Making open source products usable

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm intrigued by the idea that the involvement of user experience disciplines in open source projects could be a catalyst for improving mainstream adoption.

I'm most interested in those cases where the target market includes non-developers and where a proprietary offering commands market share right now (think: Ubuntu, OpenOffice, Pidgin, Gimp). Although developers on the whole dislike poor UI as much as the next man, developing usable complex systems for the common man is a far more interesting challenge, doubly so when it dovetails with the intrinsic benefits of grassroots development.

It's a really tough problem to crack. The open source world is ruled by developers, who are sometimes resistant to non-developers telling them how they could improve "their" product. Which is a shame, as not all developers have the knack of designing intuitive user interfaces on their own, never mind in concert. For more on that, read this.

This is why the projects most likely to integrate the different disciplines successfully will most likely have a financial sponsor. Someone with the financial clout and the vision that persuades multi-disciplined contributors (developers and non-developers) to collaborate.

This still leaves you with the problem of how, exactly, the (top down) user experience guidance can dovetail with the (grassroots) development process. To me, it feels as though appropriate talent pairing and knowledge sharing could help here. Get the UI designers working closely enough with key developers to pool their perspectives, and share their subsequent insights with other people in their disciplines.

Anyway, I was interested to see Mark Shuttleworth - leader of the Ubuntu project - also agreeing with this school of thought, and even offering a few insights about how he might go about achieving this. To my mind, Ubuntu is one of the few Linux desktop distributions that has the resource potential to challenge OS X in terms of user experience.

He's got his work cut out, mind. But I'm hopeful that he'll use his best asset: the Ubuntu community. When the first set of design assets are ready, I'd like to see him share them with the community and study their feedback carefully. Present multiple options. Hopefully this will focus the design effort in a direction that isn't going to cause too much disruption (eliminating unviable options).

I'm also hoping he'll be able to create and share working versions that can demonstrate how the design principles might manifest themselves. This is a chance to watch what people do (as opposed to what they say).

I love the analogy that our experience of the web so far is akin to three seconds after the Big Bang! Open source as a term is only ten years old, and here we are standing on the edge of solving one of the most significant problems open source faces. This will not only be interesting in the short term, but hugely rewarding to all of us in the long term. There's a huge amount of potential just waiting to be unlocked!

Photo shared under a Creative Commons licence on adewale_oshineye's photostream.