Episode 103 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Scott Jenson. Scott describes himself as a “battle-scarred veteran of the software industry.” For over 30 years, he worked on strategic UX challenges for tech leaders like Apple and Google. Now, he’s focused on improving the experience of using open-source software.
Our conversation focused on open source — how it’s different from proprietary software and the challenges inherent in doing design in open-source projects. One such challenge is overcoming common expectations about the role of design. As Scott put it,
The classic example is you go into a team, and you’re like, “Hey, I’m trying to help!” And they’re like, “Great! Glad to have you here. Please help us with our icons!” Like, that’s like the number one thing that you get asked for. And when I tell that story, a lot of UX designers just shake their heads sadly because that’s part of the issue: these open-source things only work as programmers, and they only work with files as their lingua franca and issues on GitHub, so the only thing that a UX designer can give to them is another file.
This brings up another challenge: many open source projects are managed in systems like Github, which are structured under the assumption that the thing being collaborated on is code — i.e., there’s no room for tracking the sort of issues that UX designers focus on.
Another challenge is working within consensus-driven environments. Also, many open source projects emerge from a developer’s desire to “scratch their own itch” — i.e., under the assumption that the developer’s needs mirror users’ needs. While this might be the case in some projects, it’s not always true. Scott said,
one of the fundamental aspects of UX design is that you are fighting for perspective. Who is the user? Who are the users? What are their primary, what are their secondary goals? How do you layer them? How do you prioritize? So that idea of perspective and prioritization means that you have to make some hard decisions. And it’s often quite challenging for a community to make a prioritized decision because someone is always going to want feature X.
So I do believe that is one of the core challenges that open-source software has to do when you’re trying to make challenging decisions to layer your software so that mere mortals can use it.
Also, proprietary software projects tend to have clearer targets to optimize towards. Scott:
One of the advantages of closed-source or for-profit systems is that you do have a metric called money, which just gives you a number. And it’s a number that you can optimize for and that gives you focus. And so, yes, I think making money will drive a sense of urgency. It will also drive a sense of competition, which a lot of open-source projects don’t have.
And yet, open-source software has many advantages. Since they’re not profit-driven, they can allow for the exploration of more niche offerings. Also, open-source software products tend to be more respectful of users’ privacy. Again, Scott:
To me, the big advantage of open source is that it allows tiny things to be explored. And the fact that, for example, I can go to Elestio and hit a button and install my own Penpot instance, so I’m running my own personal private copy of Penpot is amazing, right?
And then starts to talk about, well, what are these niches — because you don’t care about money — that you can explore that means that we can now start to build very private-preserving servers with our own things on it.
We spent some time discussing Mastodon, which is a currently-relevant illustration of the advantages and challenges inherent in open-source development. On the pro side, a federated non-commercial platform based on open protocols runs a lower risk of being mismanaged by incompetent and/or malicious actors than a proprietary, centralized platform.
On the con side, the advantages inherent in Mastodon make onboarding new users more challenging. Scott offered thoughts on how that experience might be improved based on a paper he wrote that builds on ideas by Edward Tufte.
The turbulent changes underway at Twitter merit a discussion of the advantages of structures other than corporate ownership for software-based ecosystems. This episode provides a way into that conversation for designers.