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Designers for Open Source?

11 months ago from , CEO at OpenCurriculum

Hi DN! I am a designer-engineer hybrid been building stuff for 15+ years now, and in a comfortable place in the Valley. I feel like you can relate to a concern I've had, so I am writing here after a lot of deliberation.

From my very first interactions with (famous) open source software in the late 90s, I felt like most of these tools were poorly designed. And I mean the whole gamut: profoundly bad visual design, poor UX on tools/website, lack of brand identity, lack of what we would call design strategy today, uncomfortable service design (weird patterns of help / feedback patterns in IRC - possibly in Discord today). Sadly, not much has changed today, unless the projects have become the pets of big corporations (e.g. Docker, Ubuntu, Wordpress). Apache tools and graphic manipulation tools still often look like they are stuck in the 90s.

I envision a future where many of the most critical open source software has experiences like or better than their commercial counterparts (e.g. a unified design and packaging of Inkscape, GIMP, and other tools akin to Adobe Creative Cloud).

I am thinking of an idea. Since so many young designers crave for high-profile design projects, and there are very few top-notch opportunities to go around in bigger companies, I was wondering if it would be a good idea to create a program/fellowship of sorts that connects young designers to open source software leaders. Like Google Summer of Code, but focused on design and without pay. I do, however, realize that this can't be successful without coordinators / facilitators who setup the relationship and some loose plans.

What do you think about this? Am I on the wrong track? Am I missing something important here? Could this work?

26 comments

  • Xavier BertelsXavier Bertels, 11 months ago

    As a rule, design doesn’t work in a consensus-building engineering driven environment. I think this is quoting or paraphrasing John Gruber: “The quality of any collaborative creative endeavour tends to approach the level of taste of whoever has the final cut.” I agree with that statement.

    I also tend to agree with Sacha, I’m not sure it is a real problem. Some stuff is not designed the way we would like to, and that’s okay. Our designer glasses are not the only right way to look at the world ;-).

    8 points
    • , 11 months ago

      Thanks for your thoughts, Xavier! I agree with that (Gruber) statement from experience too, but can't really prove for it to be entirely universally true. In any case, I think that is the reason for an intermediary org / group of people - who help bridge the understand of the role, process, and value of design to open-source community leaders. Which I think a group like the one @Bradley points to might be useful.

      1 point
      • Xavier BertelsXavier Bertels, 11 months ago

        Well, you are right, there’s always room for improvement. One way you can try to address this is by letting people of design, development and other backgrounds work together on open source projects. Every summer for the past four years I’ve been a (design) coach for the students who build open source stuff at https://2018.summerofcode.be. Hopefully, in a couple of years, a few of these people will become major open source contributors and they will remember how important design was, even in open source projects :-).

        If you’re interested in potentially changing things with a bit of a longer-term timeline, you could maybe get in touch with the organisation and try and set up your own version of open summer of code?

        1 point
        • Varun Arora, 11 months ago

          Fascinating, the idea of cultivating a breed of young talented folks who can eventually contribute in big ways. Love that your involved with that initiative.

          Yes, just trying to think (but not overthink) through the right approach here. Want to make sure what I do can generate decent momentum in some way

          0 points
  • Bradley TauntBradley Taunt, 11 months ago

    I've always loved this concept, but have you checked out https://opensourcedesign.net ? Not sure if it 100% fits what you're thinking.

    5 points
    • , 11 months ago

      Bradley, thank you so much! I didn't know about this community. Thanks for pointing me to it.

      1 point
    • Mārtiņs ZemlickisMārtiņs Zemlickis, 11 months ago

      I found this few months back. Its really interesting. I took on a creating logo for a translation tool and its been amazing experience. Recommend to anyone who has a free time. :) Cheers!

      3 points
  • Koos Looijesteijn, 11 months ago

    Hi Varun, I very much agree there is a problem. Free, open source software can have many benefits over commercial software (like no vendor lock-in, resilience, no commercial interests opposing user interests, customizability). It seems like such a waste that all that engineering effort is currently not finding its way to others than programmers. I haven't found free, open source software (FOSS) that:

    1. Has a UI for end-users (is not a library, CLI, etc. to make other software with) and
    2. Offers a UI and UX better or on par with commercial offerings and
    3. Is maintained by a volunteering community

    The few successful FOSS projects targeting end users are Firefox, Thunderbird and VLC (and arguably Atom Text and Ubuntu), but these have strong professional teams leading them. I'm sure I missed a few more examples, but you get the point.

    A while ago, I wanted to contribute to the software I thought could be useful to me. I felt rather discouraged after joining several bug trackers and forums though. Back then I made some notes that I just quickly put together, because they seem relevant. Feel free to skip to the conclusion!

    Why I think FOSS is badly designed

    Tools

    FOSS projects are often organised version control and bug trackers. People who don't program software typically aren't capable of using version control. Git seems to be the default nowadays and I think that's a good thing. But without some serious effort to learn and practice, Git is just horrible.

    I've encountered several bug tracking applications and I found non of them inviting. I understand it's useful to put up a barrier and not have a project flood with tickets from users. But this selects for tech-savvy users only submitting bugs. None of the bug trackers showed me what the process of submitting a ticket would be like and what would happen to it.

    There are no FOSS design applications. This is a problem, because for many projects it's important that there's no vendor lock in, specs are accessible beyond the duration of someone's paid software subscription for something like Sketch Cloud and that the tools work on Mac, Windows and Linux. Figma and Abstract offerings are a step into the right direction though!

    Organization

    For some applications, I would have liked to spend some time on redesigning features, but it was totally unclear who was running the project. Especially unclear was who could look after my design getting implemented (or who I should get in touch with about that). Even in well-organized product teams designers sometimes struggle to convince others their designs should be implemented, so I think this is a big problem.

    Process

    Community-driven FOSS projects typically have a development process that is optimized for engineers. That means that other users are rarely heard. Prioritization of tickets is based on the engineers interest in an issue. As a result, big projects lack focus and consistency in design.

    Even when submitting a usability issue in itself isn't hard (not a given), the process that follows can be ineffective. It was expected that I came with clearly specified solutions. Fair enough, you can expect that from a product professional, but not from a any user. My tickets that didn’t include solutions (I didn’t redesign all the apps I submitted issues for) were usually closed. The same happened to issues for which I provided clear solutions, as they were considered not engineering problems.

    FOSS is badly designed because it's badly designed

    Knowing the UX of better tools and designers being especially susceptible to good UI, most FOSS just looks repulsive. So designers may be even less likely to use FOSS than the general public, as Sacha pointed out.

    FOSS looking as bad as it does could be a nice challenge to make a difference, but software that is developed far enough to be useful requires such an amount of redesign work, that it would require a huge design investment. Just polishing up the visual design or making the interactions of a certain flow work well won't make it a good application.

    A designer being interested in doing that nonetheless, must wonder: "Why is the application so badly designed? Surely because the makers don't value design?" Again a reason not to even contact the team.

    Conclusion

    Bug fixes and the engineering of new features show immediate results and (possibly) measurable, objective improvements. Engineers can create their own forks and use those enhancements even if they're not accepted by the community.

    Management, design and marketing on the other hand, require collaboration, vision and often need several months of work to be of any use at all. When at the start of, say, a redesign project there is complete uncertainty about the commitment of engineers to implement the new design, it's not attractive to spend several months of work on it. This is more than a hypothetical problem. I know someone who, after several years of doing design work, left the Gimp project because of that.

    To be successful beyond a group of scratch-your-own-itch software makers, community-driven FOSS projects need more than open tools and a transparent, user-centered design process. From the an early stage, designers, PMs, marketing and business people should be part of the leadership team, not just engineers.

    Answer to Varun's question

    So as for your 'Summer of Design' idea, Varun, I think it can work under a few conditions. I think the developer community of a project must be motivated to implement the design work. When that community has been volunteers in the past, that probably means your 'Summer of Design' should be integrated with a Summer of Code-like event. An existing community may not like the sudden changes in the design (imagine having spent years contributing to an image editor to make it work for your arcane editing flow and then some design students saying it's not user-friendly).

    Alternatively, there may be projects that are not of the scratch-your-own-itch kind that still have passionate engineers. I can imagine applications with social impact as a main driver, solving problems of medical professionals, undereducated users or an otherwise disadvantaged target group. For such a product designers and others are all the more relevant to engineers, as there won't be the kind of direct user feedback they'd see in other FOSS projects.

    As you mentioned, there needs to be coordination, which, I think, means it takes the power of decision making (about product vision, feature prioritization, etc.) away from an existing community. Forking existing projects or starting completely new projects may be a way to avoid the community getting upset. Finally, as I mentioned above, that coordination (management) needs to be permanent for the work not to get derailed by featuritis. All in all that would mean you'd be putting a professional product team together to lead such a FOSS project. That requires a lot of resources beyond the event itself.

    2 points
    • Ryan Gorley, 11 months ago

      I think you make some good points here. I take issue with just one. It's not exactly accurate to say that "there are no FOSS design applications". Here's a good list of FOSS design tools. Here is another list. One can debate the comparative benefits of commercial tools over these, but I know several designers, in addition to myself, who are able to do their design work exclusively with open source applications.

      Designers, who tend to think of themselves as free thinkers, can in practice be very dogmatic about tools and workflows. It's important to remember that great design happened long before [insert my favorite application name here] was invented. The most important element in great design is that tool sitting between my ears. ;)

      0 points
      • Koos Looijesteijn, 11 months ago

        You're right, I should have written "there are no FOSS screen design applications". Sure, there are graphics applications, but those require that old school workflow. I think for many projects Figma can be a great solution though!

        0 points
    • Ryan Gorley, 11 months ago

      One tool not on those lists I shared is Alva. You may find that one worth exploring in light of your other writing about similar applications.

      1 point
    • , 11 months ago

      I felt rather discouraged after joining several bug trackers and forums though

      Bingo! I think everyone feels this pain. And we can go on and on about need for community input in this process, but this just kills people's interest - even developer interest very often. But for design, I agree with everyone here who don't think these processes work

      There are no FOSS design applications.

      Agree with all the points you are making around this, but echoing Ryan, there's GIMP and Inkscape, apart from others. These are actually very capable tools. Usable: may not.

      For some applications, I would have liked to spend some time on redesigning features, but it was totally unclear who was running the project...

      I think this is the basically the heart of the problem. I am filled with optimism on the supply side (designers) but this demand side is still bothering me. We need a little more insight here. If, hypothetically, we do gather a bunch of talented designers who want to contribute, I am not sure they will have autonomy and support from the core maintainers of these projects.

      Even in well-organized product teams designers sometimes struggle to convince others their designs should be implemented

      YES! But just wish to add that the best design teams have become a whole lot more mature about this overtime and there are some principles around this stuff that didn't exist before.

      Community-driven FOSS projects typically have a development process that is optimized for engineers..

      Again, bullseye. I think a design pathway would need to bypass these existing processes.

      Conclusion

      Are you saying we are missing the point here and that what we need to do instead is educate open-source design leaders about the value and techniques of design and product leadership?

      Sorry I am forcing words in your mouth because this seems like a very interesting perspective and I am suddenly blown by this and it is changing everything I thought about how to solve this problem before reading your bit.

      ...An existing community may not like the sudden changes in the design...

      Very accurate observations.

      FOSS is badly designed because it's badly designed

      I agree with a lot of your thinking, Koos, but you know, I fear that we are making assumptions on the desires of the open source software maintainers. May be they do value design too, but don't have the skills or have too much inertia. We know from experience that the great commercially-backed FOSS efforts have all placed critical emphasis on design. This almost always means that there is design ambition on the part of the their leaders. Have any ideas on how to test this hypothesis? I was just going to be really raw and just message them.

      Alternatively, there may be projects that are not of the scratch-your-own-itch kind that still have passionate engineers...

      Fascinating. Aligns with the kind of work Henry shared about.

      As you mentioned, there needs to be coordination, which, I think, means it takes the power of decision making (about product vision, feature prioritization, etc.)...

      Again, you hit the heart of the problem. I know a lot of open-source product leaders struggle with burnout and frustration. May be we are beginning to question the organization of FOSS contribution, which is a very complex matter in itself, and the focus of people's entire PhDs (I kid you not, I know people like that).

      But hey, I walked into this with optimism, and so we gotta believe there is a way..

      0 points
      • Koos Looijesteijn, 11 months ago

        Yes, keep that optimism; I love the idea!

        Are you saying we are missing the point here and that what we need to do instead is educate open-source design leaders about the value and techniques of design and product leadership?

        Not really, I think your original idea can work out really well. It's just that I think to make the designs successful, the project's scope should go beyond having designers design things.

        Keep us posted, alright!

        0 points
  • Henry MoranHenry Moran, 11 months ago

    This is definitely an important idea that I think needs more reach. Daniel Burka has been working on an open source project for a health app and the results are impressive.

    Check out the site (http://www.simple.org/) and the process on how the got there (https://medium.com/@dburka/open-source-identity-design-for-simple-4025c6d48acc).

    If you do create a site I'd be happy to help with projects that will add value to the world.

    1 point
    • , 11 months ago

      This is absolutely excellent to read about. I was not thinking about both non-technology-industry-serving projects AND open-source design processes, but my eyes are being opened to these gradually.

      Thank you very much, Henry, I am still thinking hard about how to add value and not crowd the space for the heck of it. Perhaps we can try to see if Daniel Burka would be open to chiming in with his thoughts.

      0 points
  • Tom Nassr, 11 months ago

    Very exciting idea Varun! I think it could work....

    1 point
  • Sacha GreifSacha Greif, 11 months ago

    Open-source is based on the concept that the users of a project contribute back to it, so projects that don't target or appeal to designers in some way tend to not have great visual design.

    I don't think there's much you can do to change that, and I'm not even sure it's a real problem to be honest.

    1 point
    • , 11 months ago

      Thank you for your thoughts, Sacha!

      I respect your views but finding it a little hard to understand that reasoning. There are a whole lot of things in the world that don't appeal to designers, but that doesn't mean designers can't have a hugely vital role in improving them. The application of any skill should never be limited to the interest of the craftsmen in the domain where the skill is applied.

      Yes, a critical element of open-source is giving back. But we all know 95%+ of users of most open source software users don't give back - and that makes it a tool / utility / service for general consumption, where people are not bound by that contract. Anything that impacts so many people's day-to-day lives deserves some attention by people who have the ability to make it better.

      0 points
      • Sacha GreifSacha Greif, 11 months ago

        There are a whole lot of things in the world that don't appeal to designers, but that doesn't mean designers can't have a hugely vital role in improving them.

        Yes, because they're paid to care about them, usually as part of large corporations that also pay countless other people to define requirements, manage projects, and write code to turn the designer's vision into reality.

        If you take all that support structure away and tell a designer to spend their free time learning the intricacies of a project they don't use just so they can contribute back to it, I'm not sure how successful you'll be.

        Also I know it comes from a good intention, but there's still something a little arrogant about thinking that just because you have "designer" in your job title, you automatically have the ability to make an existing product better…

        0 points
  • Ian C, 11 months ago

    I've actually been looking for opportunities to contribute towards open source software. Most of the communities that I have seen aren't very active.

    1 point
    • , 11 months ago

      Ian, thanks for sharing this. Which communities have you tried to look in? I am trying to understand at this point what others are doing, so there is no repetition of effort.

      0 points
  • Ryan Gorley, 11 months ago

    I think this is a great idea that I've not seen put forward before. I did a presentation on this topic last year at SCALE: Developers, Developers, Developers: What About Creatives?. You'll hear some similar observations and maybe some alternative veins of thinking on the topic if you're interested.

    1 point
    • , 11 months ago

      Thank you, Ryan, I am going to listen to this right now! I want to understand how you think about this.

      0 points
    • , 11 months ago

      Ryan, I really really enjoyed your talk! I think you and Koos have some really similar rich experiences. I am going to follow-up with you privately when I have more concrete thinking around this topic, or perhaps ask for your help to come to this understanding.

      0 points