DevConf.us: Confronting the UX Elephant in the Room

Máirín DuffyOpen source technology is now mainstream. Technologies large and small impacting people all over the world are powered by open source platforms, libraries, and backends. There’s an urgent problem, though: open source has become synonymous with shockingly poor user experience (UX), reducing its impact and adoption.

In this interview, Red Hat’s Máirín Duffy outlines her open source experience and how she is bringing UX solutions to the world of open source software during her August 19 talk at DevConf.us.

Q. Let’s open with the easy one: who are you and how did you get to where you professionally are today?

A. I’m a principal interaction designer with Red Hat in Boston. I work with a variety of open source projects on user experience issues in my work. I’ve used open source software since I was in high school; I dreamed of working for Red Hat while I was a college student and luckily became an intern and later full-time as I finished grad school. My entire career has been spent at Red Hat, which has afforded me access to experienced open source experts and other resources. A sincere passion for open source and design has pretty much fueled where I’ve gotten to today and I hope will continue to carry me forward.

Q. Please tell us about your first experience with free/open source software.

A. My first experience with free and open source software (FLOSS) was as a high school student. My older brother was a computer science student at a local university and rather than have to use systems on campus or access them remotely to compile his classwork, he picked up a copy of Red Hat Linux because it had gcc. I had access to computers from a young age though, and before using Linux my family used OS/2 for a
while as well.

My first impression of FLOSS was how cool it was that you could customize everything the way you wanted easily. It also didn’t crash the way Windows did frequently at the time. I played around making icons and customizing the desktop. I stuck with it through college, and over time appreciated the freedom aspect of free and open source
software!

Q. Without giving too much away, what can attendees expect from your presentation, “Who Cares it’s Free? Practicing UX in Open Source”?

A. The talk will address the big elephant in the room: open source software has a terrible reputation when it comes to user experience, especially compared to proprietary solutions.

I’ll start by making the case for how urgent the problem of UX in open source is.  I’ll go over a little bit about how FLOSS came to earn this reputation in the first place.

As to not be all doom and gloom, we’ll then talk about strategies for improving the UX of your FLOSS project at multiple levels–including real-life examples and artifacts from open source UX design process–as well as how to attract and integrate designers into your open source project.

If you work on a free / open source project and want to improve its UX but aren’t sure where to start, you’ll walk away from this talk with the basics of what you need to know and actionable steps you can work on right away.

Q. When approaching the subject of your talk, what do you feel are the most challenging issues?

The most challenging issues in terms of improving the user experience of open source projects I believe are the integration of and consistency between projects that work together. The FLOSS suite of creative tools (Gimp, Inkscape, Scribus, Krita, Blender, etc.) is a good example of this. They are created by independent communities, using different toolkits, and they don’t have as strong an integration between tools as they could as a result of their independent development, compared to suites created by single proprietary companies. It takes an extra amount of effort and coordination between projects to be able to be consistent and integrate in this way.

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About Brian Proffitt

Brian Proffitt is the Principal Community Analyst for Open Source and Standards team at Red Hat, responsible for community content, onboarding, and open source consulting. A former technology journalist, Brian is also a graduate lecturer at the University of Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @TheTechScribe

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