

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SoumabhaSoumabha is a blogger, technology enthusiast and a freelancing marketing analyst. He is a computer science engineering student in BITS Pilani, one of the top colleges of India. His thirst for education and love for comics drives him to post on his blog Bytes and Banter
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One of the hottest debates raging in higher education right now regards the effectiveness of MOOCs. In case you are wondering what a MOOC is, the acronym stands for Massive Open Online Courses. These courses aim to target a global audience and generally reach them through video lectures or sharing slides and docs of their courseware. As the name implies, they are open to anyone, delivered online, and because they are free, they tend to get massive numbers of enrollees.

This concept of free online, video-based instruction was started by Khan Academy but it was Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig’s Artificial Intelligence course offered by Udacity which amassed a whooping 160,000 students that brought the word MOOC to the world. Then came the Stanford initiative, Coursera, along with MIT’s edX and now there are many more developing sites increasing by the day, while the early leaders add more courses and schools to their offerings regularly. But enough about the history; let us come to the main question – Will this technology actually change the face of education?

MOOCs have the potential to actually meet a person’s quest for knowledge, transforming what might only have been a dream to a reality. While some MOOC sites are better than others, the ‘big three’ – Coursera, Udacity and edX have already impacted a million lives by making available to the masses the video lectures of professors from Stanford, Princeton, The Wharton School, MIT and many others. I for one, coming from a middle-class Indian background, got exposure to wonderful subjects and it has changed my perspective a great deal.

MOOCs also enable students to participate in discussions with a wide variety of others with different backgrounds, tastes and from different cultures. Friendships are formed, and these new ‘classmates’ can provide that extra push you might need to keep progressing in a course. The MOOC services encourage collaboration and connection-making, as can be seen with the recent addition of the Google+ hangout feature in the course webpages.

One feature which is very useful for working people is the ability to watch and do exercises at their own sweet will. Udacity’s courses are self-paced, which enables a wide range of people to join and helps the office-goers to manage time in office and get quality education delivered right at their doorstep. Thus far, Coursera’s courses are offered only at specific times and students move through the material as a huge cohort. In time, perhaps their courses will run all the time, too.

As with any technology, there is never such a thing as all good and no bad, and MOOCs also have a downside, the most famous being plagiarism. I once searched for course reviews and to my horror I landed on a site where course questions and answers were publicly discussed in a particular forum. Many people post code for Computer Science courses in their ideone / github account and often forget to keep it private. This just invites the cheaters to use the working code and pass it on as their own. Many students have complained about the lack of security and awareness which leads to plagiarism.

The value of the certificates students receive is also a big concern. While these courses are often the same courses offered at their brick and mortar schools, MOOC participants receive no college credit, and instead get a certificate of completion. When my friend took his Algorithms by Tim Roughgarden certificate to a placement interview, he was clearly told that these online certificates would not be recognized. Hiring companies realize it could have been anyone sitting in front of the computer, so the MOOC websites are finding it really difficult to increase their certificate value in the corporate world.

Finally, will MOOCs actually replace the in-school and the hands on teaching approach? Well that is debatable. There are many advantages of the MOOC system but the feeling of studying in a small class of 40 is something entirely different and maybe even irreplaceable. The special attention of a teacher, a structured 6-month timeline with written exams and the individual monitoring of not only subject-wise knowledge but also the behavioral aspects of a student work are quite essential.

Although MOOC services have a long way to go, nevertheless it is a huge step taken to bring education to every house (or at least the ones which have a computer inside). The development in this field can only result in some good and as the hurdles are crossed, this new way of teaching will continually improve.

Compare and Contrast: Udacity vs Coursera

I decided recently to brush up on my coding skills, because I haven’t really exercised them in a while, so I took the opportunity to try a course at Udacity to kill two birds with one stone.  I’ve been using Coursera for a few months now, and I was curious to see how Udacity compared – and Udacity had a CS101 course I could take immediately.  I don’t really need a CS101 course in general, because I was a programmer for a handful of years, but this course is taught using Python, which I have little experience with, so I decided to really go back to basics in order to pick up a new language.

The biggest difference between Coursera and Udacity is that Udacity’s courses use rolling enrollment, which means you can start anytime you like.  That’s a big plus over Coursera, where you have many more choices for courses, but often have to wait months for your course to begin.  I have no idea if Coursera intends to offer its courses this way in the future, but I think they should.  The power of these platforms is only amplified when anyone can start any course at any time. Another fairly striking difference can be found in the content of the home page when you load each site.  

At Coursera, if I go to the home page and am logged in, I see a list of the courses I’m registered for, and can click a ‘Go to Class’ button for any of them.  I like the design quite a bit – each course has an image, so there is something visually interesting on the page, and there is a progress bar for each course that has started to show you how far along you are in that given course.  To get any specific course information, I have to ‘Go to Class.’
At Udacity, when I go to the home page and am logged in, I see a list of announcements for the courses I am enrolled in, and there is a small widget in the upper right corner with a link to my courses.  Because Udacity leaves its courses open, they offer the opportunity to continue to engage, even after you’ve completed the course.  New content in the form of problem sets is added periodically, for instance.  So, one of the positive aspects of the home page announcements is that they may pull me back into a course I might otherwise forget about.  

While I tend to like very simple, clean, straightforward designs, I would like to see something visually interesting on this screen, which I don’t, short of an icon that appears next to each announcement. Another negative aspect of their approach is that when I click on the CS101 link to enter the “classroom,” the system automatically assumes I’m starting at the beginning and begins to play the very first video lecture.  The system does remember what I’ve completed already, which I can see because a green checkmark shows up next to each lecture or assignment I’ve already finished, so it’s fairly easy to scroll down to the first unfinished session and go from there – but it begs the question – if they’ve remembered where I left off, why not take me there right away?
Compare these two screens, and you’ll see both companies have implemented a very “white” design, with Coursera tossing in a bit of light gray for additional contrast.  I like Coursera’s approach a bit better because of that additional contrast, but think both designs are good in general.  Given these two, and what I like about each of them, below is a simple mockup of a design approach that would make me happier than either individual design does.