Words and Buttons Online is a growing collection of interactive tutorials, demos, and quizzes about maths, algorithms, and programming. I’ve been making it with a little help from my friends for 3 years now, and I’m not going to stop anytime soon.
It is not hugely popular. The daily audience is only about 300 visitors. But it does hit the Hacker News front page every once in a while, so it’s not completely marginalized either. Of course, I would like it to be more popular, but I’m also too shy to promote it fiercely. I wrongly believe that it’s best to put your energy into creating great content, and it will find its audience by itself.
This year I coupled several pages together and published an e-book called So You Think You Know C? And Ten More Short Essays on Programming Languages. Looking at the download numbers, it has been a huge success…
However, almost 12 000 living people still did download the thing, and some of them read it, and some were delighted, and some gave me their feedback and even leads to future material.
The book is absolutely free. Free as in freedom, and free as in beer, too. I don’t get anything material from it. But every time I get to know that someone enjoyed my book, it makes me happy as well so getting paid in feedback only eliminates money as the middle man.
Also, this year Words And Buttons got a major redesign. As more pages appeared, navigation more complex than a plain list became a necessity. At first, I thought about a blog-like format but then I decided that it would be nice to have an actual index on the index page.
The pages are now categorized, and every page links back to its categories.
I try to set the priorities right so the content always comes first. Both metaphorically and literally. All the navigation is in the footer.
I’ve also added 10 more pages, made a major rework of the mathematical section, and gave three talks based on the material published on the site. All and all, this was a rather productive year.
But what about the next one?
So far, every piece of material was published in a form of a single site page. Some are longer than others but generally, they are all designed to be digestible in one sitting. Which is fine for the internet. As a form of entertainment, short pieces work better than long ones.
However, I’m not sure that this is the best format for actually learning things. The pages are not going anywhere, I’ll still publish more of those, but I also want to experiment with interactive booklets. Some thematic collections of interactive things leading the user, in a more classical style, from basics to application.
I will probably continue redesigning things, too. It’s somewhat complicated since I don’t gather user data and can only track how the changes affect user experience by the data the hosting service gives me. That’s very rudimentary, I can tell how many people visited my site in a day or how many people visited a particular page this month. But I’d rather learn about my audience slowly than use them as a training resource at their expense.
After all, Words and Buttons Online is a bidirectional learning resource based on the principle of fair exchange. I’m an experienced engineer with a Ph.D. in applied geometry. I can teach a thing or two. In fact, some ten years ago, I was forced to teach in a university due to my contract obligations, but this was not a pleasurable experience. As soon as my contract ran out, I quit.
This time, I do this voluntarily so I can learn stuff in exchange. I want to learn how to create meaningful interactive experiences. This is not something you can learn by the book, the books are simply not there yet, so you have to learn by doing. But if I choose to learn from anything more than voluntary feedback (and some non-personalized data), this would upset the fairness.
3 years of teaching might be a lot, I know that, I quit my teaching job exactly after thee years, but 3 years of learning isn’t. It’s just the beginning.