The problem of articulating problems

November 30, 2008 – 10:12 am

I’ve just joined Planet Sugar Labs, stomatology so for those of you who haven’t read my posts before, dysentery I write in an uncensored stream-of-consciousness style. What you’re about to read are literally the thoughts that are going through my mind as I wander through a problem.

Using the XO to monitor bees? Sweet! (Thanks to Mike Lee for the tip!)

I’d love to see more experiments and Activities for experiments like this out there, but I’m not sure what needs to be done to foster/encourage/make-it-easier for this to happen. I wonder who else out there is interested articulating good problem statements for Sugar Labs and OLPC – we have an overabundance of people who want to help us solve problems, and a shortage of well-stated problems for them to solve.

Thinking off the top of my head:

  • Maybe we could have a Problems Articulation Sprint (…with a better name) every other week to flesh out and find supplemental resources for things we need help on.
  • Short sprints, so people won’t get too tired. Not too frequent, so they won’t get burnt out. No obligations, so you can help flesh out a problem and then walk away and expect others will solve it – the point is to make the problem more attractive to solve, either by providing resources so it’s easier, or making the potential impact larger, deeper, or clearer, so there’s a bigger payoff to solving it.
  • It strikes me that this is quite similar to the concept of bug advocacy. Bugs are problems waiting to be solved, after all.
  • One could imagine a well-moderated feed (blog?) of OLPC/Sugar Labs “problems to solve” – so that people can watch it to see neat project opportunities floating by.
  • I’d want high editorial standards for what gets onto that list, though; we’d have to come up with a set of criteria for what makes a good problem articulation.
  • And we’d need to find people on all sides of the pipeline; stakeholders with problems, people to flesh out the problem, people who want to solve articulated problems, people to use and measure the impact of solutions generated for that problem.
  • This is also similar to the idea of flash conferences.
  • I think this is very closely aligned to my (as yet vague and unarticulated-into-goals – should change this) desire to make both projects into newbie-welcoming communities that volunteers can grow within.

I’m running out of steam trying to brainstorm solo – can someone help me pick this up and flesh it out? It’s a meta-problem statement – the problem of us not having clear problems to solve. Here are some parts of the meta-problem as far as I can see them.

  1. Our problems don’t have scope or scale. What kinds of skills, tools, resources, time are going to be needed to get this done? It’s scary to start tackling something with an unbounded resource allocation; you have no idea what kind of expenditure or risk you’re in for.
  2. It’s difficult to tell when a problem’s been solved. What’s an unambiguous way to know when you’ve reached the goal, or how far you are from getting there?
  3. It’s not clear what impact solving a problem will have. Who wants this? What difference do we think it will make, and what guarantee do I have of knowing the exact difference it’s made – and how long will it take for me to get that information? Is this a difference we want to make? (Is solving this problem aligned with the larger goals of the project, or at least with my own personal goals?)

What else is there?

For my part, here’s what I’m going to try. I’d like to try running half of one of our upcoming (OLPC) community test meetings as a problem articulation sprint – they’ve served parts of this purpose already a bit, but not particularly consciously. Goal: leave meeting with at least one well-articulated, here’s-how-you-know-it’s-done, annotated-with-relevant-resources, clear-measurable-impact problem statement – for a testing-related problem, and some notion of how we’ll find people to take it on.

I’ll think about this and get back to it tomorrow when I start prepping for this week’s meeting. I’d like to talk with people between now and then about how one might do a good testing-related problems articulating sprint for half an hour over IRC, so if you don’t mind being peppered with questions (or have some of your own), find me before Wednesday night. (Reply here, email, IRC, find me in person, whatever means you prefer.)

Signing off for now.

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What do you think?