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Badging at Ann Arbor Maker Faire

Les Orchard, Anya Shyrokova and I decided to implement Mozilla Open Badges, using Les's site, at the Ann Arbor mini Maker Faire. This is the full report on that experiment:

We don't need no stinkin' badges!

Yes you do – The What and Why of badges:

Badges are a way to represent achievements (experiences, skills, and education) in a unified and simple format. They aim to expand achievement tracking from simply “I got an A on a test” to “I was trained on a 3D printer at my local Maker Space” or “I took a 6 week long on-line class on P2PU”. These skills and experiences are becoming as if not more important and useful than the traditional credentialing of schools, and with our greater ability to analyze data we shouldn't limit ourselves to a “1 page, 2 page max” traditional resume.

More and more “gamified” websites are popping up with their own badges systems, which is cool because it allows people to see and track their achievements or user data. However, each site is “silo'd” and usually does not interact with other sites, so you can't really track (or more importantly, display) your achievements in any consistent or useful way.

In other words – it's a cluster #*!% that is not serving the user.

The Mozilla Open Badge framework acts to consolidate these badges into one place (the badge backpack) and to allow users and organizations to create their own badges and badge systems. This should includes everything from traditional achivements like getting a master's degree to acquiring skills/experiences in other ways like being an active member of a Stack Exchange website, volunteering at Maker Faires, taking classes at Khan Academy, etc..  In addition, Open Badges incorporates information about the badge as part of the badge itself: why it was given, from whom, what date, etc. This helps justify the badge and explain what it means and why it has value.

You can find more good discussion and links about badges at the end of this article.

Geeks are first adopters

Why the Hacker/Maker movement is an ideal starting point for changing the way we view and share our skills and experiences.

A Make Magazine button

The Maker/Hacker movement is focused around skills – coding, building, soldering, wiring, etc. The belief is that, like Batman, skilled individuals can change the world and like the Fantastic 4 they are even more effective when they work together (note – this is my personal interpretation, other super hero combinations may be more accurate). The Maker Faire, which started in San Fransisco and has now expanded all over the world, is an attempt to show off and build awareness of Makers and their their amazing stuff.

Makers tend to take non-traditional paths. They may have gone to school for one thing, but work in another. They may not have gone to school at all. They may spend most of their day at a computer, helping others on forums. Their greatest achievement may be designing/building/programming a giant, flaming dragon which took 500 hours and was used for all of 2 days. Perhaps they get all Cs in school but know 3 programming languages and spend all night coding for Github project based in the Czech Republic. I think you get the idea.

Therefore, Makers have the most to gain from badges. All of these fantastic skills and experiences are currently unappreciated, largely because they go untracked. So if you want to get a traditional job, tracking them would be useful. If your answer is “screw traditional jobs”, ok - when you want to collaborate with other makers you can use badges to tell what other people have done and what skills they have in greater detail, with greater accuracy and more background information than any resume.

So in the short term, Makers are early adopters, familiar with technology and know what “beta” testing is, and love open source stuff.

In the long term they have the most to gain from rejiggering credentials in a way that more accurately represents their value.

Seems like a good test population to me! Plus I was helping to organize the Maker Faire, and it was happening around where we all lived so that was also very handy.

Our Goals:

1) Get more people thinking about badges and signed up with Open Badges (via
2) Learn how implementing badges in a physical setting with physical badges works (what's the step-by-step)
3) Stress test the website (in terms of # of users, user experience, etc.)
4) Learn how people will react to badges from all angles (organizers, exhibitors, participants).

So... how did it go?

Printed Badge Sticker sheets (Avery 22805)

We had about 3 months of preparing before the Faire. All Faire organizers were volunteers – so we have limited time and very limited budget (<$4000 to put on the whole event).  The Faire itself lasted from 10a - 5p on a Saturday, and was attended by nearly 1500 people (probably the largest single group was families with younger kids, but there is a wide variety).  After much discussion, here's what we ended up doing:

Get yer badges, hot fresh badges here!

1) Create physical badges which people will be able to show off and collect at the Faire and include clear directions of how to redeem them. After much discussion, these ended up being stickers (mostly because that was cheapest)
2) Have each physical badge be one-time-use by using unique QR codes – so you can't just pass around a single badge and allow anyone to redeem it.
3) Allow exhibitors to create their own badges but use the Faire organizers to print and distribute the badges (this makes the exhibitor's interaction as easy as possible to promote a high adoption rate).
4) Have a “Badge How-To” meeting before the Faire so that interested exhibitors could learn more about badges
and how they work (optional).

5) Have “Redeem badges here!” booths set up around the Faire to help attendees redeem the badges before they leave. Volunteers were trained on how to redeem the badges before the event. Also, Anya was set up doing user interface testing of the badge backpack at the same time. Attendees can also redeem badges on their phones (via QR code) or at home.
6) We tracked claimed badges via so we know how many of each QR code generated has been claimed virtually.

The Good

what went well

  • Functional website with usable UI – Les's site did great, and though some parts were a bit confusing based on Anya's UX testing, it was certainly usable.
  • Generally the implementation ran smoothly, no big hiccups, probably 1000 – 2000 physical badges were given out in total
  • Exhibitors designed and created their own badges – there were 14 exhibitor badges in total plus 4 badges from the Faire organizers.
  • Kids really like stickers (surprise, surprise) and collected many badges.
  • Stickers were cheap (using Avery 1.5'' x 1.5'' stickers) they cost about $0.04/badge (2 cents for the sticker and 2 cents for the printing per badge at Kinko's). Plus they were really clearly viewable on people's chest which made collecting more fun.

The Bad

what didn't go well

  • UI usable but has a long way to go
  • Training volunteers to redeem badges is full time job
  • Having only one badge zealot in the event organizing committee is not enough – the entire organizing crew has to be on board and excited about badges
  • Still no good vocabulary (i.e. “badges”, “redeem”, “claim”) which doesn't have other connotations causing confusion among users
  • Ultimately, very few people redeemed their badges (45 total of which 16 were on the badge team) out of many physical badges given out (~1000 – 2000)
  • We needed a more automated and effective system to track how many badges were given out (so that usage stats can be more accurate)
  • Though kids liked the badges the most, they can't redeem them since they usually don't have email addresses
  • Stickers were just barely sticky enough – by the end of the Faire they start to come unstuck. Also, printing them was harder than expected because of printer shift (the border around each sticker was small and you can't cut off the QR code – this has already been addressed by increasing the border size).

The Ugly

more serious, long term issues

  • People are not fundamentally motivated to claim badges online after receiving the physical version – I.E. WHAT IS THE VALUE PROPOSITION?
  • IF badges are going to have relatively little value to the user and are they ubiquitous THEN their only real value is as a scrapbooking or sharing device (tracking what you've done and showing that off to others)... but I don't know if badges are going to be competitive as a scrapbook/shareing device considering all the other existing options which serve that need.
  • IF badges are going to be rare, then how can you convince exhibitors to create them? That requires exhibitors to do a couple things they don't want to do: 1) NOT give badges to lots of people, 2) SPEND TIME AND MONEY to design a clever and fair mechanism for sorting who gets badges and who doesn't, 3) NOT MARKET THEIR BOOTH as much as they could if everyone gets a badge.
  • There is no real way to ensure that people receiving physical badges will choose to claim them online. That disconnect is what creates the motivation/incentive problem described above.
  • Kids can't receive badges who don't have email addresses – and even those that do are subject to COPPA laws which make working with them difficult.

So what does this all mean for next time?

Analysis and thoughts for the next badges implementation

Our next big use of will be at the Detroit Maker Faire, which usually attracts 30,000 – 50,000 people (about 25x bigger than the Ann Arbor version). Besides some of the minor but important kinks (like making the QR code bigger, increasing the border around the printed sticker itself, etc.), we need to address The Ugly stuff. At this point, there's no concrete answers but there are many options to consider – here's some thoughts and the pluses and minuses for each:

  • Allow exhibitors to attach coupon codes to the badges so that there is greater motivation for attendees to collect them?
  • This will definitely motivate people (by getting free stuff)
  • But it kind of kills the concept of the badge as a tool for accreditation or achievement – it throws it into the same pile as traditional marketing-style badges.
  • Have the badge system be completely event coordinator led and integrate it into a broader game context... i.e. gamify the Faire (imagine a badge scavenger hunt, for example). This takes the workload off the exhibitors and allows the event coordinator to restrict the number of badges (making them valuable).
  • If well designed, a game with a badge component could work really well and badges won't be so ubiquitous as to lose value.
  • If poorly designed, could move away from the idea of badges as achievement and trivialize the whole concept.

Ok, now wrap it up

Here's the point...

Badges are a tool which we hope will be able to help us all better identify the right person for the job, project, university, partnership, or whatever and to track our progress in our own lives. Unfortunately it doesn't come with a users manual, so we're figuring out where and how it might work. There is no guarantee that it is the right tool for the job of running an event.

For Detroit, our starting point should be:

“How can we use badges as a tool to do something interesting and exciting at the Detroit Maker Faire?”

As a badge zealot it's tough not to just want people to drink the badge kool-aid and join the party... but the reality is that's just not enough motivation for most people. Keeping our eyes on the outcome of (interesting and exciting), instead of the tool (badges), should help. Time to roll up our sleeves and get creative.

PS – Any thoughts, ideas, experiences, comments, etc that help us make Detroit awesome would be greatly appreciated!

More information about badges:

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