Fragmenting A Framework Userbase

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about web programmers and the web frameworks they choose, or don’t choose, and why. I’m mainly going to talk about Python Web Frameworks as the majority of them have small communites, and possible reasons this could be.

I only started using Python for web development about a year ago, and it took me about a month to settle down on a web framework. In that time, I looked over at least a dozen different frameworks. There’s so many python web frameworks, quite a few people have actually setup entire pages and sections of their site just to covering them all.

I think part of the reason for the proliferation of frameworks is because of the nature of many Python programmers, as I briefly mentioned in a prior post on Making Decisions for Others.

The recent appearence of Django on the Python web framework scene I’m sure has quite a few other Python web framework developers wondering, “Why isn’t the web framework I made getting this much attention and use?”

A Common Base

Many of these same people would like to blame it on hype and good marketing. While that will certaainly boost initial usage, I don’t believe it will create a lasting user base. I think a huge driving factor behind Rails and Django, besides for the hype and marketing, is the fact that both of them make a lot of decisions for you. These decisions start the users all off at a common base of understanding.

The linear progression from:

  1. Never used the framework
  2. Wrote the tutorial app
  3. Wrote their own basic webapp
  4. Wrote an advanced web application

Makes it easy for people a step or two up, to help other new users join them. Because the steps they all take are the same steps to achieve greater understanding of the web framework, they can easily help new users get to where they are. Most, if not all the other Python web frameworks I’ve seen are so flexible its hard to have a common base of understanding amongst new users. The process looks more like this:

  1. Never used the framework
  2. Researched the frameworks options and choices to find a possible starting point
  3. Wrote a basic web application using method X
  4. Wrote an advanced web app using method X

The flexibility of the web framework becomes an obstacle to a strong user-base in this case, as it fragments the users by the methodology they’re using to build their webapp. It also reduces the common re-usable components available, since different users will utilize different options of the framework and have possibly very different starting points.

Have a Tutorial Application

Also lacking from many Python web frameworks is a clear and obvious Tutorial application. Ideally the front page of a Python web framework should be an obvious path to become an experienced user of said framework. Such as:

  1. Install the framework
  2. Write a basic tutorial application
  3. Look here/there for instruction as need to write your own more complex application

A good tutorial should leave a user feeling confident that they know how to install and start with a common base for writing their own web applications. It’s also amazing how many problems people can have just getting a framework installed and running in a minimal configuration. Having a tutorial that leaves them with a functioning web application gives them a big leap forward.

Since many users will do the first tutorial web application, other new users can give help to even newer users that run into a problem. This is where the common base effect really provides some power.

Methods of Fragmentation

The Python frameworks I’ve tried and used have fragmented their starting points and users in various ways. All of them as a result of their “flexibility and power”. Here are a few common trends of fragmentation I’ve seen:

  • Let the user choose various template language schemes (Use ZPT, or Cheetah, or…)
  • Let the user choose from web paradigm (MVC, page-driven, pipelined…)
  • No base or example configuration for a fully working webapp (So everyone sets up their first application slightly differently)

The last one I listed, is probably the easiest to solve, especially with useful web framework template creators like Python Paste. Obviously, removing the first two will be seen by many Python web framework developers as undesirable. I think it’d really help the users though, as it gives them more in common with each other. If they all use the same paradigm, and the same template language with your framework, their ability to help each other increases and they feel confident they made the “right” choice as well.

Assumptions

I’ve assumed for the purpose of this post, that Python web framework makers are interested in having a large user-base. This isn’t always the case, I’m sure some just want a small, very experienced user-base that isn’t going to be asking basic questions like, “I can’t connect to my database like you show in the tutorial”.

I can understand that, but for the other Python web framework makers out there, try and consider some of the things I mentioned. There are a lot of Python coders out there, and a lot of them can live without having 4 template language choices and 2 different design paradigms. So when adding that feature that’d let people get so much “power and flexibility”, will it fragment your user-base?