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…