Thursday, May 9, 2013

HabitMaster: Alpha release

HabitMaster is now live in the wild. You can see the new one-page HabitMaster project site that links to everything else you might want to see, including a running Heroku instance.

Overall, this deadline has been met with limited success. I'm calling this an alpha release because the HabitMaster achievements (in other words, the actual gamification parts!) are still unimplemented. It means HabitMaster is just a basic habit tracker right now, and still a little rough around the edges at that.

This has mostly been due to just slow progress. According to my time tracker, I averaged around 8 hours a week on ICS691 projects for most the semester. I stepped that up to averaging around 12 hours a week for the past month, but I still don't appear to have much to show for it. Yet it seems all of my implementation projects go this way: I continue to underestimate just how much code is required to do things.

I spent most of my time implementing back-end details, such as streak detection given a list of activities and a particular schedule type. I was excited to use a Python generator (basically a fancy iterator) to good effect there.

I also came up with a workable solution to handling polymorphism in database objects. Specifically, my habits link to a Schedule object, but there are two subtypes of Schedule: DaysOfWeekSchedule and IntervalSchedule. Grabbing habit.schedule would give me a row from the Schedule table, which was fairly useless. I ended up adding a cast() method to Schedule that would resolve that instance to the proper subtype for me.

Django's unittest framework was very handy. I didn't get into the UI unit tests that actually let you test requests and responses, though. I would like to explore that more. I'm still impressed with Django and its documentation.

I picked up more HTML5 tags, which has been enjoyable. I dig all the semantic tags they have now. Twitter Bootstrap and CSS design in general was a time drain, though. There was a lot of fidgeting required to get everything laid out right. I'm still a lousy graphical designer. CSS still trips me up on things that seem like they should be easy, such as define a DIV of a given relative width and then align a couple items to the left and one or two to the right within that DIV. And then have them all play nicely as the window resizes. I will say that Bootstrap helped compared to trying to do this from scratch in CSS, though.

GitHub (and to a lesser extent Heroku) has been an increasing pleasure to use. I put GitHub Pages and GitHub's wiki, issues, and milestone features to work on this project. I code alone so often that I've developed some lazy git practices, though. The main one is that my commits are based on work-session rather than issue. It doesn't affect anyone else, but it means I often commit things half-done or in a broken state. That is going to come back to haunt me if I ever have to rollback to a previous verison. I also have a lot yet to learn about merging and pulling with git. I ran into a bit of that while I was editing on Windows, Linux, and through the GitHub web interface today.

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed all the technical learning this project has afforded me.

Regarding the gamification aspects, I have this lesson to share: It takes a lot of time. Any gamification mechanics will be in addition to implementing the underlying service you want to provide. The gamification needs to be well-thought out, too. If possible, leveraging an existing framework could help cut down on that time... though it means you'll need to spend the time learning the framework and then being bound by its limitations.

The other thing that HabitMaster has clarified for me is the difference between gamification and a serious game. I see HabitMaster as an example of the former but not of the latter. To me, gamification means being inspired in your design by the fun and rewarding engagement we find in games--even when you're designing something that is clearly not a game. Because it's not a game, you can't just paste game mechanics onto your service. You need to think about the experience you're going for... which brings us to deeper concepts like mastery, autonomy, meaning, flow, engagement, reward, and the like. A serious game, on the other hand, is when you take something that is clearly a game and try to graft non-game goals or outcomes on to it.

HabitMaster will likely be dormant for a little while as I finish up some other pressing projects, but I do hope to resume development when I get some time. I'll also be starting a new teaching job in July. I wonder if I might bring some gamification to bear on course design there.

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