User-Added Value

It is a popular misconception that technological progress happens in a user-driven way, by “finding a need and then finding a way to fill it” as the inventor in the animated movie “Robots” says. My interpretation of Kuhn is that true paradigm shifts come from a radical concept that comes first and then gets matched to a following, often in the form of solving a problem, but sometimes through what is essentially fashion.

You’d be amazed at how many technologies are developed without actual users at all. Most of these technologies fail, of course. One needs users, but shouldn’t be entirely need-driven. The best chance of success comes with an idea that is validated and refined by actual users.

I’m still trying to figure out what we’ve learned from our users, but initial thoughts are:

  • Access matters, perhaps above all. Dormouse was created for developers that could set things up in a controlled environment and mother the technology. But opportunities aren’t so controlled.
  • Self-selected users can put up with a lot, and can amaze you with their creativity. They’re good to have. This relates to access in a way that I did not anticipate: If you can’t talk to everyone on the planet personally about your work, it is good to make it easy enough for self-selected people to be self-starters, too.
  • Having created something cool, people want to show others. Again, it’s good to make it easy for them to do so.
  • Language and analogies and documentation of what to do doesn’t matter that much, at least with self-selected users. Particularly if they’re under 25. But examples do help.
  • On the other hand, what little language you do need does matter. For example, we used “snapshot” for two very different purposes: a frozen cache of the state of a world to be reused later, and a user-selected viewpoint that forms a portal by which the user can observe or return to that spot. The words appeared in menus and labels and instructions. Very confusing.

We wanted any Dormouse users to be able to spontaneously create their own world at any time, immediately accessible by other users. This worked fine in our lab, but not so well in the real world with firewalls and weird network boxes. The advantage of easy and reliable access trumps this, so our next version will forgo ad-hoc interactive world creation in order to allow trivially easy access. Stay tuned…

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.


  1. One definition of genius: “The first person ever to understand and explain something which, when learn by others, everyone else considers obvious, trivial, quickly assumed to be common knowledge.”

  2. Agree about real paradigm shift. Finding a need and fillin it produces incremental change. Real paradigm shift creates entirely new needs, or alternatively, fills old needs in unexpected ways. I never needed tools to blog until we came up with the idea. But it also fills my very old need to communicate with fellow human beings.

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