180 seconds to an online “scrapbook” (or, “On the importance of simplicity”)

This is a post I shouldn’t need to write. It is too obvious. Indeed, here’s the conclusion up front:

People like simple-to-use tools. If you give them simple, easy to understand tools, they will use them. (They will also use complicated tools anyways if their needs are strong enough, and always use tools in ways you never expected, but those are different posts.) You will not need to provide help documentation, training sessions, or PD release time. They will just use them. You will probably be threatened by the results.

So now the lengthy backstory, which of course you can skip if you get the above. And if you don’t, you either probably don’t read this blog anyway, or else probably won’t read this post. Sigh…

I have young kids. While I have quite a number of computers in the house, we definitely meter access to them in an effort to get them engaged with the huge variety of activities we feel kids should be involved in. Our small attempt at balance. All of which is to say that, while my 8 year old is generationally a “digital native,” he is only just starting to figure his way out around the net, around a web browser and around Windows (sigh). His latest accomplishment/goal was using Google Image search to find pictures of whales which he was printing out (one at a time) and stapling together to make a “book” for his friend at school.

While I was proud of his ingenuity and initiative, prompted by the thrifty aim of reducing his use of my paper supplies, I saw an opportunity to point him towards an online way of “collecting” things and “re-presenting” them for his friends. I told him “hold on buddy, we’ll find you a good online scrapbook tool tomorrow where you can add all the things you find for your friends.” He was excited by the prospect, and the next day held me to my promise.

I had in the back of my mind Zoho Notebook or Google Notebook, both of which I had tried with some success to use as clipping services. But sitting next to my son as we checked out both, I realized neither of them were good fits for him – too much functionality, too many buttons, too many steps for him to simply grab a piece of content and insert it, really all he wanted to do. On the spur of the moment I did a search for “web 2.0 scrapbook.” I scrolled down looking for pieces that I had tried before or that twigged my memory, and about 20 results down came to tumblr.com, a site I remember trying and hearing others praise.

So, we went and created an account for him. 60 seconds later he had an account that allowed him to add content to his own web page. 30 seconds later I showed him how he could drag an image onto his site to embed it (caveat: having dual monitors makes this SO simple to teach.) 30 seconds later he had the idea of adding text to anything he embedded, so he could add his own comments for his friends. After doing this for a bit he wanted to know how to add Youtube videos (he’s a fan because of our regular living-room Youtube dance parties). 30 seconds later I showed him where to drop the embed script from Youtube into Tumblr. And finally after he had been doing that for a while, he wanted to know if he could upload a recording of the music I had been noodling on in the background while he had been working. 30 seconds later he had done this too. (This last one less a testament to my musical skills and instead of how little help I had to give him, freeing me to noodle!)

So, 180 seconds of instruction later (in nice 30 second chunks) he’s now publishing a page of his favourite finds. With an RSS feed, so he can use it elsewhere (heck, even print it out in a nice format.) The word “blog” never came up – he has done “scrapbooking” before and that seemed to me the most appropriate metaphor to use.

I know it’s anecdotal. And I am not trying to hold out the resulting page as a work of great creativity or learning. But it is hard to have experiences like this and not think that

  • simple gets used
  • simple and easy is not a “nice to have” or “eye candy” but instead one of the critical features that often marks the successful parts of web 2.0
  • there might be something to this idea of support in little, contextual, hands-on 30 second chunks
  • our institutions of learning are doomed to become technological ghettos unless they can figure out how to work with the ever-increasing innovative services online instead of doing it all themselves, in-house, with 3-5 year timelines.

Enough. Like I said, stating the obvious. But you know me, sloooow. – SWL