Think before you make. There is plenty of stuff already…

I stumbled across this quote whilst listening to a podcast a couple of weeks ago. It is a great turn of phrase and has did not quite leave my mind, where I have been turning it over since.

“Never do for others what they can do for themselves”

Saul Alinsky

I had not heard of Saul Alinsky before. He was a radical of the twentieth century. A leading thinker and practitioner of community organising. He was, it seems, someone who focused in a dedicated fashion on effecting social change. His thrust, as I understand it, is that freedom and sustained change was best enabled where communities are able to resource their own betterment. Acts of charity may feel good but they do not necessarily create the circumstances for sustained change.

My own reflections on the his words are more quotidian. It made me think about making digital content and when and why we might do so. (No mentions in despatches for me).

In the domain of online content, “doing something for ourselves” usually equates to finding something on Google. This is the competition we have for publishing information. Or rather, this is what our content can be substituted with when we make it.

This is a tough challenge as many of us feel, rightly or wrongly, that making stuff is our job. It is a tempting assumption: making something is a ready hallmark of productive effort. We can point at what we have made and measure it.

Making content is also beguiling. (Here I am doing it right now). This is the primary reason why there is so much crap around. Conversely, it is also the reason why there is so much useful stuff around. Google is ever so good at spotting those items and using it is now our reflex. So, as custodians of a good content experience what can we do to avoid adding to the ocean of content already surrounding us all?

Here are some questions to ask before you make something:

  • Does a good enough version already exist on the web?
    • By “good enough” I mean for a user rather than your stakeholders
  • Does that version work for your audience?
    • Find out – don’t just assume
  • If an accessible version exists, can you make a better version? (By better I mean more useful for your audience, not more engaging).
  • Can you make a better version than someone else can make?
  • Or, do you know an expert who can make one – or who you can help make one?
  • Can it be easily found? Or…can you make it easier to find?
  • If there is a good enough version already available, how can you help to make that more discoverable and searchable?
    • Can you add context to that for your users?

Some questions to ask if you are absolutely sure you need to make something:

  • Do you have somewhere useful to put your thing when made? i.e. somewhere discoverable, searchable and browseable*?
  • Is it clear what it is for and why it is there?
    • Can your users find out where it is from and who made it?
    • Can they easily see how old it is?
  • Does the user need to be led through or have something explained or can they figure it out for themselves? (This is an important one – it is very easy to underestimate audience intelligence. Stakeholders and subject matter experts do it all the time).
  • How will your users let you know what they think of what you have made?
  • Can you measure what happens when you publish it?
  • Can they share it?

I would suggest you hold off on making something if you are not confident in the answers to these points. Easy to say and hard to do, I know. But in may experience, these are ueful tests.

* Not sure this is a real word but it seems OK to invent it for this purpose? That is my contribution to the ocean.

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