Tuesday, December 28, 2010

How To Give Twisted a Friendly Zero-Step: Part 1

Zero-Step: n. The first impression and actions of a user's exposure to a new tool, before actual research and use of the details.

I'm not as involved with or using Twisted as much I'd like, but I still pay attention and I care about the project. I understand its strengths and its weaknesses and I want to see it used in more cases where it is the best tool for the job. There is a obvious and recently publicized problem with Twisted and the Zero-Step.

Why do people go to twistedmatrix.com for the first time?

Usually, it probably isn't to read the documentation or start investigating open bug reports. First time visitors are looking to solve a problem and the first thing that has to be impressed on them is if Twisted actually solves that problem. This is actually a really big problem in this case, because there are so many problems it can solve. How do you present that image without boring lists of functionality and supported protocols?

The most obvious use-case for Twisted is probably for HTTP setups, while another important angle is probably people looking to test it out with something simple and pointless like an IRC bot. While an IRC bot is boring to a lot of us already familiar with the details, it is a very common introduction people make for network programming.

What kind of timeout can we expect on their willingness to read before getting the gist of it?

Not much, probably. Certainly, it takes more upfront investment in personal time and energy than a lot of people care to make. It would have to be obvious and prominent at the front page how to get a quick introduction that gives you an idea if Twisted is what you're looking for. The most obvious section you'll see now is What is Twisted? with one link in bold that will stand out to a new visitor, sending them to the Twisted Core Documentation. This is a really boring looking page, with no styling, lots of parts with names people won't understand, and an 11-part finger tutorial. This is not an approachable presentation.

The whole section needs replaced with something more eye catching and it needs to lead to a new section of the site that exists just to impress those new eyes. "If you want to get started with Twisted, the first thing you should do is read the Twisted Core Documentation" is too much to ask new comers who have no idea if this is what they're looking for and often don't have time to read that much documentation to make the call, because they've already got a problem with a deadline or simply have a limited amount of free time to pursue the interest on their own. I think there can be a sentiment to just let these facts weed out the less motivated, but it serves to cut out too many who would do the project some good.

How can you get the greatest number of readers to continue interest in Twisted with only one page view to convince them?

If you can fit it in without scrolling, then even better. Being lax enough to allow some scrolling to grok the whole introduction, can you get people intrigued enough to sit through more complete readings of the docs, put up with difficulties getting started and adjusting their way of thinking, and dealing with a relatively steep learning curve?

In Part 2, I'll continue my previous post about Django influencing the presentation of Twisted. Hopefully we can come up with some ideas to make the approach to Twisted less frightening for new users.

1 comment:

glyph said...

I'm glad you're looking at this, and I completely agree that it's a problem, but the real problem has not been a lack of ideas - it's been a lack of implementation muscle. For example, you complain that the Twisted Core Documentation is a boring, unstyled mess: are you aware of the Sphinx migration project? Have you reviewed or authored any of the lore-fixup branches?

I have several Twisted frontpage prototypes, from the last several years (!), lying around which attempted to address this problem in various ways, but which all got unwieldy really fast in attempting to explain all of what Twisted is capable of. What we really need are individual "landing pages" for different classes of user; things which they will hopefully find rather than the front page of twistedmatrix.com. But setting up each of those sites, and writing all the content, is a big project, and somebody needs to sit down and do it. You could easily give it a try by sprucing up the project pages on the wiki, though.

I write here about programming, how to program better, things I think are neat and are related to programming. I might write other things at my personal website.

I am happily employed by the excellent Caktus Group, located in beautiful and friendly Carrboro, NC, where I work with Python, Django, and Javascript.

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