Miro Internet TV Blog

The Free Beauty Squadron

October 1st, 2007 by Nicholas Reville

I’ve been thinking for a long time about one of the key issues that hurts adoption of open-source software: user interface. Open-source software projects tend to be initiated and built exclusively by programmers and their focus usually lies, as it should, with core features and technology. But a project that is exclusively driven by programmers usually won’t have an elegant user interface.

Here’s another way to look at it: you can build good, useful software without having good interface, but you can’t build a good interface without having software. So a programmer can decide to start building something that’s useful to some folks and build momentum from there. But while a designer can decide to design a great UI, it won’t do a single thing until there’s some software behind it.

I was reminded of this issue by the launch last week of Pixelmator. It’s a Mac photo editing application with a beautiful user interface. The Pixelmator website proclaims: “Just like your beloved Mac OS X, Pixelmator is also built on open source. It uses a very sophisticated foundation to provide you with the most powerful image editing tools available. More than 15 years of development have gone into Pixelmator.” (The headline above that section says “Pixelmator Loves Open Source”– apparently a fleeting love since Pixelmator itself is not open.)

What’s notable is that Pixelmator has created an excellent, but closed, user interface that uses open-source image manipulation code (ImageMagick). There’s no reason why those of us who care about free and open source software shouldn’t be able to mount similar efforts to bring great user interfaces to more open-source projects, while, of course, keeping everything open.

So here’s the concept that I’ve been pondering for a few months: what if there was a mini-organization that would hire a great interface designer to work with different open-source projects for 2 months at a time developing improved interfaces and user experiences? In just couple years, with a single designer, you could propel adoption of a whole bunch of wonderful open-source software.

Here’s how a Free Beauty Squadron might work. A volunteer committee of experts asks projects to apply, explaining why they are a good candidate for an overhaul and what they hope to accomplish. When a project is selected, a paid designer flies out to meet one or more team members in person and begins developing a plan. Over a 6 week period, the designer creates mockups and interfaces flows for a new user experience, all in consultation with the coders. When the designer is done, the project has graphic files, documentation of a new UI, and an implementation plan to quickly or gradually put the new interface in place. The designer reserves 2 weeks for future consultation with the project as issues inevitably arise during implementation. The committee then sends the designer to their next project.

Let me acknowledge four big caveats in one sentence before the whole idea gets nit-picked by smart-alecky haters: (1) we don’t know how well the interaction would go between an existing open-source community and an outside designer, (2) you can’t always slap an awesome interface on code that hasn’t been designed with that interface in mind, (3) it could take a long time to evolve existing code to fit a new UI paradigm, and (4) many projects have a techie UI because they were built by techies for techies and there would have to be a project-threatening branch to keep everyone happy. Even with all that on the table, I think it could still work.

And many of these risks would be reduced for the simple reason that projects will be asked to apply. They’ll have to agree among themselves that a UI overhaul is important and they’ll define what they hope to accomplish. This should lay some groundwork for receptiveness and consensus. It would be experimental for sure, but could have a potentially huge impact.

What rich geek will step up to fund this experiment? It would probably take about $35,000 to get a 6-month experiment underway that would work with 3 open-source projects on a UI overhaul. Most of the money would pay for the designer’s time and some travel costs. Could be exciting…

14 Responses to “The Free Beauty Squadron”

  1. Per Thulin says:

    Very interesting idea. Over a few years, this would indeed make an impact.

    But a UI needs to develop and evolve together with the rest of the project, I think… Maybe not for very mature projects though.

  2. [...] You can read the rest of this blog post by going to the original source, here [...]

  3. Andre says:

    I suspect most free-software projects would rather get contributions of working code than GUI mockups and designs.

    Hey, if you’re in Worcester we should discuss this over pizza after a WLUG meeting.

  4. Andre, it’s not an either/or proposition: if the designers weren’t contributing GUI mockups and designs, they’d be contributing nothing, rather than working code.

    (Incidentally, speaking of UI and Miro, will Miro’s {main menu / sources panel / that bit to the left of the good stuff where you pick something to watch} be getting a sprinkling of Gnome-nativeness love in the near future?)

  5. Nathan Jones says:

    I like the idea, even though I’m not the rich geek you need to get it off the ground. I see similarities to Google’s Summer of Code, in which students are sponsored to code for a project that has applied to Google. Having one designer employed full-time would be good, but getting different people onto shorter gigs could also work.

    BTW, you need to fix the “leave a response” link on the blog – because the page has a base href=”http://www.getmiro.com/”, “leave a response” links back to http://www.getmiro.com/#respond

  6. Rob says:

    Interesting idea. That said, shouldn’t code and GUI go hand-in-hand? I think if more developers really spent time focusing on the GUI and user experience, apps wouldn’t be so bloated and complicated. It seems like a lot of developers get so fixated on delivering features that they fail to think about how the user will actualy USE them. I don’t think designing a good GUI is exceptionally hard. There are so many excellent examples out there. But, for a coder, it means thinking about your app in a different light, about the flow of information and actions. And it sometimes (often) means simplifying your solution, not adding more to the mix.

    All of that said, I do agree that the GUI is key. Pixelmator is an excellent example. Absolutely stunning.

  7. Aaron Strontsman says:

    I absolutely agree to your post, it’s bad that open-source’s achievements often only find their way to consumers through commercial software.
    Some of my favourite open-source software could really use this, I think about Stardict (“screen real estate management” [sic!], OS integration meaning mostly icons), Notepad++ (menu, options window, English locale), 7-Zip (icons, menu and context menu structure), and maybe even Openoffice (OS integration, icons! icons!, response time and flickering effects).
    By the way: I’d greatly appreciate if Miro were looking less Macossy on Windows.

  8. Dean Jansen says:


    Thanks for the heads up on the comment link — it should be fixed now.

  9. Free (as in Freedom, not as in Beer) Beauty Squadron…

    Nicholas Reville has an interesting post yesterday at miro (”The Free Beauty Squadron“) about the challenge of good interface design which has classically plagued open-source projects, especially on the desktop:
    Open-source software project…

  10. JaneP says:

    I rather use a functional simple looking app than a cute UI based one, any given day. In my opinion, I think is Great that many open source projects keep it simple and unpretentious. Sad will be the day when they all want to look cute or “elegant”. To each his own.

  11. Enigmachine says:

    You get a better payoff by designing your software to an interface (API) and then letting folks (third party, open source, professionnal designer, etc) design skins or UIs for it.

    I can quote two big reasons right off the bat:
    1) You can’t be everything to everyone with a single UI design.
    2) By designing to an API, people can integrate your stuff into their systems and make mashups.

    Take Miro for instance – I use it on a TV. The experience of using it on a 640×480 screen has been degrading ever since version 0.84 or something like that… The show names are hard to read (mostly because the reds bleed on my TV) and you don’t have a 12 foot UI, and also I can’t find the ‘watch all unread’ menu command anymore.

    Now if Miro had an easy API (with commands such as ‘addVidcast’, ‘playUnread’, ‘getAllThumbnails’ or something) and a default basic interface, it would be relatively trivial for someone such as I to create a totally new ‘HTPC’ interface where I can use my remove to navigate between shows and see all the data I need to see (instead of this pseudo iTunes stuff… surely one of the buggiest and most frustrating UIs I have recently used). One could also plug Miro into, say, MediaPortal and use MP as the GUI.

    It’s very much the ‘Hypercard’ approach… Make the tools to build your interface and people will make the interface themselves.

    So to sum up… Yes, getting a ‘star’ designer to lovingly fashion your default UI is a great idea, but the practical approach is to design to an interface, and then get your star designer AND open-source skinners to make it shine.

    It’s a good idea to get your star designer on board early on – after all you want to make sure your API supports a good useability flow – but if the software does what it’s supposed to do and does it well, then the UI designer can focus on conveying that flow to the user well. The real trick to getting a good flow and software that’s easy to use isn’t to rely on an ‘expert’, it’s to use the ‘eat your own dog food’ approach.

    imho. :)

  12. [...] Miro – Internet TV Blog » Blog Archive » The Free Beauty Squadron What if there was a mini-organization that would hire a great interface designer to work with different open-source projects for 2 months at a time developing improved interfaces and user experiences? (tags: gui opensource design) [...]

  13. Davros says:

    I realise that this post is over a year old, but just in case someone checks it again, I have an idea to propose.

    How about we start off with the same idea in mind but on a smaller scale with the goal of buidling to what is described above.

    We get some guys who at least think they have good ideas about interface design and know something of the theoretical background of such things and they give it a go with whomever is brave enough to try it first and do so via the Internet.

    Maybe it will work. And if two or three projects feel they benefit from the experience, perhaps it will grow. Grow to include more formally recognized experts, grow to find some way to be sponsored (at least a little bit) so some in person meetings could be held, grow to inspire free software developers and freeware software devleopers alike to think more about usability during their coding.

    Using unknown talent to make something look prettier and to make it more usable sounds way more plausible to me than the idea of unpaid programmers creating operating systems, office suites, web browsers, 3D animation packages and so on all for free.

    Something to ponder. Would anyone else feel it is worth while to try?

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