Define the scope of your open hardware project

Why you should do it

When we start a hardware project we are usually super excited about ideas to prototype, components to use, testing if they work, trying alternatives. However, it is good to take some minutes before moving on to understand what we are aiming to achieve with our project.

There are as many goals as people starting projects, and no one is better than the other: some people want to improve a tool they already use at work, or develop some hands-on practice for the classroom; some projects are born with the idea of selling a product, others want to address a community need. Many people start hardware projects to have fun and learn, both in formal (Master’s project, for example) and informal settings (at a makerspace or at home).

Whatever your motivation is, having your goals clear will allow you to keep on track and plan backwards, so you can get there in the most efficient way. But besides being useful for your own planning, being able to express the vision of your project is a powerful communication and engagement tool. In particular, clearly defining the scope of your project will save you lots of time and headaches when you start opening your project.

How to start moving from the idea to the plan

In the introduction we already mentioned some terms that we will discuss in detail now. But to start, it is usually good to begin asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Who you’re working with, or hope to work with
  2. What you’re doing
  3. Who you’re doing it for, your audience (may be same as the previous question)
  4. Why you’re doing this, the impact or change you hope to make

Question 1 is directly related to working open, who will you be collaborating with? Maybe you are not collaborating with anyone right now, but you expect to engage specific groups at some point. Who are they? Identifying this will help you tailor your language and documentation in a way that others can truly collaborate with you.

Question 2 is probably the core of your project: what will you be doing, and also very important, what will your project not do? For example: you may be developing an environmental monitoring tool, but is the goal of the device to produce air quality data or air quality AND water quality data? Maybe it’s only going to sense one parameter? Being as specific as possible with your goal is one of the most useful tools to ensure you will achieve it.

Question 3 makes you think about users. Who is going to use your hardware project? Maybe your users are fellow teachers, other research groups, communities in need of producing data, hobbyists, kids… Once again, having clear who your audience is will guide most of your efforts later on.

Finally, question 4 asks about your motivation to work on this project. It makes you think of what would be different in the world if your project already existed. Sometimes people refer to this as the vision of their project, or if the project is the road, where do we get at the end? Which is the difference for your users, communities, even the world!

You can use your answers to these questions as a mini pitch that synthetizes your project vision. We will work on this in the assignment. Your project, and your vision for it, will be the basis for all the work you do in this series; you may find you need to return to it for clarity and inspiration when you get lost in the details or encounter stumbling blocks. You might discover you need to tweak your vision as your project evolves.

Revisit your vision statement often, and get in the habit of using it when you talk to newcomers to your project. If you are working in a group, it is a good idea to brainstorm around these questions, and understand if there’s consensus on these foundational ideas.

Assignment: Write a vision statement for your project

Think about these four questions and put your answers together in a short statement.

Incorporating your responses, write your vision or mission statement in a short, simple format. Feel free to tweak the format. Color coding is added here for clarity, to indicate each key piece of information and where it appears in the statement:

I’m working with [community, allies, contributors] to [make, build, teach, or do something] so that [audience, end users, consumers, community members] can [do something different, achieve a goal]

Sample Statement:

I’m working with plant scientists in Boston to develop a remote sensor to measure plant water content, so it can be used in areas with water shortage to efficiently water crop plants to sustain supply of drinking water and food.

Tips for writing your vision statement:

  • Use clear concise language– see if you can get your statement down to a single, powerful sentence
  • Use cause and effect language– verbs that express both what you’ll do, and what your users or community members will do differently when your vision is realized.


next: Working smart: create, contribute or fork?  

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