Good design is hard on all of us

Image credits: Flickr user frankartculinary
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Tim Lee is, for my money, one of the most reasonable and thoughtful tech policy essayists we have. His latest, “Open User Interfaces Suck” got my attention, because he hits me right where I live. In his usual, respectful, level-headed way, he claims that open systems (like the open source development process I love so dearly) are ill-suited to a good user experience.

Tim starts, as you might expect, by holding up Apple as a paragon of interface design, since they make beautiful machines and beautiful, approachable software. He then turns his gaze to more open platforms, like Android, with withering disappointment. He concludes that because open systems require consensus-building and “big tent” approaches that are optimized for “scalability and flexibility,” they’re poorly equipped for good UI design. On the other hand, Tim says that good design depends on “simplicity and consistency,” which comes from the vision of one person (let’s call him “Steve“) and the slavish execution of that vision throughout the product.

Luis Villa beat me to much of the argument I was going to put forward, so I’ll direct you to him. The upshot: “Tim is not the first or the last person to say ‘open’ when they mean ‘disorganized,’ particularly in the context of UI.” I’d like to put a finer point on that.

The caricature of an open source community as a hotbed of chaotic, directionless free-for-all doesn’t match what we know about successful open source projects: they’re run by influential leaders who manage dissent and provide a clear vision for the project’s development. Likewise, the caricature of proprietary systems as coming from a single source of wisdom (Steve Jobs or other) doesn’t pass muster, either. Anyone who’s worked in a large enterprise knows exactly how many committees a particular design decision must survive before it’s adopted.

This discussion has been going on for years, and I’ll refer you to John Gruber, Matthew Thomas, Havoc Pennington, and the profane jwz. Their essays read as though they were written yesterday. With the notable exception of Gruber, there seems to be consensus across nearly a decade that good UI design isn’t impossible for an open development process. It’s just really, really hard. Thomas is most instructive, since he identifies a number of structural challenges to good design on open projects. But again, there are plenty of structural challenges to good design in proprietary projects, as well.

In the end, I don’t think that it’s useful to compare an entire universe of developers like the open source community to a single exemplar of good design, like Apple, and draw conclusions about the relative merits of their respective process—mostly because the process is irrelevant. If a project wants good design, it has to work for it.

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Tom Brander's picture

Well the open source community seems to be more about code and coders and does not seem to have nearly as many "designers" not that there are not some exceptions but I thik it mostly holds..And it is somewhat difficult for designers to know how to participate and contribute.

gunnar's picture
Open Source Evangelist

...I don't think that's a challenge specific to open development, I think it's a challenge to systems design generally. You have the same problems if you're a designer embedded with engineers in a closed development shop, as well.

Glenn's picture

I think Apple have designed their *users* as much as they have designed their software. I imagine they spend as much much money influencing their target demographic as they spend on software development.

Apples demographic certainly doesnt include software developers, or individuals.

If apples demographic think pretty is better than free then thats fine for them, but dont impose those values on me please.

And since we are really talking design, lets expand our horizons and respect that beauty is more than skin deep.

One of the design concepts of UNIX, is to "do one thing, and do it well", that is good design to me (but im a software developer, not a beautician).

Open source software has very good designed, superficial people cant see it.

gunnar's picture
Open Source Evangelist

I completely agree, and I think it's significant that when the audience is developers, there's a lot of consensus on what makes for good design. It's when we leave the developer community that things get hard.

Swilsonz's picture

Open Source would benefit from creating tools that allowed design to be completely distinct from the underlying code -super skinning if you will. Of course a UI is code, but it should be completely separate from what the program is architected to do. This would allow designers to affect the final package without causing offense to the "coders"