do “open UIs suck”? or do “UIs without vision suck”?

Tim Lee is quite close to something very smart here, I think, and related to something I’ve been pondering for a while: why are so many open source software UIs typically bad?

Tim’s primary  answer, I think, not wrong: good design generally results from having a strong vision of what good design for a particular piece of software should be. “Cult-like” may be overstating it, but good software does need a strong vision, and the holders of the vision need the means to get developers to buy into, execute on, and stick with that vision.

So Tim gets the answer right- but I think his framing of the question is actually a little off, in a way that merits discussion.

The first mistake Tim makes is that when he says “open UIs suck.” This is not false, but it is misleading. The more general rule is that most UIs suck; open UIs are just a subset of that. So implicitly contrasting open and non-open UIs is not necessarily very informative. Plenty of proprietary companies and proprietary design models create and implement lousy designs. Microsoft, of course, was historically the canonical example of this (though Office 2007 and Windows 7 are great strides in the right direction) but Android, which Tim picks a bit on, is perhaps an even better example- nothing about Android’s design and development process is open in any meaningful sense, and… the UI is pretty bad. So Tim’s post would have been much more useful as an analytical tool if he asked “why do most UIs suck?” and then concluded “lack of vision,” instead of asking “why do open UIs suck.”1

The second mistake Tim makes is the assumption that open projects can’t have strong, coherent vision- that “[t]he decentralized nature of open source development means that there’s always a bias toward feature bloat.” There is a long tradition of the benevolent but strong dictator who is willing to say no in open projects, and typically a strong correlation between that sort of leadership and technical success. (Linux without Linus would be Hurd.) It is true that historically these BDFLs have strong technology and implementation vision, but pretty poor UI design vision.2 There are a couple of reasons for this: hackers outnumber designers everywhere by a large number, not just in open source; hackers aren’t taught design principles in school; in the open source meritocracy, people who can implement almost always outrank people who can’t; and finally that many hackers just aren’t good at putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. But the fact that many BDFLs exist suggests that “open” doesn’t have to mean “no vision and leadership”- those can be compatible, just as “proprietary” and “essentially without vision or leadership” can also be compatible.

This isn’t to say that open development communities are going to suddenly become bastions of good design any time soon; they are more likely to be “bottom up” and therefore less vision-centered, for a number of reasons. Besides the problems I’ve already listed, there are also problems on the design side- several of the design texts I’ve read perpetuate an “us v. them” mentality about designers v. developers, and I’ve met several designers who buy deeply into that model. Anyone who is trained to believe that there must be antagonism between designers and developers won’t have the leadership skills to become a healthy BDFL; whereas they’ll be reasonably comfortable in a command-and-control traditional corporation (even if, as is often the case, salespeople and engineering in the end trump design.) There is also a platform competition problem- given that there is a (relatively) limited number of people who care about software design, and that those people exclusively use Macs, the application ecosystem around Macs is going to be better than other platforms (Linux, Android, Windows, etc.) because all the right people are already there. This is a very virtuous cycle for Apple, and a vicious one for most free platforms. But this isn’t really an open v. closed thing- this is a case of “one platform took a huge lead in usability and thereby attracted a critical mass of usability-oriented designers” rather than “open platforms can’t attract a critical mass of usability-oriented designers”. (Microsoft, RIM, and Palm are all proof points here- they had closed platforms whose applications mostly sucked.) Finally, of course, there isn’t just the problem of getting vision- there is the problem of execution. Manpower is always hard, especially when you can’t really fire people, but I think Firefox and GNOME (among other projects) have proven that you can motivate volunteers and companies to contribute to well-thought-out projects once a vision is articulated. It definitely isn’t easy, though!

Tim is not the first or the last person to say “open” when they mean “disorganized,” particularly in the context of UI. It is an easy mistake to make when, well, free software generally feels very rough compared to the alternatives. Free software communities that want to appeal to a broader set of people are going to have to do a better job of  rising to the challenge of this problem, and create circumstances where designers not only feel welcome, but feel empowered to create a vision and feel supported in their implementation.

  1. Tim doesn’t help his analytical problem here by not defining what he means by “open UIs”; given that he uses Droid as an example, what he is discussing are “source-available UIs” but given this tweet what he may mean to discuss is “UIs designed from the bottom up”, which are, I believe, a related but analytically distinct thing. []
  2. The best current example I can think of as a design BDFL is Jon McCann in the context of gnome-shell. []