Focus on the users, and all else will follow

If we were to have a mantra on the FrontlineSMS project, it would be this: “Focus on the users, and all else will follow”.

From the very beginning we’ve been unashamedly focused on servicing the needs of our growing NGO user base. Much of the advanced functionality you see in the software today has been requested by users over the course of the last four years, and much of the feature request list we’re working through today is based on feedback received since the major MacArthur-funded re-launch last summer. Our focus on the user is beginning to pay off, with well over 500 members actively engaged online. Although we’re excited with our progress, we’re far from complacent and there’s much more we need to, and can, do.

FrontlineSMS Community

With growing numbers of these users actively engaging online, others have started contributing their own stories on how they’re applying the software in their social change work. All that remains now is the creation of the second part of the community puzzle – this time for developers.

With invaluable support from our friends at the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the Free Software Foundation, last autumn we finally solved some lengthy and complex licensing work with the FrontlineSMS code. With a number of educational establishments, NGOs and individual developers keen to begin work, we pushed the code out on SourceForge, posted a community blog entry a little later, and got on with improving functionality and providing continued frontline technical support to the NGO user base.

Although some early partners have already started working with the code, we’ve been holding back on an official announcement until we have everything in place – IRC, mailing lists, documentation and processes, for example – and the code is in the best possible shape for people to work with.

Earlier last month we started working with Aspiration Tech in San Francisco, who will be responsible for helping build the community. Our own developers, a number of users, and other volunteer programmers are all incredibly excited to be working with Aspiration, who are experts in the field. We’ll make an announcement once we’re good to go.

FrontlineSMS Icon - Photo by Erik Hersman (White African), Kenya, 2008

Although there is considerable buzz and excitement around mobile technology and source code at the moment, we’ve been firm believers that the users come first. Without them you have no project, no community. Only now, after increasing numbers of this first community – the users – begin to apply the software in exciting and innovative ways, is everyone ready – developers included – to tackle the second.

38 thoughts on “Focus on the users, and all else will follow

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  8. hash says:

    Well said Ken. I agree on this basic premise, especially in the space that I’ve been thrust over the last year as well. There is a tendency to think that you know more than your users, or know what they want. I’m guilty of just this type of thinking and have to continually remind myself that we should only build what people are asking for.

    I think what many have a hard time with is understanding just how hard it is to grow a product organically and the patience it requires to both listen and build for your users not for yourself.

  9. Trey says:

    Great post, and some great insight. It sometimes seems like people blindly walk into ‘what seems right’ without thinking who it’s right for. What you say makes a lot of sense and maybe there would be more active communities, like that for the awesome Frontline SMS, if people took on board your approach.


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  12. kiwanja says:

    @HASH – Thanks, Erik. As someone who’s going through some of the challenges we have, I appreciate your comments! 🙂

    @Trey – Cheers for your support and enthusiasm! From my experiences over the past couple of years or so, it’s much easier to get people interested in the project if it’s actually out there and doing good things. After four years – and as Erik said, this stuff does take time – I think we’re getting there

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