Learning from Newbies
Tuesday, February 10, 1998 by Dave Winer.
I've been meeting with new users over the last few weeks, in several different contexts. Here's what I've learned so far.
As soon as my longtime friend Marc Canter saw Frontier running on Windows, he got excited. He started coming over for demos. Every few days we'd sit down for a couple of hours and I'd take him thru a single facet of Frontier. By now we've covered pretty much everything you can do with Frontier on Windows.
Midway thru the process we installed Frontier on his system, and changed roles. He would do the typing, and I would guide him thru the commands and keystrokes to get Frontier to do what he wanted to do.
In the last week he's been working on his site with no help from me! Now he's teaching other people at his company, VenueMedia, how to contribute to his site. It's amazing to be part of this. I had never done it before. It opens my eyes.
The next milestone we'll reach is that I'll point to something on Marc's site, and then you can see the world he's creating. He and his team do the most incredible DHTML and ASPs I've seen. Money and art, we're going to mix it up, his world and mine. You'll see his DHTML magic showing up in my sites. That's why it's worth it to me to help Marc climb the hill.
Another reason is that Marc is also an accomplished software designer. So his narration of his difficulties comes with a deep understanding of and appreciation for the problems of UI design. I often say to him "You should have seen how this worked in Frontier 4!" We both have a good laugh. It's about making software. There's always room for improvement.
I've also been doing demos. I have this great new laptop. I bring it with me to all my meetings. Sometimes I get a sense that I could do a good demo for the people I'm meeting with, so I pull out the laptop and start.
I can now do a good ten minute demo of Frontier. If the people have experience working on websites I can show them the benefits of templates, link management and macros, and the object oriented framework; all in ten minutes.
I can get people excited with this software in (almost) the same way I could get people excited by MORE in 1986. My demo will get better.
I know how to improve Frontier to make it fun to learn, and much easier. I understand where the roadblocks are now. It's still a scripting environment with a website framework added into it. The integration is more complete in 5.0, but to go the next step, the File menu will have to know about websites.
The idea of starting fresh with something new is what's missing in Frontier 5. The object database can be both enticing and frightening. I want to get it even further out of people's way. Make it something you can open to get a glimpse at all the power, but have it neatly out of your way for all your daily work.
Net-net: We're a lot closer to this ideal in Frontier 5, but we still have a way to go.
If you want to quickly get to the heart of Frontier as a web content management system, here's how to do it.
1. Launch the Frontier application. Choose New Website from the Web menu. Enter the name of your new site, call it Testing. Click on OK.
2. A new table opens containing several items, #filters, #ftpSite, #glossary, #images, #prefs, #template and #tools.
3. Press the Enter key (Return on Mac). A new line opens. Type default and press Enter.
4. Double-click on the gray triangle to the left of the new line. A dialog appears. Choose outline or wp-text. Click on Zoom. A window opens. Type Hello World. Leave this window in front.
5. Choose Publish Page from the Web menu. If this is the first page you've published, a dialog may appear asking you to locate your web browser app.
6. The web browser comes to the front, displaying the page.
This is the pattern. This is how I create new pages in Frontier every day, in exactly this way. Once you get in this groove, you're at the heart of the power. When you change the #template you change the layout of all the pages in this website. As you build new pages the #glossary fills up with easy ways to point to other pieces on your website. Macros and renderers that come with Frontier make it easy to do the things that *should* be easy.
It's there, we just have to show it to people more easily.
I don't mind sitting down once a day for the next few months and writing up one of these recipes for success with Frontier. I have two questions from here: How do we organize this stuff? And how can I encourage other people to do the same?
I want to do a brain dump, once and for all, of everything I know about Frontier that could help an excited newbie climb the curve. I want everyone else to do this too. I want to create a permanent resource, so we can tackle bigger problems on the mailing lists.
I've found if I stay nearby someone new, and be patient, anyone who does websites can learn Frontier, and we can both enjoy the learning process.
Now the question is, how do we get to the next level, so that the learning materials are good enough so that it doesn't require the president of the company to be there while the person is learning the software?
(An aside, at least a thousand people have been successful with only the help offered by the docs and mailing lists. It's certainly not impossible to get thru the materials that we provide. But not everyone does get thru it.)
One possible solution is to organize a buddy system. A newbie shows up, is having trouble understanding the concepts. Mail isn't helping, the docs aren't either. The person is motivated, they know they need Frontier. But they need personal help.
I've done this with two people. It's very rewarding. It teaches me a lot. Is there any interest in this idea either among newbies or experienced Frontier people? As I envision it, the primary method of communication, at first, would be over the phone. The new person pays the phone bill, makes the call. The experienced person walks them thru an example. Followup via email. Another call.
When it's done, both the teacher and the student write up a report, saying what they learned, where the stumbling blocks were. A narrative that other teachers and students can read.
I would find this enormously helpful in charting the course for the future of Frontier.
It frustrates me that I write good docs sometimes when I'm typing into my emailer, but then the good writing is lost in a threading structure on some archive somewhere (I can never remember where they are!).
It frustrates me when I read a great message posted by someone else and feel "That should be on the website!" because there is no place to put it, and no way to organize it so that new users will find the information when they need it.
When I write something on the web it's more permanent and more visible than mailing list stuff. More people read it, a lot more than the people who are subscribed to the Frontier mailing lists.
But after it scrolls off the Scripting News home page, it will be lost in the archives. Let's say I can teach you something about Frontier now, but what about the people who come thru here a month from now, how will they find it?
We get complaints all the time about the organization of the learning materials for Frontier. They're all over the place, spread over four different websites! A lot of the material is obsolete. We know there's a problem, but how to solve it?
I think mailing lists are over-rated as learning environments.
I think a combination of mailing lists and websites is the way to go.
After all, many of the people who use Frontier use it to build websites.
Can we leverage that in some way?
The solution will be mix of stuff, indices, narratives, case studies, searching and an easy way to add new knowledge and software to the system.
The key is how it is presented. A learning center home page that grows in a manageable way, that allows the most people to contribute, and has the greatest possible degree of clarity and accuracy and completeness.
A "best practices" enclyclopedia that makes it easy to get the answers quickly.
It's also important that we can snapshot the website for downloading. That's the most common request for our docs.
That's what I'm thinking about now. I see problems everywhere. It's time to solve them.
The biggest question for me is how to empower everyone who knows a lot about Frontier to teach people who want to know a lot about Frontier.
There's the crux of the problem...
Now here's a surprise...
I don't know who else to thank, since we all own the Apache web server.
It was just last week that I was asking questions about free software and Linux. Then someone pointed me to Apache for Windows. I can be very stubborn! I finally get it. We get the source code for a fine web server running on a platform that we support. That'll work.
I see the holes in their implementation as opportunities. So what if it doesn't have a great GUI? I know lots of guys who do great GUIs because I come from the Mac. We sweat the pixels from where I come from.
I immediately wanted to be running it, so I moved all my apps off an idle machine and put it up. Check it out. http://betty.userland.com/. Nothing fancy there. Yet! Maybe tomorrow. We're diggin hard.
I was right, we would meet up with our Unix brothers and sisters on Bill Gates's operating system.
With much excitement...