Open source user experience needs an upgrade

The future of open source is a better user experience

Posted 02 Mar 2015 by 

Nick Yeates (Red Hat)
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Photo by Jen Wike Huger

Each year, my favorite open source software survey asks "Where is the future of open source taking us?" I like to try to think far into the future. Not next year or the next five, but where can the horizon of open source and its unique mix of collaborative ideals and communal practices take us?

One such "out there" aspect of open source, that I think will eventually come to fruition, is that of UX. When I talk of UX, I mean User eXperience. It is a parent or superset of UI, the User Interface, or what we see. UX handles so much more than UI. The entire session that a human has with a system or piece of software is considered in UX. "Did I intuitively understand what steps I had to take to complete my task?" "Did various components of the system integrate smoothly, not only visually, but contextually and in a similar pattern?" UX is not just the looks, but how an end-user perceives their entire experience.

The proof is in the pudding

End user eXperiences and the interfaces they touch are pivotal to successful information technology. This has played out in the consumer space by the likes of Apple, a closed ecosystem, that has shown users will accept closed if it has a velvety smooth feel and integration. In the enterprise software world user experiences at Google, Salesforce, Dropbox, and Atlassian are edging out entrenched legacy experiences [1][2].

"We certainly consider UX as a key motivator for open source practitioners to come to Microsoft’s cloud platform, and we strive to offer consistent, engaging experiences that go beyond visuals and across screens and tools," says Jose Miguel Parrella, an expert in the open source world and proof of Microsoft’s strategic open source and UX direction.

Expectedly, UX has played out in some open source projects such as Mozilla’s Firefox and Google’s Chrome, where first Mozilla beat out Microsoft with new looks, features, and standards compliance that ultimately gave the end user a better feeling. Chrome has now usurped the title by innovating on UX features like tab syncing across all major platforms and a slick omnibar that offers both URL and search entry in one.

In my opinion, and one supported by others, open source as a majority has not excelled let alone mastered UX. We know this. We know many of the reasons for this. Yet it is still out there. Pockets of open source do it right (Ubuntu, Chromium), however the vast majority are only semi skilled at it. Therefore, the bulk of super successful open source software has been limited to IT backend infrastructure and software development. It's why the year of the Linux desktop never came. It's why Microsoft Office still exists and flourishes.

So, what is the solution?

Time, investment and respect. Skilled UX visionaries and employees are hard to find (limited in quantity), well-paid, and sometimes removed from the technical aspects that encourage developers to become entwined with open source. Encouraging the quantity of UX expertise to increase, and constantly pushing the importance of our end users direct input is key to growing the field. Industry-wide investment of money and resources into hiring and involving UX experts on open source projects is a key tipping point.

The most important aspect is building the respect, acceptance, and understanding among software developers, technical product managers, and their business managers for said UX-minded influences.

"Culture remains the #1 challenge. Usability and design principles are not a new idea to FLOSS—these principles have been known for 15 years. The most successful projects have managed to change their developer culture to equally accept a range of non-coder contributions,” says former KDE design-lead and board member, Celeste Lyn Paul.

I too believe there is a cultural divide that some software developers have—shoot I have had it—when someone else comes and says that your flow is all wrong and you should consider redoing it all to ease your users woes. Well, let's not have that. Similar to 'Continuous Integration' building-in quality on a daily automated basis, let's build-in User eXperience by default, from the beginning, every day. Instead of rebuilding afterwards, UX is involved early. For in-depth suggestions, check out Jan Borchardt’s Usability in Free Software e-book and Open Usability blueprints.

Open source has to migrate from scratching an itch, to an integrated culture that includes everyone from business-ideation to users to operations and developers. That future of open source will take on the world.


For the past few years, I have taken the following survey and closely groked the amazing infographics that it supplies to the world. This year, I personally want to invite everyone to take part and listen-in. Where do you think open source will go in the future? Let your voice be heard, answer the 2015 Future of Open Source survey. (Survey closes March 6, 2015.)


References

[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/groupthink/2014/06/09/software-entrepreneur-playbook-why-every-enterprise-startup-needs-a-killer-ux-team/

[2] http://www.wired.com/2014/03/enterprise-ux-paradigm-shifts/

9 Comments

robinmuilwijk

Spot on! Great article. It's a mix of ingredients that make a project (and its product) succeed, like UI, UX, usability accessibility, and more. I'm involved in a project that understands this all to well, and has put UX on their priority list: http://ez.no/Blog/Why-Experiences-Will-Be-a-Key-Driver-for-the-Future-of....

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Celyle

In my experience, the great majority of open source desktop products have never been UI tested. More accurately, they've been tested by end-users unfamiliar with the product and failed miserably, but the disappointed users had no real way of feeding their unhappy experience back to the developers. I once worked for a generic (OEM) unix hardware manufacturer. We sold run-of-the-mill hardware, and our value-add was thorough software QA. None of the Linux desktops I have used (and I've been using them since 1993) would have gotten through our testing. Then I worked for a PC hardware manufacturer, where our enormous software QA lab made sure our installer worked, and was obvious to untrained end users, on every PC where our cards would fit, no matter how strange and broken that PC was. No current Linux distro's installation procedure would have got through that lab either. There is no substitute for placing an untrained (on your product) in an empty room with a PC and asking her to install and use it. If the year of the Linux desktop is ever to come, it will be after a couple of years of feature freeze where we open our ears to the untrained users and fix the bugs they tell us about..

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nyeates

Thanks for the comments! I ran into a civil engineer the other day who said his firm was using Linux Mint. Its easy enough for them to use and get work done on a day-in day-out basis. I will have to check out Mint.

At the same time, I think it was Mint who had a kerfluffle lately where they said they expected more people to be paying them when downloading, even shaming people who dont pay. They had changed the UI for how they ask for money. Anyway, its obvious that OSS needs more UX. I think that multiple years of feature freeze in order to bring in untrained people, is unrealistic. It will either be done via cash-infusions from companies, or from wholly new projects that have UX-mindset built-in to start.

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nyeates

Appologies and CORRECTION. The distro that came-off-as-shaming, was Elementary OS. Im still going to check out both.

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Eli Cummings

Most user buy their computers with an OS already installed so Linux is at a big disadvantage right away. One has to install it. But that's off point.

User Experience. An ambiguous and over rated marketing term. Clearly defined and easily executed functionality is a little better but not by much. Given the complexity of the driver landscape and incessant feature creep it is amazing anything works.

Apple isn't that smooth. Buy a different device and plug it in and one is presented with a not recognized device for this account. Get past that and one encounters "move to new device" ? What happens to my old device if I want to use it again and get some stuff back on it ? Who knows. It won't be easy though.

Face it, most OS problems are driver related - a problem Apple didn't have. Once one loads a program one still has to learn how to use it no matter what the OS. Not really any difference there. Iphone and Ipad - yeh, everybody knows how to drag their finger across a screen but how many people ever go into their settings menu and change things around?

Apple is a great marketer. They eliminated the need to work with every Tom Dick and Harry piece of hardware, had a sleek look and charged a premium so one could advertise one's cool status and ability to pay a premium. Realizing one has be gouged only reinforces the Apple fan so they don't experience any cognitive dissonance.

Everybody but me uses Apple in my household and except for the basic stuff they still come to me to "figure it out".

If I want an experience, there are much better options than a slab of silicon and screen full of eye candy. One may as well talk about he user experience of housework.

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Eli Cummings

Forgive the poorly edited comment I posted. I was in a hurry.
Hopefully one can figure out what I'm saying despite the errors.

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mairin

Some ideas on the topic.... I don't always agree with mpt's statements about design and FLOSS tbh even though they are widely cited

http://blog.linuxgrrl.com/2010/04/06/contributing-to-free-open-source-so...

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nyeates

Thanks Máirín. You have experience in this from the trenches. Your take has more detail and nuance.

A theme I noticed is that of volunteer efforts and a very diverse meritocracy which lead to insufficient agreement on vision and difficulty establishing a common direction. The very aspects that differentiate and enable the bazaar style, also limit it in other ways. I imagine there is something in-between the cathedral and the bazaar that utilizes the best of both worlds.

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greve

I could not agree more with this article, by the way.

The age of "Free Software as a penance" is long gone. Free Software should be wonderful, beautiful, visually engaging, fun to use, and getting the job done in elegant fashion. It is time for us to find our own visual language, and solve things better than the proprietary world. This is one of the things I always felt Elon Musk has done right about Tesla: Where electric cars before were often ugly things by people who obviously disliked cars in general, he liberated and energized the concept by making one that is beautiful, fun, and a actually first class car.

Which coincidentally is exactly what the idea behind Roundcube Next is all about, check out http://roundcube.net/next

Let's build that exciting experience for Free Software to fully replace Google Apps and Office 365 in all aspects technical - and by making it more elegant, beautiful and fun to use.

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Nick Yeates is Red Hats Open Source Strategist specializing in business and university relations. He has been called an ‘Open Source Preacher’, however he likes to promote open source pragmatism over blind-faith. He has interest in how organizations implement the open-source-way, and in revealing the ways of the jedi to the next generation. Follow him on Twitter @nyeates or on