That said, it has not been an entirely smooth journey, and as powerful and exciting as Observable has been, I’ve observed (no pun intended) a lot of things from my classmates and my own experiences with the app.
Caveat emptor: I am somewhat of a newcomer, but I believe many newcomers are prone to the following mistakes and misconceptions that come with learning a messy and historied ecosystem like JS in 2020.
1. The onboarding experience/“hidden dependencies” in prerequisites
– See " @sliminality/ply on GitHub for the reference on “hidden dependencies”
This “learning path” problem might be solved with a more robust onboarding experience, or even an article on “how to learn Observable”— but in its current state, the onboarding experience from 2019–now may still be too daunting for users with extensive data science/statistics experience coming from non-Web backgrounds.
I’m not sure the best way to clarify these distinctions for newbies, but for what it’s worth, I suppose I’ll be telling friends to always include “observablehq” as a string in their Google searches on Observable.
… searching for help is related to another note:
2. Difficulty in finding help
Since joining Observable in mid-2019, I only recently realized that the “Help” button and the user forums are tucked neatly in a drop-down menu of one’s user icon on the top-right corner. Me nor my peers realized that there was [a more structured learning path in the form of “featured notebooks”]https://observablehq.com/@observablehq/user-manual — which is also available in the secret help menu mentioned above. I never thought to look there because I was never concerned about managing my profile/account as a student—I just wanted to play with notebooks and work on my assignments.
Learning to look for featured notebook examples has been the single most helpful pattern that I’ve picked up in trying to learn Observable— and I think super newbies may not learn this pattern, since most other libraries/tools have a sort of centralized knowledge hub for learning that Observable sort of lacks. In its current state, I think Observable’s learning schema is more decentralized, since learning Observable’s features and applications is an experience of juggling various instructional notebooks from staff members and power users. This is an exciting form of community, but it is more uncommon amongst peer software communities and tools.
Perhaps there is a more common place to place help docs/manual links—such as the bottom of pages, or even as dedicated menu items. For ex: other tools I use (and others in my academic program) use commonly all have Documentation/Help/Manual -type links in their headers, footers, or both. ggplot, Python, pandas, RStudio, Vega-Lite, etc…
I think it can be easy for experienced users to say “just keep learning more,” or to dismiss this audience as not the target users of Observable, and thus disregard the above feedback.
But I find that many people I’ve met who work on fantastic projects in the urban studies and social sciences have expressed utter confusion over
Observable’s identity as a programming platform and its learning path. Many of my peers (who prioritize tackling their domain-specific questions over learning a programming platform) just stick to Python+Jupyter or RStudio for the clarity in finding help, getting started quickly, and the perceived shorter time for a productive start.
Addressing these concerns might even quell some doubts on [the tight relationship between D3v5+ and Observable, which seem to frustrate a lot of users (see the post “I want to learn D3. I don`t want to learn Observable. Is that ok?”). I don’t want to point people away from using Observable—I think it has a lot of transferrable knowledge and is amazing in itself— I just feel that Observable in its current form could be greatly improved with a more structured learning schema that is immediately available to newbies—something like an Observable syllabus or “roadmap” that allows users to see the “big picture” as well as the connections between Observable’s dependencies, domain-specific applications, and pre-requisities.
Thank you for taking the time to take in this feedback and for working on such a powerful and inspiring platform and community. I’m excited to keep learning Observable, make more cool notebooks, and engage with the data vis community through Observable!
Edit: I couldn’t make 2+ links as a new user, so apologies for the lack of hyperlinks in my references. Also, about me: I recently gradated from my MS urban planning program at Columbia; I love HCI/user-centered design, the Web, cities, and data vis and am looking for work in that world, so let’s connect if you are looking for people!