In my opinion, among open software developers there is not much attention given to the GUI or how it is used. With very notable exceptions of course, Blender, Ubuntu, VLC, and maybe others I've not used yet.

Although GIMP, Inkscape, Eclipse, and many others, are way behind their commercial or proprietary counterpart, Photoshop, Illustrator, Xcode, VisualStudio, regarding usability and UX.

Given that usability reflects in how one accomplishes a given task in an efficient way, I'm curious about how those issues are approched by the open software developers/community.

Is an issue regarding usability as important as solving a reported programming bug, for instance?

Are there team members with experience in UX, GUI design, and usability?

Is there some platform similar to that used by most bug tracking websites, but focused on UX?

  • The OSS world definitely could use more UX folks. That's probably a mix of needing more UX volunteers, as well as a way to better integrate UX into the process.
    – DA01
    Dec 17, 2012 at 3:01
  • Just out of curiosity, what problem do you see with Eclipse? I find it, overall, very easy to work with. Nice customization abilities and great spread of shortcuts. Especially considering it's so widely adopted, and every problem/question you come across is most of the time easy to find a solution to (I know this doesn't really speak to the UX of the actual application, rather its community. Then again, what would be left of the UX in facebook if people abandoned it..?) I'm just curious about your thoughts! +1 for a great post btw. Dec 17, 2012 at 9:50
  • @AndroidHustle I know Eclipse is a great tool in many ways, for instance versatility, and scalability, it's just that Xcode and Visual Studio are tools that work almost immediately in the way that is required, kind of out-of-the-box ready. Eclipse very often requires the instalation of some farmework or third party add-on in order to be ready to use. Also given that runs on a virtual machine, is somewhat unresponsive, and the IDE just doesn't looks or feel native. For instance Android simulator is very slow compared to iOS simulator.
    – rraallvv
    Dec 17, 2012 at 13:24
  • @rraallvv hmmm... yea, I can agree with that. Especially the argument of not being out of the box ready, third party installations are a drag. And a somewhat cryptic repository manager at that. Then again, it is more versatile, as you mentioned, at least compared to Visual Studio. And I guess that comes at a price. Thanks for responding. Dec 17, 2012 at 13:34
  • The thing is they have different goals XCode is a specifically targeted at MacOS/iOS + Objective C. Eclipse is a generic IDE aimed at multiple languages and platforms. It's not out-of-the-box ready for Android dev since most people don't use it for Android dev ;-)
    – user597
    Dec 18, 2012 at 10:33

3 Answers 3


Open Source is only as good as the people who step up to work on it -- and given what I've heard about the way Open Source work is usually done, probably quite difficult to work on UX for. Good UX is more than just an incremental improvement, and open source stuff is usually about little improvements vs. the big sweeping changes that likely need to happen all at once for UX consistency's sake.

To make matters worse, the folks who contribute actual art assets or code towards the improvement of the product are more likely to be recognized and respected than the "invisible staff" who just suggest improvements or make mockups (i.e. UX folks). Even a Visual Designer has better odds of getting some respect just because they might end up working on icons for the app!

(This said, fixing the documentation would be a good job for any UX'er to take up...)

If I were a UX Designer looking to work on an open source project, I'd head for wherever discussion for the project was taking place, and start trying to network and partner up with with certain coders and higher-up folks on the project -- because the person suggesting the UX work is likely NOT the same person coding the interface, getting buy-in seems like it'd be a critical component of making sure suggestions won't be ignored. As a result, you'll become less a UX Designer, and more a UX Advocate.

Of course, this will vary based on the size / scope / politics involved in each process, so YMMV.

Getting anywhere with Open Source seems like it'd be a bit like joining a company that has yet to "get" why UX is important -- network a little, find your "champions", and most importantly of all, learn to communicate and defend the choices you want to make.

  • A couple of things come to my mind to help the open software comunity. A community driven site, that allows posting/voting UX ideas. Maybe software capable to read Photoshop files and use them as skins.
    – rraallvv
    Dec 17, 2012 at 13:35
  • I'd actually disagree with the initial part. OSS is just as much about new projects as improvements. The non-OSS world is just as much about incremental product improvement as it is new projects.
    – user597
    Dec 18, 2012 at 10:31

The poor UX of many OSS projects is down to a whole stack of different reasons. Including off the top of my head:

  • Few folk with UX skills getting involved

  • Few UX folk with the skill sets necessary to contribute to many OSS projects (the fundamental unit of collaboration in many OSS projects is code. Without the ability to do some coding UX folk cannot effectively contribute to those projects).

  • Some (a small minority) of OSS devs being obnoxious and not valuing UX input.

  • Some designer/UX folk approaching OSS projects being obnoxious and not valuing dev input - and generally not understanding how OSS projects are organised (e.g. I've seen designers try to come into OSS projects with a "I'll tell everybody what to do" approach - which obviously fails).

  • OSS teams tend to be collaborative and flat. Dev folk are used to working collaboratively on any non-trivial project. They have a stack of tools and practices to help with that (e.g. source control). Designers are more used to working on their own and have less tool support for collaborative work during design.

  • Resources. Most OSS projects are not commercially funded. They lack dedicated time, money and resources. This often means they develop at a slower pace than their commercial counterparts.

  • OSS software is often built by the people who use it - rather than being built for the general public. What is good UX for the former may not be good UX for the latter. UX folk tend to look at OSS products and only think of the general public (e.g. many of the UI innovations in Ubuntu are hated by some more techie folk since they make their workflows / use-cases harder. This doesn't make them wrong - it makes them a different market segment / persona).

  • Many, if not most, designers are used to working in a separate phase from development. OSS doesn't work that way generally. Fortunately more designers are working in agile or lean contexts, or in environments where there is continual product development and release - so hopefully we'll see those skills spread out more into our community.

There are, of course, many exceptions as you mentioned. The other issue is that some of the comparisons you make are not comparing like-with-like (Eclipse has very different goals from XCode or VisualStudio for example.)

Finally you also need to remember that many bits of commercial software, developed with a paid team, have awful UX too. So the commercial-good-ux vs OSS-bad-UX isn't that clear cut.

  • +1 It's kind of an insider's look, isn't it? How could UX be approached to improve end user experience?
    – rraallvv
    Dec 17, 2012 at 14:02
  • @rraallvv I dunno which insider look I'm giving. I'm spend at least 50% of my time doing UX stuff. However I also do development and have started and been involved with several OSS projects ;-)
    – user597
    Dec 18, 2012 at 10:27
  • @rraallvv As to ways to approach it. I think a lot of the problems are the cultural ones - and that's beginning to change. I'm seeing more dev folk actively value and learn about UX stuff. I'm seeing more UX folk work in more effective incremental ways (the Lean UX folk for example).
    – user597
    Dec 18, 2012 at 10:35

There is one project (Open Usability) which is trying to fill the gap between programmers and usability experts in the open source world. But I am not sure how active it still is.

Many projects started because a programmer wanted to fulfil his needs. Because he didn't find the exact software he was looking for. So there is usually no interest in making it usable for everyone at the beginning. Because from the programmer's point of view it is very usable for himself. Only when a project gets larger usability becomes more important. E.g. see KDE Usability or GNOME Usability Project

  • wow! they are announcing GIMP and other projects, to be part of the Open Usability project.
    – rraallvv
    Dec 17, 2012 at 13:43
  • If the Open Usability project, agree on some framework and specifications for file formats, for instance, or even a platform for community driven sites for UX suggestions/voting, the developers could add a very flexible GUI just adding that framework to their projects.
    – rraallvv
    Dec 17, 2012 at 13:49

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