On Brainstorm

Recently the Technical Board made a decision to sunset Brainstorm, the site we have been using for some time to capture a list of what folks would like to see fixed and improved in Ubuntu. Although the site has been in operation for quite some time, it had fallen into something of a state of disrepair. Not only was it looking rather decrepit and old, but the ideas highlighted there were not curated and rendered into the Ubuntu development process. Some time ago the Technical Board took a work item to try to solve this problem by regularly curating the most popular items in brainstorm with a commentary around technical feasibility, but the members of the TB unfortunately didn’t have time to fulfill this. As such, brainstorm turned into a big list of random ideas, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, and largely ignored by the Ubuntu development process.

Now, some folks have mused on the decision to sunset brainstorm and wondered if this is somehow a reflection on our community and our openness to ideas. I don’t think this is the case. While it is always important to build an environment where ideas are openly discussed and debated, ideas are free and relatively simply to come by, and the real challenge is converting that awesome vision in your head into something we can see and touch and deliver to others; this is not quite so free and simple. While Brainstorm provided a great place to capture the ideas, and we had no shortage of them, the challenge was connecting brainstorm to the people who were happy and willing to perform the work, and it didn’t really serve this purpose very well.

There were two problems with this. Firstly, picking up other people’s popular ideas is not how Open Source traditionally works. Open Source is built on a philosophy of scratching your own itch, traditionally fueled by programmers fixing their annoyances and building features and applications they want. Now, this is not to say a non-programmer can’t rally the community around their idea and build momentum around an implementation, but doing this requires significantly more effort than a fire and forget submission into brainstorm. In other words, just because an idea is popular doesn’t necessarily mean it is interesting enough for a developer to want to implement it. Secondly, brainstorm started to garner an unrealistic social expectation that popular ideas would be automatically added to the TODO list of prominent Ubuntu developers, which was never the case.

Today at UDS we had a discussion about these deficiencies in brainstorm in traversing the chasm between idea and implementation and Randall Ross had an interesting idea. With brainstorm retired we should re-focus the brainstorm URL and provide some guidance for tips and tricks for how to take an idea and rally support around it to develop an implementation. As an example, over the years I have discovered that taking an idea and building a well formed spec with detailed UI mock-ups and architectural diagrams, a detailed blueprint, regular meetings, and burndown charts, all significantly help to taking ideas from fiction to fandom. Equipping our community with the skills and tools to bring these ideas to fruition is a better use of our time.

So, the TL;DR of all of this is…brainstorm was a great idea at the time, but it didn’t effectively drive the most popular ideas in our community to fruition and delivery in Ubuntu. We want to help provide guidance and best practice to help our community be more successful in converting their ideas into development plans and getting people interested in participating.

  • CheeseBurg

    I think this is a good idea. I would much rather be taught how to scratch my own itch rather than yelling a a website hoping to be heard.

  • Kristian

    Is this more about the target audience being new users, meaning that there’s not much to be gained by procuring the views of existing users?

  • http://basshero.org/ Jason Robinson

    Paragraph three really nails it, not just for Ubuntu but all open source projects. Thanks for the post.

  • Anonymous

    My attention was caught by several versions of “…largely ignored by the Ubuntu development process.” Then I saw, “We want to help provide guidance and best practice to help our community be more successful in converting their ideas into development plans and getting people interested in participating.”

    So, the real TL;DR is “go do it yourself and we might take a look.” I’ve done my share of open-source projects, sure, but there should be SOME place in which those users who aren’t developers can raise concerns and offer suggestions, and it SHOULD be led by the “Ubuntu development process” folks.

    Every major software development house has ‘customer councils’ or some similar feedback channel for feature/enhancement requests and the like. As Ubuntu becomes more ‘mainstream’, those non-technical users deserve their seat at the table. Where will it be?

  • mpt

    This is spot-on. A Brainstorm-like site is much better suited to projects where you have to be hired or elected to implement any of the ideas: for example a hardware company (like Dell’s IdeaStorm), a government agency (like the White House’s We The People), or even a charity. But for Ubuntu, there are few things core developers could spend time on that willing and able newcomers could not.

    Brainstorm has two features I really liked, which could be transferred to Launchpad in different ways. One was the clear separation between a problem and its multiple possible solutions. Enforcing this in code would be over-complex, but it’s good mental hygiene when reporting bugs.

    The other thing I liked was the ability to embed images directly into posts. I’ve seen some brilliant schematic diagrams, icons, and mockups in Brainstorm, that I probably wouldn’t have noticed if they were attachment links. That would be relatively easy to implement in Launchpad — detecting whether a bug attachment is an image, and showing a thumbnail if it’s large or animated, or the whole image otherwise.

  • xfair

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    All time highest voted on ubuntu brainstorm: Payment and donations with Bitcoin. Have there been any discussions in Canonical about this? All I know is that SABDFL likes the idea. I think Ubuntu Touch in particular would only profit from such a move.

  • http://fitoschido.wordpress.com/ Fitoschido

    I don’t think so. There are many other feedback channels existing users may use.

  • https://www.happyassassin.net/ AdamW

    You’re quite right about the drawbacks of a Brainstorm-like site, but I seem to recall other people in the F/OSS community raising all those objections at the time it was created, and being dismissed as being elitist and anti-community and not knowing what they were talking about…I guess they were right all along.