I sent the following letter to Zephyr Teachout today.
Date: Wed, 10 Dec 2003 16:23:07 -0800 (PST)
From: Ka-Ping Yee
To: Zephyr Teachout
Subject: Building Volunteer Trust
I'm writing to you because I have the greatest respect for you and your transformative work on this campaign. I hope my suggestions will be helpful.
Some great things and some not-so-great things happened yesterday. Of course, I was thrilled to see the endorsement from Gore. It's a terrific boost to the campaign. Congratulations!
The Project Commons was also released yesterday. Unfortunately, as I'm sure you've noticed by now, many volunteers are upset about the problems with the software and the surprise release. The feedback forum is filled with complaints and desperate pleas to revert to the previous set of online tools.
I am compelled to write to you today by deeper reasons than to complain about software bugs. There is something more serious happening here. The Dean campaign is built on people. We all know it; we've all said it. That's what makes us different: this campaign brings people together.
The most important element of bringing people together is trust.
I've met and talked to some of the grassroots organizers. They love Dean. They will do anything for him. That's what keeps this campaign going despite setbacks like yesterday's release. But trust in the national campaign headquarters is weakening. I tried to promote DeanLink to them. They mentioned to me that they didn't find DeanLink very useful. Some of them say they don't feel the national website is providing the support they need, or even describe the national tools as getting in the way, instead of helping them achieve their goals. So they are choosing to do it their own way instead. That means they're less likely to share methods and resources. The next time the national campaign asks them to do something, fewer of them will do it. We have to stop this trend and rebuild that trust.
I think we are at a turning point. Because of the incredible growth we've enjoyed, and in part because of Al Gore's endorsement, it is especially important to make sure that the volunteer community stays connected to this campaign.
Yesterday, that trust took a severe blow. Grassroots organizers aren't sure they can rely on the national tools anymore. Their old URLs are broken. They don't feel like they were in the loop when the decision was made to launch. They have less confidence that the national campaign is listening to them.
I'm impressed and disappointed. I'm impressed at how hard everyone has been working on the software in Burlington. I'm disappointed because that effort could have been spent more effectively.
I feel especially bad for Clay. He must be going through a terrible time right now. He has worked incredibly hard on integrating these tools into a new system, and now he's getting a wave of negative feedback when he deserves appreciation and recognition. I've been there. It's disheartening. No one wants that to happen again. All of the fabulous talent on the development team ought to be directed at producing happy, empowered volunteers.
This campaign has found some of the best people to build these tools. It has a fantastic candidate. It has a huge base of motivated, hard-working volunteers. A major effort was made to integrate these tools into a single unit. This should have been a big step forward, right? What went wrong?
I've thought about this pretty hard. The Burlington team has excellent programmers. But there is clearly a lack of usability training and release experience. As one of my friends puts it, programming is one of the few fields in which there can be differences of multiple orders of magnitude in productivity. Individuals can really do big things, and that seduces programmers into thinking they can do everything alone. It's easy to get used to working as a lone wolf, coding late into the night, and to forget that there are people out there who are actually using this software and that you have to work with. I think Zack gets it; he's been working with the whole DeanSpace team and we know that we all need each other to succeed.
I have three specific recommendations.
- Get usability help. Apply user-centered design principles. Find a good usability engineer.
- Develop better release procedures. Set a timeline for testing software before it is launched.
- Most of all, listen to the people. Show the volunteers that their input is valued and treat them with respect.
I've made this offer to you before and now I will make it again. Put me on the national software team. You know that I can deliver results; I delivered Visible Volunteers when you asked me to. I'm asking you to trust me now. My classes have just ended. In the new year, I will be able to work as a full-time volunteer. I will be in a position to lead a development project or to become your usability engineer.
I now believe it to be an advantage that I'm not in Burlington. I'm "on the ground", to use the phrase reporters love, out here among the volunteers. I can see what they do and talk to them face-to-face. I can help you avoid the kind of tunnel vision that a team can get when the whole team never leaves the office.
I've copied a few other people on this message. I've done so because they are involved in the development or use of these kinds of tools, and maybe you'll have a chance talk to them and see what they have to say about the need for usability work. Yes, I am trying to get your attention, because I believe the situation is critical. I'd like to open a dialogue about how to fix it, and then help you fix it.
I hope to hear back from you soon.
Thank you again for everything you have done for this country.
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