Beautiful design can drive user adoption of open source software

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Design matters in software

Nowadays we see beautiful design everywhere in our daily life. The digital world is no exception. Many of the websites we visit and the desktop and mobile apps that we use started to be so beautifully designed, that user perceptions on design started to change. As a result, everybody is becoming more design savvy. Users who didn’t care about contrast, button color or responsiveness in the past now critique companies whenever they make a user interface or experience update.

Do you remember the user reaction after several Digg re-designs? Why don’t you use GIMP over Photoshop even though as an average user you won’t need most the extras Photoshop has? There are hundreds of other examples where you will see design and user experience having a great impact on product adoption rates and continuity.

Open source software always has the advantage of offering a free alternative to mainstream solutions, but it doesn’t guarantee user adoption.

Your end user – whether an individual or a business – will care about two main points:

1. Does the product do what it is supposed to do to make our life/business efficient/productive/easy/connected/fun etc.?
2. Does it feel right to use it?

Everything else comes afterwards. Even if there is a free open source alternative, people will often pay for the premium product if the open source one fails in either of the above points.

If you’re developing open source software, hopefully it addresses the first point because that’s why you’re building it in the first place. But if your product fails the second step, users will not hesitate to go to Google and search for “X alternatives”.  First impressions count. And even if your software or app solves a problem, if the design or user experience falls short, then you probably won’t be able to fix the bad impression you had from this user ever again. Worst of all the user will likely tell their network , and voila, you instantly created the worst viral marketing campaign ever.

With today’s design-aware user base, every piece of software needs to have the best possible look and feel from day one. If it doesn’t, it is one step closer to disappearing into the darkness because someone else will come along with a better-designed product that does the same job in no time. Open source software has a bigger responsibility making sure the product is well designed since users may already be skeptical about it. Don’t give your users another reason to be skeptical with a creepy ‘90s interface!

I’ll dive into web side of the business since it is where my expertise is, but most of the points are applicable to mobile and desktop software. As an open source product developer, I know the challenges most people like me face in terms of design. You are an excellent programmer and you have friends with the same skill set. You see a need for a new/different solution in the market and dive into building it right away. Design becomes something that you will figure out on the way. Well, that is just wrong, my friend. You need a design vision for the product; you need to be able to show the world how it will look and feel like when it is finished, you need solid proof that you are the right team with the right vision for the problem.

That is why we didn’t hesitate to include a designer co-founder on the Countly team. We are building a developer tool, but having the best design and user experience in the market helps us grow exponentially. This allows us to work with big corporations because they can see how serious we are about what we do, our vision and our capability just by a single glimpse of the well-designed product demo. Don’t hesitate for a single moment to include a design person in your team if you have the chance.

There’s a vast amount of free design resources/tools available for us. Even if you are a team of all technical people, you have access to incredible resources like Bootstrap, Font-Awesome, Google Fonts, JQuery, D3.js, Backbone, AngularJS and tons of other resources that practically open the doors for non-designers to be able to build beautiful software (assuming you learned a thing or two about common design practices from all the websites you visit). Make use of these resources, make people’s lives easier and most important of all: Build the future, but do it with a style.


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Onur Alp Soner is the co-founder of Countly which is the company behind the first open source mobile analytics platform Countly Analytics. Countly Analytics is used in 93 countries for thousands of applications to build a better mobile future for us all.


Hi Onur,
I wonder if you have any insights from the enterprise software industry. Everybody knows enterprise software is usually hard/complicated to use and the interface is ugly and cluttered. I'm wondering if this has started to change (following the consumer market) and if there are some nice examples of enterprise software re-design.

Hi Alexander,

There is definitely a change in the enterprise market especially thanks to enterprise software startups that care about design. From my own experience (we do have an enterprise product) I can say that design makes a huge difference while selling to big companies. Here is the world famous <a href="">JIRA's first edition in 2002</a> and <a href="">the latest version</a>. We can see a perfect implementation of popular design practices. I believe it is younger startups like GitHub that fuel these kinds of changes and it is quickly spreading.

I just wanted to point out while Gimp is the traditional er, scape goat in this kind of debate (haha scape *goat*, if you get it), actually the Gimp vs. Photoshop debate isn't really all that relevant and hasn't been at least for the past couple of years. Gimp has a UX team lead by Peter Sikking (of ) and they have been making steady progress in improving the UI. Honestly it's pretty darn good now.

A better modern-day example might be - oh, I don't know - XChat vs Colloquy or something.

I know it's a bit off of the point you were trying to make, but I couldn't not say something - sorry :(

I agree that GIMP is quite powerful at this point but I think it still lacks the ease of use that Photoshop or similar Adobe (although all acquired by) products made us accustomed to. I hope I didn't make the impression that I hate GIMP because I don't and I have a huge respect to the team that developed and still developing a pretty big/useful project like that. My main point here is if Peter or someone with a similar vision was on board from the very beginning GIMP would have been in a different place and have the user base it deserves.

GIMP has made some great improvements over the year. I agree. I still find myself using Photoshop quite a bit, however, because I find the results tend to be better for me on many projects. Sometimes the work I do comes out a little more pixelated in GIMP than in Photoshop. I don't know why this is.

If I could figure out how layers work in GIMP, I'm totally switching. It's just not intuitive for me.


The usual problem we face is users who have never heard of layers before (i.e. they go from Paint to GIMP), have no concept of them altogether and thus can't handle them.

Users of other applications that have layer support and thus know about layers are rare, and so their problems are never addressed.

They are much better in the latest builds - happy to do a YouTube demo, gimme a little bit... :)

Design is still the weakest point in several open source projects. Happily that has been changing recently but there's still much work to do.

Community to can face more problems; and paid consumers cannot.

However if people paid for something, they have inner desire to make their payment worthy more. Make something useful, so much weight their money is. For me, money just a bunch of number, so I'm confident to say this.

Contacdictary to pre-release in-house paid/self-sustain testing, open-source's tend to rely more on user testing.

The reason behind is probably dramatically different fund distribution, people seldom care how real-money/value is produced or why there is money, they just feel money flowing aside.

Lets' face it, never open-source easier getting larger amount money flowing as easy as closed-source. Open means options and oppotunities on user side, also heavier competation thats too fatal for many.

Everywhere within the society taught people not so dark they are, while they are chaining and forming cages to force user in.

You cannot deny and shall not think about it, or you are scared to think about it, and rarely one go ready to untie the tie - we are social animals after all.

eXo Platform ( ) is probably one of the most beautiful Open Source software.

This awesomeness was introduce with the version 4.0 . It had a clear impact on the downloads and installs.

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