AiC: Collaborative summary documents

22 April 2019

In my previous post, I talked about the idea of mapping the solution space:

When we talk about the RFC process, we always emphasize that the point of RFC discussion is not to select the best answer; rather, the point is to map the solution space. That is, to explore what the possible tradeoffs are and to really look for alternatives. This mapping process also means exploring the ups and downs of the current solutions on the table.

One of the challenges I see with how we often do design is that this “solution space” is actually quite implicit. We are exploring it through comments, but each comment is only tracing out one path through the terrain. I wanted to see if we could try to represent the solution space explicitly. This post is a kind of “experience report” on one such experiment, what I am calling a collaborative summary document (in contrast to the more standard summary comment that we often do).

The idea: a collaborative summary document

I’ll get into the details below, but the basic idea was to create a shared document that tried to present, in a neutral fashion, the arguments for and against a particular change. I asked the people to stop commenting in the thread and instead read over the document, look for things they disagreed with, and offer suggestions for how it could be improved.

My hope was that we could not only get a thorough summary from the process, but also do something deeper: change the focus of the conversation from “advocating for a particular point of view” towards “trying to ensure a complete and fair summary”. I figured that after this period was done, people were likely go back to being advocates for their position, but at least for some time we could try to put those feelings aside.

So how did it go?

Overall, I felt very positive about the experience and I am keen to try it again. I think that something like “collaborative summary documents” could become a standard part of our process. Still, I think it’s going to take some practice trying this a few times to figure out the best structure. Moreover, I think it is not a silver bullet: to realize the full potential, we’re going to have to make other changes too.

What I did in depth

What I did more specifically was to create a Dropbox Paper document. This document contained my best effort at summarizing the issue at hand, but it was not meant to be just my work. The idea was that we would all jointly try to produce the best summary we could.

After that, I made an announcement on the original thread asking people to participate in the document. Specifically, as the document states, the idea was for people to do something like this:

  • Read the document, looking for things they didn’t agree with or felt were unfairly represented.
  • Leave a comment explaining their concern; or, better, supplying alternate wording that they did agree with
    • The intention was always to preserve what they felt was the sense of the initial comment, but to make it more precise or less judgemental.

I was then playing the role of editor, taking these comments and trying to incorporate them into the whole. The idea was that, as people edited the document, we would gradually approach a fixed point, where there was nothing left to edit.

Structure of the shared document

Initially, when I created the document, I structured it into two sections – basically “pro” and “con”. The issue at hand was a particular change to the Futures API (the details don’t matter here). In this case, the first section advocated for the change, and the second section advocated against it. So, something like this (for a fictional problem):


We should make this change because of X and Y. The options we have now (X1, X2) aren’t satisfying because of problem Z.


This change isn’t needed. While it would make X easier, there are already other useful ways to solve that problem (such as X1, X2). Similarly, the goals of isn’t very desirable in the first place because of A, B, and C.

I quickly found this structure rather limiting. It made it hard to compare the arguments – as you can see here, there are often “references” between the two sections (e.g., the con section refers to the argument X and tries to rebut it). Trying to compare and consider these points required a lot of jumping back and forth between the sections.

Using nested bullets to match up arguments

So I decided to restructure the document to integrate the arguments for and against. I created nesting to show when one point was directly in response to another. For example, it might read like this (this is not an actual point; those were much more detailed):

  • Pro: We should make this change because of X.
    • Con: However, there is already the option of X1 and X2 to satisfy that use-case.
      • Pro: But X1 and X2 suffer from Z.
  • Pro: We should make this change because of Y and Z.
    • Con: Those goals aren’t as important because of A, B, and C.

Furthermore, I tried to make the first bullet point a bit special – it would be the one that encapsulated the heart of the dispute, from my POV, with the later bullet points getting progressively more into the weeds.

Nested bullets felt better, but we can do better still I bet

I definitely preferred the structure of nested bullets to the original structure, but it didn’t feel perfect. For one thing, it requires me to summarize each argument into a single paragraph. Sometimes this felt “squished”. I didn’t love the repeated “pro” and “con”. Also, things don’t always fit neatly into a tree; sometimes I had to “cross-reference” between points on the tree (e.g., referencing another bullet that had a detailed look at the trade-offs).

If I were to do this again, I might tinker a bit more with the format. The most extreme option would be to try and use a “wiki-like” format. This would allow for free inter-linking, of course, and would let us hide details into a recursive structure. But I worry it’s too much freedom.

Adding “narratives” on top of the “core facts”

One thing I found that surprised me a bit: the summary document aimed to summarize the “core facts” of the discussion – in so doing, I hoped to summarize the two sides of the argument. But I found that facts alone cannot give a “complete” summary: to give a complete summary, you also need to present those facts “in context”. Or, put another way, you also need to explain the weighting that each side puts on the facts.

In other words, the document did a good job of enumerating the various concerns and “facets” of the discussion. But it didn’t do a good job of explaining why you might fall on one side or the other.

I tried to address this by crafting a “summary comment” on the main thread. This comment had a very specific form. It begin by trying to identify the “core tradeoff” – the crux of the disagreement:

So the core tradeoff here is this:

  • By leaving the design as is, we keep it as simple and ergonomic as it can be;
    • but, if we wish to pass implicit parameters to the future when polling, we must use TLS.

It then identifies some of the “facets” of the space which different people weight in different ways:

So, which way you fall will depend on

  • how important you think it is for Future to be ergonomic
    • and naturally how much of an ergonomic hit you believe this to be
    • how likely you think it is for us to want to add implicit parameters
    • how much of a problem you think it is to use TLS for those implicit parameters

And then it tried to tell a series of “narratives”. Basically to tell the story of each group that was involved and why that led them to assign different weights to those points above. Those weights in turn led to a different opinion on the overall issue.

For example:

I think a number of people feel that, by now, between Rust and other ecosystems, we have a pretty good handle on what sort of data we want to thread around and what the best way is to do it. Further, they feel that TLS or passing parameters explicitly is the best solution approach for those cases. Therefore, they prefer to leave the design as is, and keep things simple. (More details in the doc, of course.)

Or, on the other side:

Others, however, feel like there is additional data they want to pass implicitly and they do not feel convinced that TLS is the best choice, and that this concern outweights the ergonomic costs. Therefore, they would rather adopt the PR and keep our options open.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there aren’t always just two sides. In fact, in this case I identified a third camp:

Finally, I think there is a third position that says that this controversy just isn’t that important. The performance hit of TLS, if you wind up using it, seems to be minimal. Similarly, the clarity/ergonomics of Future are not as criticial, as users who write async fn will not implement it directly, and/or perhaps the effect is not so large. These folks probably could go either way, but would mostly like us to stop debating it and start building stuff. =)

One downside of writing the narratives in a standard summary comment was that it was not “part of” the main document. In fact, it feels to me like these narratives are a pretty key part of the whole thing. In fact, it was only once I added these narratives that I really felt I started to understand why one might choose one way or the other when it came to this decision.

If I were to do this again, I would make narratives more of a first-place entity in the document itself. I think I would also focus on some other “meta-level reasoning”, such as fears and risks. I think it’s worth thinking, for any given decision, “what if we make the wrong call” – e.g., in this case, what happens if we decide not to future proof, but then we regret it; in contrast, what happens if we decide to add future proofing, but we never use it.

We never achieved “shared ownership” of the summary

One of my goals was that we could, at least for a moment, disconnect people from their particular position and turn their attention towards the goal of achieving a shared and complete summary. I didn’t feel that we were very succesful in this goal.

For one thing, most participants simply left comments on parts they disagreed with; they didn’t themselves suggest alternate wording. That meant that I personally had to take their complaint and try to find some “middle ground” that accommodated the concern but preserved the original point. This was stressful for me and a lot of work. More importantly, it meant that most people continued to interact with the document as advocates for their point-of-view, rather than trying to step back and advocate for the completeness of the summary.

In other words: when you see a sentence you disagree with, it is easy to say that you disagree with it. It is much harder to rephrase it in a way that you do agree with – but which still preserves (what you believe to be) the original intent. Doing so requires you to think about what the other person likely meant, and how you can preserve that.

However, one possible reason that people may have been reluctant to offer suggestions is that, often, it was hard to make “small edits” that addressed people’s concerns. Especially early on, I found that, in order to address some comment, I would have to make larger restructurings. For example, taking a small sentence and expanding it to a bullet point of its own.

Finally, some people who were active on the thread didn’t participate in the doc. Or, if they did, they did so by leaving comments on the original GitHub thread. This is not surprising: I was asking people to do something new and unfamiliar. Also, this whole process played out relatively quickly, and I suspect some people just didn’t even see the document before it was done.

If I were to do this again, I would want to start it earlier in the process. I would also want to consider synchronous meetings, where we could go try to process edits as a group (but I think it would take some thought to figure out how to run such a meeting).

In terms of functioning asynchronously, I would probably change to use a Google Doc instead of a Dropbox Paper. Google Docs have a better workflow for suggesting edits, I believe, as well, as a richer permissions model.

Finally, I would try to draw a harder line in trying to get people to “own” the document and suggest edits of their own. I think the challenge of trying to neutrally represent someone else’s point of view is pretty powerful.

Concluding remarks

Conducting this exercise taught me some key lessons:

  • We should experiment with the best way to describe the back-and-forth (I found it better to put closely related points together, for example, rather than grouping the arguments into ‘pro and con’).
  • We should include not only the “core facts” but also the “narratives” that weave those facts together.
  • We should do this summary process earlier and we should try to find better ways to encourage participation.

Overall, I felt very good about the idea of “collaborative summary documents”. I think they are a clear improvement over the “summary comment”, which was the prior state of the art.

If nothing else, the quality of the summary itself was greatly improved by being a collaborative document. I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of the question when I started, but getting feedback from others on the things they felt I misunderstood, or just the places where my writing was unclear, was very useful.

But of course my aims run larger. I hope that we can change how design work feels, by encouraging all of us to deeply understand the design space (and to understand what motivates the other side). My experiment with this summary document left me feeling pretty convinced that it could be a part of the solution.


I’ve created a discussion thread on the internals forum where you can leave questions or comments. I’ll definitely read them and I will try to respond, though I often get overwhelmed1, so don’t feel offended if I fail to do so.


  1. So many things, so little time. ↩︎