Open source is ugly: Improving UI and UX

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left and right brain

Garth Braithwaite is a designer turned engineer turned hybrid of the two. He has worked as an engineer and user experience designer on several award-winning sites, applications, and open source projects.

For four years, Garth has been working at Adobe on open source projects as a design and code contributor. These projects include Brackets, Topcoat, and Apache Flex. In addition to his work at Adobe, he also speaks at conferences about the power of design, improving designer/developer collaboration, and the benefits of open source. As part of this effort, Garth founded the Open Design Foundation.

In this interview, get a sneak peak of his All Things Open talk: Open source is ugly: Improving UI and UX.

Why is UX bad in so many open source projects?

There are a lot of reasons, but one of the largest contributing factors is the lack of professional designers contributing to open source projects. Contributing to the lack of designers, there is also a lack of collaborative and open source design workflows. Secondary to that, there are open source project owners who are unaware of the value of design or are unsure where to start with the design process.

How important is it for an open source project to have a good UI and UX?

Not all open source projects need more UX or UI then they currently have. Often times developers build open source projects that are aimed at other developers, so they are able to consider the needs of the end user without additional design assistance. The problem occurs when the open source project is being used by an outside demographic, including by developers of a lower experience level. In these cases, good user experience design contributions will help define the target audience—their needs, struggles, and experience—and the recommended solutions for assisting the users.

Good user interface and brand design can also help establish a consistent experience across the project and help attract new contributors.

Is it easy to attract designers to participate in open source projects?

No. Often times it is easier to find open source developers who also have design experience.

What should developers who can't attract designers do?

They shouldn't wait around. If they can hire a designer, great, but in the case of most open source projects where budget is small to non-existent, developers should look to improve their own design skills. Design is a process of identifying and solving problems, something with which developers are familiar. Developers have the ability to aquire at least basic design skills like any other skill: with practice, research, and community support.

Are there notable open source projects with good UI and UX?

There are some great ones out there—particularly ones that overlap somewhat with the design community, like Sass, Bower, Ember, and others. There is a great collection of open source projects with beautiful UI and UX at There are also more mainstream examples like Firefox, VLC, Popcorn Time, and others.

All Things Open
Speaker Interview

This article is part of the All Things Open Speaker Interview series. All Things Open is a conference exploring open source, open tech, and the open web in the enterprise.

Aleksandar Todorović
I'm a part of the tech department for an awesome investigative journalism network called OCCRP. I'm really passionate about open source software, artificial intelligence and information security. My open source contributions are now merged with projects like reddit, elementary OS and the Tor Project. I'm running a personal blog where I share my personal stories.


I think many websites these days lack originality and integrity. Sure, they need to be user friendly, but they also have to be unique, to some degree at least. It's like living in the 90's again with the way most websites are designed these days.

Currently at KDE we have the opposed issue: a lot of visual designers that produce a lot of work but a big lack of developers to implement changes.

KDE has never appealed to me as great.
Cinnamon is what i would say Elegant and Beautiful UI.
Even panthoen desktop(used in elementary OS) would come second.

Though beauty is subjective
but still, I do not find KDE as elegant/royal/beautiful and intuitive.
I do not find it user friendly too. I used in quite extensively for many users with Slackware and kubuntu , due to use in our corporate. But now I changed the entire setup to Cinnamon(Mint Linux). And everybody quite likes the migration to this new beautiful desktop UI/UX

In reply to by alex-l (not verified)

"If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

It's easy enough to write things like this, saying how bad things are in general. But when you offer advice, I think it's good to reread your article and take your own advice to heart.

I clicked links here, expecting to see great UX/UI, but I guess I would have to download all these projects to try to see what is being praised.

Perhaps we need more objectivity or more science to be able to say, "Here is good UX, and here is why and how it's good..." Let's not end up with "I know good UX when I see it", without being able to explain yourself.

VLC as an example of good UI/UX? It's my default player both in Windows and Linux but I have always thought it's quite ugly, and it's far from being intuitive in some of its functions (e.g. watching TV it's a pain in the ass compared to kaffeine).

Snappy or Audience would be better examples of beautiful UI.

I do agree that Audience is more user friendly then VLC, but Audience can't do a lot of things that VLC can. VLC's team does a good job when you consider everything VLC is capable of.

In reply to by Bend3r (not verified)

That's the reason why I use VLC, but one of the last words I'd use to describe it is beautiful. It's not. It's a great piece of software (and, as I said, my default video player for both Windows and Linux for years) but its UI is not beautiful.

In reply to by r3bl

Thinking of being part of the problem, I'd listen to almost anyone before I listen to someone working for Adobe. Do something about Flash, allow Photoshop and various other things to Linux, then tell people how they're doing open source wrong.

Adobe is a large company. They have lots and lots of products, which means that its employees don't necessarily work on the same products. You can see in the second paragraph what Garth has been working on since he joined Adobe. You'll notice that there's no mention of Flash or Photoshop there.

In reply to by Purple Library Guy (not verified)

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