Experimenting with Instructables and Make Projects

Make Projects vs Instructables

I’ve started posting more pieces about projects I’m working on to this site. If I’m going to spend a weekend or longer figuring out how to do something, I figure it’s worth sharing what I’ve learned with others. You can find this stuff under /projects. One of the first things I’ve shared is a set of instructions on how to make a photography lightbox. It’s a good project that lots of people would find useful. The design is pretty solid, and the instructions, I think, are good.

This is a fairly low-traffic site, so posting instructions here doesn’t give them much exposure. However, there are dedicated projects sites out there, which are designed for exactly this kind of material and are destination sites for people wanting to learn how to make stuff. So when it came to making a revised version of the lightbox, incorporating some improvements to my original design, I thought I’d experiment with these services, and see how they fared.

The contenders

The most well-known project documentation site is Instructables. They’ve been going since 2005, have a sizeable, dedicated staff, a marketing and outreach programme, and they’ve built up a large user base, generating a high volume of content. In the photography channel, the listing of step-by-step guides runs to 60 pages, with about 18 projects per page … so over 1000 photography projects. It’s also fair to say that the quality is pretty variable.

Make Projects is a part of O’Reilly’s expanding Make brand. I don’t know how long it’s been going, or how big it is for Make, but they seem to keep pretty quiet about it, compared to other activity like Maker Faire and the Maker Shed. And it shows. By comparison, at the time of writing, their photography section has only 14 projects.

I wrote up my notes on the revised lightbox, set up accounts on both sites and submitted the same set of instructions and images to each. You can find them here:

Here’s what I found…

Contributing a project

The process of adding a project to Instructables is fairly straightforward. It’s step-based, with a rich-text editor for each step, and the ability to upload several images to illustrate each step.

They have Flickr integration, but they just copy the images to their own servers (applying massive compression in the process) rather than linking to the originals on Flickr. I can only assume they do this so they’re not reliant on Flickr for content availability, but to my mind the trade-off isn’t worth it. And the compression looks terrible.

The text editor has a small button encouraging users to ‘go pro’. Sign up to a pro account for $20-$25/year and one of the benefits is more editing features. It strikes a sour note with me: I’m creating value on your platform, and you want me to pay for unfettered tools to do it? No thank you.

Adding a Make project is substantially similar at the project level: you create steps and populate each one with content. But at the step level, they adopt a different approach. The content is highly structured, with each paragraph treated as a separate object. Which makes it a pig to add a complex project with many steps. It’s only when I discovered the (poorly documented) batch upload feature that I summoned the will to complete my project.

The benefit of having such structured content is that they can do some clever stuff in the display layer, like linking materials and tools through to corresponding items in their shop, and allowing you to embed project widgets on other sites. Like this:

Photo Lamp and Lightbox

They’ve licensed their platform from iFixit, which strikes me as being a rather smart approach. And it’s in the form of a wiki, so anyone can edit projects. I don’t know how useful this is in practice. Having the technical facility there only gets you half way towards having a real community-edited site; the other half is about building the community spirit.

Licensing

The amount of investment these sites ask of their users is unusually high. Contributing a how-to project is significantly more work than posting an event on Meetup, uploading some photos to Flickr, or commenting on Facebook, Twitter or a blog. We can expect users to give a little more thought to what value they’re signing away than with the more light-touch services. So it’s interesting to see how the sites handle the ownership of their users’ work.

Instructables let you choose how you want to licence your work, though they do of course take certain rights for themselves:

With respect to Content you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of Instructables, you grant Instructables the world-wide, royalty free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive and fully sublicensable license to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, publicly perform and publicly display such Content solely for the purposes of providing and promoting Instructables.

I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t play one on TV, but I think this is pretty much what they need to say in order to publish your content on their site. But it does look like they could, for example, publish a book of Instructables without the permission of contributors, and without paying royalties. If so, I’d have preferred it if they’d been a little less expansive.

To submit a project to Make, you have to agree to a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license when you sign up. No surprises when you consider who’s behind the site, and possibly the only viable licence for content shared on a wiki-based platform.

They are equally free to use your work commercially, and of course, both sites profit from your efforts, running advertising next to the content, promoting other products (Make) and selling memberships (Instructables). That’s fine by me, though I find the advertising on Instructables utterly distracting.

The morning after the night before

Within 12 hours of posting my project on Instructables, I received the following email:

Hi Andrew Sleigh!
Your Step by Step Instructable "Photo lamp and lightbox, version 2" was just featured by one of our editors!
Being featured means we think you are awesome. Keep up the great work!
http://www.instructables.com/

Eric
Founder and CEO of Instructables

I can’t deny this gave me a warm glow of appreciation, but I suspect that, not only did Eric not write to me personally, but there is some programmatic help going on here. Whether they automatically ‘feature’ all first-time submissions, or they feed into site admins’ priority lists for review, I imagine the software is designed to help give newbies a little morale boost. Within a few hours, I received another email with a promo code for 3 months free ‘pro’ membership, as thanks for “writing an awesome Instructable”. This was clearly automatically triggered.

This is all accepted good practice when designing community platforms. Personalised content, rewards to incentivise good behaviour, etc. But in 2011, I think platform designers need to be more sophisticated when they employ such tools.

Software platforms (especially CRM systems) are now able to deliver highly personalised content at scale. But the promise for organisations that they can have personal relationships with large audiences — managed at low cost, by software, not humans — is a false one. We are now increasingly able to discriminate when we are being addressed or rewarded by software, and it creates dissonance, not relationships.

If a user receives a benefit because their activity meets some criteria baked into the system, and that benefit is delivered by the system, rather than a personal, human intervention, then it should be presented as such. And system designers should understand that software-based incentive models are not a substitute for real human contact, no matter how well they scale.

And if, in this case, the work is being done by humans, who really want to show appreciation for what I’ve contributed, they could do a better job of not appearing to be software.

Make, on the other hand, make no attempt to be warm and cuddly. They have a system of badges, which community members can earn by meeting certain criteria. Another well-worn approach to online community design, and it’s clear to everyone (I hope) that they’re purely algorithmic. I’ve been ‘awarded’ the Initiator badge, for “starting a guide that gets 500 views”. Which is fine, but again, no substitute for a real human commenting on my project.

Make Projects Badges

I had a flurry of emails from Instructables as people commented on my project, and both the comments and the notifications were welcome. I felt like my time had been well-spent — people were looking at my project — and I was connected to the Instructables community.

I also received one slightly snarky comment, which I flagged to the site admins, and I noticed today that this has been removed. That’s good community management, carried out by humans! +1!

I’ve not heard a peep from Make Projects, nor have I had any comments on my project. If people are finding some value in it, I don’t know about it.

The bottom line

The two sites have slightly different ways of rating and interacting with projects, though they both track views. After about a week, I’ve had:

  • On Instructables: 2086 views, 4 ratings and 2 comments
  • On Make Projects: 1,691 views, no comments, no likes, 1 confirmed success

The vast majority of this activity happened in the first 24 hours, when I guess my project had most visibility.

Traffic referred to this site has been negligible, though there have been 30-50 views of each photo in the corresponding Flickr set.

Overall impressions

In a word, good. The experience of contributing was relatively painless, and I had good exposure on both sites in return.

Make Projects is the closest to an open, community-run wiki for projects, which is what I had in mind as an ideal when I started this experiment. Of course, it’s not open, it’s run and owned by O’Reilly. The trade-off is that it’s also supported by O’Reilly, and has the backing of the Make brand, which counts for a lot in practice.

But I don’t get a sense of community on the site; it doesn’t feel particularly collaborative. And I think that’s their big opportunity area. Make have a fantastic brand, and a presence that crosses multiple platforms. I’d like to see them build Make Projects into a key part of their offering, in the way that Maker Faire has become such an engaging, successful series of events (cough, cough).

Instructables is a much more noisy, messy place. It reminds me of MySpace back when that was the social network. It feels like there are people working behind the scenes, and people using it. There’s a sense of community and activity which is critical for a successful content sharing site.

But some of their design decisions, and the way they monetise their audience leave a sour taste. They’re right to address profitability head on. They’ve built a platform, attracted contributors, aggregated their content, and now they’re selling advertising and site memberships off the back of it. More power to them. Personally, though, I’d like to see them adjust the model. Flickr, by comparison, have a better balance between the value they offer, and the value they extract, from users. They could also benefit hugely from some work on the user experience.

I’m going to keep an eye on both platforms, and I may well contribute more, but I’ll continue to post here, and elsewhere. I won’t be using either of these sites as my primary project sharing platform just yet.

  • Hello Andrew,

    Thanks for the feedback. I personally featured your project because I was looking through new projects (as I sometimes do) and found that it was very well done. That was not an automated script (for simplicity’s sake, the message is a form letter) and is not something that we do for all new authors. Clearly, we need to do a better job of conveying this.

    While there is always room for improvement, we continually strive to provide the best and the largest online DIY community. Let me know if you have any more feedback or any questions.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Regards,
    Randy Sarafan
    Instructables Community Manager

  • Hi Randy,
    thanks for popping by – and for the comment. I think you’re right. If you have real people doing community management work, then don’t be shy. It means so much more to me as a contributor if a person, rather than an algorithm, has valued my work. Form letters are fine, though maybe you should have space on your form for the person’s name (as opposed to ‘Eric’), too. I’m looking forward to seeing how Instructables grows.

  • Anonymous

    Greetings from MAKE, Andrew! We just came across your blog post, and I want to thank you for the feedback. I wish we would have seen it earlier. Great job on providing a comprehensive side by side comparison. You make a lot of really great and helpful points and suggestions.

    We launched Make: Projects in July of 2010. We have scores of projects from the pages of nearly 30 volumes of MAKE magazine, and previous to our wiki launch they existed only in the relatively static formats of paper and our digital edition. We wanted to free them to live online for folks to use, and a wiki is perfect to allow community members to update, improve, and build upon the projects. The thought was to build the site by populating it with our projects and invite our community to share what they know how to make.

    Since the launch, we’ve made efforts to promote it though our sites, in the magazine, and at Maker Faires, but I agree that there’s so much more we can do. Believe it or not, we’re a fairly small team, and while we’re proud of how far the site has come in this short time, we fully agree that there is much room for improvement. Community feedback is incredibly valuable to us, to learn exactly how your user experience was, and how the site can become more useful to you. In a nutshell, please know we hear you and thank you.

    One a side note, one interesting thing I noticed looking at stats 6 months later is that you now have over 9K views on your project, which I guess is one perk of being one of only 27 photography projects we currently have on the site 🙂 I hope we see more of your builds on Make: Projects!

    Cheers,
    Goli Mohammadi
    Senior Editor

  • Hi Goli,
    thanks for your comments. I appreciate you stopping by to respond.

    I think Make:Projects is a huge opportunity for Maker Media.

    As you say, it makes perfect sense to extend the lifetime of project content you already have by sharing it online. And a platform like Make:Projects has huge potential to ‘socialise’ that content. To let people share their own stories of making the projects featured, fill in gaps, suggest improvements, and help others through difficult steps. As we move towards a digital publishing future, where projects are no longer confined to static magazines, something like this could be an interesting way to explore the possibilities of a more dynamic, conversational magazine. One where projects are constantly being improved by readers, who have the opportunity to be part of the magazine in a highly engaging way.

    I’d like to see a future (digital) Make magazine that combines the curated projects you already feature, with a layer on top of advice, personal experiences, builds and alternate versions contributed by the community. I don’t know whether you could actually use Make:Projects to power such a magazine, but I’m sure you can learn a lot about the dynamics of community-created content; how you can build a sustainable, commercial business model within an amateur culture; the impact of UX and community management practices, an so on. All deeply interesting problems!

    Building audience is not easy of course. I wonder whether you could use the existing printed magazine to create more opportunities to engage. For example, posting a project as a challenge for a specific time period (say, a holiday weekend), asking people to contribute back to the wiki as they work through the project, and then featuring community content in the next issue of Make.

    I’m looking forward to seeing where you take it next.

    All the best,
    Andrew