Last January, writing on the problem of open source design, I said:
I’ve probably said it before, and will say it again, and I’m also sure that I’m not the first, or the last to make this point, but I have yet to see an example of an open source design process that has worked.
Indeed, I’d go so far as to wager that “open source design” is an oxymoron. Design is far too personal, and too subjective, to be given over to the whims and outrageous fancies of anyone with eyeballs in their head.
Lately, I’m feeling the acute reality of this sentiment.
In 2005, I wrote about how I wanted to take an “open source” approach to the design of Flock by posting my mockups to Flickr and soliciting feedback. But that’s more about transparency than “open source”. And I think there’s a big difference between the two that’s often missed, forgotten or ignored altogether: one refers to process, the other refers to governance.
Design can be executed using secretive or transparent processes; it really can’t be “open” because it can’t be evaluated in same way “open source” projects evaluate contributions, where solutions compete on the basis of meritocratic and objective measures. Design is sublime, primal, and intuitive and needs consistency to succeed. Open source code, in contrast, can have many authors and be improved incrementally. Design — visual, interactive or conceptual — requires unity; piecemeal solutions feel disjointed, uncomfortable and obvious when end up in shipping product.
Luke Wroblewski is an interaction designer. He recently made an observation about “openness” that really resonated with me:
I read this quote last week and realized it is symptomatic of a common assertion that in technology (and especially the Web) “completely open” is better than “controlled”.
“But we’ll all know exactly where Apple stands – jealously guarding control of their users […] And that’s not what Apple should be about.” –TechCrunch
Sorry but Apple makes their entire living by tightly controlling the experience of their customers. It’s why everyone praises their designs. From top to bottom, hardware to software -you get an integrated experience. Without this control, Apple could not be what it is today.
He followed up with a post on Facebook’s design process today that I also found exceedingly compelling.
I worry about Mozilla in this respect — and all open source projects that cater to the visible and vocal, ignoring the silent or unengaged majority.
I worry about OpenID similarly — an initiative that will be essential for the future of the social web and yet is hampered by user experience issues because of an attachment to fleeting principles like “freedom” and “individual choice”. Sigh.
I’m not alone in these concerns.
When it comes to open source and design, design — and human factors, more generally — cannot play second fiddle to engineering. But far too often it seems that that’s the case.
And it shouldn’t be.
More often there should be a design dictator that enters into a situation, takes stock of the set of problems that people (read: end users) are facing, and then addresses them through observation, skill, intuition, and drive. You can evaluate their output with surveys, heuristics, and user studies, but without their vision, execution, and insane devotion to see through making it happen, you’ll never see shit get done right.
As Luke says,
Most people out there prefer a great experience over complete openness.
I concur. And I think it’s critical that “open source” advocates (myself included) keep that at top of mind.
. . .
I will say this: I’m an advocate for open source and open standards because I believe that open ecosystems — i.e. those with low barriers to entry (low startup costs; low friction to launch; public infrastructure for sustaining productivity) — are essential for competition at the level of user experience.
It may seem paradoxical, but open systems in which secretive design processes are used can result in better solutions, overall.
Thus when I talk about openness, I really mean openness from an economic/competitive perspective.
. . .
Early today I needed access to a client’s internal wiki. Having gone without access for a week, I decided to toss up a project on Basecamp to get things started.
When I presented my solution to the team, I was told that we needed to use something open source that could be hosted on their servers. Somewhat taken aback, I suggested Basecamp was the best tool for the job given our approaching deadline..
“No, no, that won’t do,” was the message I got. “Has to be open source. Self-hosted.”
I asked them for alternatives. “PHProjekt“. Double Choco Latte. I proposed Open Atrium.
Once again, as seems all too common lately, more time was devoted to picking a tool rather than producing solutions. More meta than meat. Worst of all, religion was in the driver’s seat, rather than reality. Where was that open source pragmatism I’d heard so much about?
Anyway, not how I want to begin a design process.
Ultimately, I got the access I needed — to MediaWiki. So, warts and all, we’ll be using that to collaborate. On a closed intranet.
In the back of my head, I can’t help but fear that the tools used for design collaboration bleed into the output. To my eyes, MediaWiki isn’t a flavor that I want stirred into the pot. And it begs the question once and for all: what good can “open source” bring to design if the only result is the product of committee dictate?