‘Evaluating Openness’ Missive Highlighted in New Social Patterns Opus

Designing Social Interfaces bookcover (Mountain View) –
Designing Social Interfaces: Principles, Patterns, and Practices for Improving the User Experience, a new book on design patterns for social software by current colleague Christian Crumlish and former manager Erin Malone, features a riff on Micah Laaker’s recent “Evaluating Openness” missive.

Headlining for Chapter 17 (“Open for Business”), Laaker’s “What does it mean to be Open?” essay kicks off the chapter detailing how to expose your product via APIs to the outside developer community. (The essay, in verbal and visual form, was also recently featured at Ignite NYC during the Yahoo! Open Hack Developer Conference.)

At the request of the authors, the essay is reprinted in its entirety below. Mr. Laaker alternatively recommends, though, that you stop reading now, and instead go buy/get a copy of the book to experience it in person.

What Does it Mean to Be Open?

The word “Open” is jam packed with meaning for those in the software/Web services landscape, and it can be increasingly difficult find two folks who agree on its definition as the term proliferates. For some, “open” is associated with “free;” for others, it is associated with flexibility and utility outside of its original location.

Because of this lack of agreement around definition, it can be useful to think of “openness” within a construct that can help describe its various edges. These edges follow a 13-point spectrum that begins on technology (and the developer experience), moves into the world of data, and then ends with the user experience.

It is important to note that none of the following points described on this spectrum are meant to be independent nor incompatible. Rather, think of this spectrum like time theory; it can be bent, twisted, and collide with other points on the spectrum so that any product or service could be none, one, many or all of the facets described.

  1. Open Source
    Free to use, decentralized, and (generally) highly reliable, this software movement seems to drive most folks’ definition of “open.” (Examples include projects such as PHP, OpenOffice, and Hadoop.)
  2. Open Infrastructure
    Emerging as a new kind of openness, “cloud computing” has opened a pay-as-you-go, only-what-you-need approach to technology. (Examples in this area include Google App Engine and Amazon’s EC2 and S3 services.)
  3. Open Architecture
    By defining a spec for how others can plug into your product, anyone can mod and extend your product. (A popular example of this would be Firefox’s plugin framework.)
  4. Open Standards
    A community-powered, consensus-driven approach drives for a goal of interoperability, whether for software or hardware. (Examples of these standards can be found throughout the Web’s very fabric: HTML, CSS, XML, and JSON.)
  5. Open Ontology
    Add meaning to the Web by surrounding your data with semantic meaning (so that software can make meaningful connections). (RDFa, a.k.a. Resource Description Framework in attributes, and microformats best exemplify this element.)
  6. Open Access
    By providing APIs, 3rd-party developers and partners can take your data/service into their products. (Examples of open access include Twitter, Yahoo! BOSS, and eBay.)
  7. Open Canvas
    Your product can become a vehicle for 3rd-party content by opening portals into other products (while keeping users on yours). (The most popular example of this element is Facebook’s application platform and the ever-growing usage of OpenSocial APIs.)
  8. Open Content
    The user becomes the editor by programming self-relevant content which comes to you when it’s ready. (My Yahoo! pioneered this space, but other RSS readers like Google Reader, NetVibes, and NetNewsWire are similar strong examples.)
  9. Open Mic
    The product’s content is populated entirely by users, not by the product team. Users own their content, and products support the making/discovering of content. (YouTube and WordPress share both an affinity for mid-name capitalization and an approach that centers almost exclusively on user-generated content.)
  10. Open Forum
    Users form a rich web around content by contributing ancillary data, ratings, reviews, ranking, conversations and link submissions. (Examples of community-driven content layers of significant user value include NetFlix’s ratings/reviews and Digg’s content ranking system.)
  11. Open Door
    The user is welcomed and embraced as a product decision-maker in this corporate bizarro world. (Think: Get Satisfaction’s customer-driven customer service or Craigslist’s revenue model determination process.)
  12. Open Borders
    Settings and configurations become portable. Import/export is the requirement, and the user is not locked-in to a single product, instead having the ability to come and go as they please. (As an example, OPML, a.k.a. Outline Processor Markup Language, is used extensively to manage the export and re-import of users’ RSS feed subscriptions and groupings.)
  13. Open Identity
    The user is the owner of her identity and information, metering out bits to services/products as she finds it appropriate. This is in opposition to the near-universal approach of surrendering control of user information at every service with no central means of management. (OpenID, fittingly, best illustrates the idea of Open Identity, alongside its Attribute Exchange extension.)

The 13 points illustrate many of the different concepts that flesh out the term “Open.” And, while many are compatible and complementary, it is rare to find any one product or service that exemplifies all of these elements.
Why is that? While being Open can be a competitive advantage, it can also have what some would list as disadvantages. It may force constraints by which the competition isn’t hindered, determine product direction, outsource key infrastructure, or free previously proprietary information. Fortunately, there are no horror stories available of companies who bet the bank on Open only to be cannibalized by the competition; rather, there are many success stories to the counter.

It is also important to note that all these points require a level of investment and effort beyond not being Open. One could easily argue, however, that this time/cost is quickly recouped (in terms of PR, customer support, brand affinity, product extension, and more). Existing companies and products attempting to move towards any of these facets will therefore face more hurdles and obstacles (whether real, i.e. technology, or imagined, i.e. internal politics) than those with no existing baggage.

In the end, being Open can mean a number of different things, some of which is dependent on the nature of the product it describes and some of which is the choice of the product’s owners. Regardless, though, product owners should understand the marketplace’s Open vocabulary, and consciously steer it’s messaging to users and the press around the points it has embraced (and have articulated answers in response to those points it does not embrace).

Doing so can keep Open as the advantage its intended for a product, rather than as a weapon against it.



  1. Jack Repenning said,

    April 26, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    Where would you place “transparency” models, like “open government,” in this spectrum? These are kind of like “Open Door,” in that the process is “open” to users, but they may not provide the input: users are invited in as audience, but any contributions they make go through some other route. Tom Grant, Forrester, identified this model recently (http://bit.ly/elWXyY).

  2. Micah said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 10:22 pm

    Jack, great observation. What you (and Tom, and others, I’m sure, too) are describing would, in my words, be summed up as a 14th point (or a sub-point of Open Doors, as it appears to be a one-dimensional take on that point):

    Open Windows
    Users act as observers, but not participants, in this two-way mirror development process. By gazing in, users gain insight into (and possibly a connection to) an end-result or product as it is developed. Their feedback, however, is not integral to such a process, nor is it necessarily encouraged.

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