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Application design polish.

Free software is great. Everybody loves free stuff. However there’s one common flaw experienced by a lot of free software – they look ugly.

The reason behind this isn’t because we have too many programmers (yes, we know you never have enough programmers) and have too little artists – no, the problem is a lot more subtle. The real problem is that there is no clear hierachy within the artists. There is no control. There is no clear structure, focus, and branding. The question so many artists fail to ask ourselves as a contributor to free software is – What do we want to communicate?

To illustrate my point, I would like to use Ubuntu as an example. Regardless of your prejudices for the distribution and/or Canonical, they did do something right – they have a brand. They have a clear, recognisable pallette and style – from colourschemes to typefaces. Why don’t you see it for yourself: go and visit Ubuntu.com. Notice the colours. Notice the icon styles. Notice the typography.

Another example of a project taking the steps in the right direction is KDE and their Oxygen iconset + plasma "Air" attempt. However there is still far to go.

However the issue does not lie with such large FOSS projects such as the above mentioned. Instead the real problem lies with smaller software and application created by smaller developer groups. The reason is because these small applications rarely have to worry about problems such as branding – instead they have to focus on creating an elegant application. Design elegance can only rely so far on the design of widgets in the UI toolkit used. The rest is really up to the developer. Allow me to give a quick visual example of Blogilo, a blog client which I’m using to type out this post. Take a look:

The untrained eye would not see any problem with the screenshot – however the application design above screams complexity. There is no elegance. There is no simplicity – no "flow" (a clear step by step separation of functions). A blog client is not a complex application like an IDE. It exists for you to add, edit, and delete blog posts. Nothing more. When stripped down to its basics, a blog client is naught more but a rich text editor with a few extra options. Instead we have frames within frames, accordion panels, tabs, and buttons strewn about. Overkill, in my humble opinion.

Design polish is a very hard topic to separate what is ugly and what isn’t. It’s blends over into many neighbouring topics such as usability, a macro-view of marketing (in this case, Blogilo is part of KDE), and functionality. If you are interested, however, I would like to direct you to this very interesting blog by Troy Sobotka, one of the folks behind Ubuntu, who discusses this in much more clarity and detail than I am capable of.

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Marketing noise or marketing contribution?

I follow a few feed planets here and there. For the unitiated (few), a planet is an aggregation of blog feeds, normally filtered by topic so that interested readers can get the scoop from multiple sources from as central location. An interesting point which crops up once in a while is what determines whether or not a blog post is appropriate for the planet. Often this is because a few posts get through that don’t have anything to do really with the topic but instead talks about their personal life.

The main argument used against this is that people join the feed planet in order to read about their favourite software or development, and that "nobody gives a rat’s ass about your personal life", thus diluting the rest of the content. While I agree with this in essence, I would like to ask people to reconsider what they consider as inappropriate.

I am here referring specifically to open-source projects’ planets. In my opinion the number one difference between the user-facing open-source concept and the user-facing company concept is that whilst a company seeks to inform its users, open-source projects should seek to engage their users. The difference is simply because an open-source community survives on the interest of the community. Now when people refer to the "community" of an open-source project, I believe a common misunderstanding is that it only refers to the group of people connected to the product. No. What it really should refer to is the group of people … connected to the rest of the group.

So when an open-source project engages its users, it shouldn’t do so on a community-project level, but instead on a community-community level. People should respect that the rest of the community has interests outside the product, and should take this not as noise but instead as a contribution to the community. After all, the lifeblood of any open-source project is the community. I believe that developing a relationship on the "people" level rather than the "product" level is vital for the long-run sustainability of a project. It’s a protectionist measure against elitism, of which larger projects are prone to, promotes feedback, empathetic development, and guards against bureaucracy.

Of course, this only applies to some planets depending on their purpose.

So, the next time you decide to tell your planet something totally irrelevant, don’t apologise.

Life & much, much more

Bingo, sir.

If you haven’t heard of buzzword bingo, you should be thankful for the job you have. Buzzword Bingo is an iteration of bingo where your card’s grid is filled with buzzwords instead of card numbers. But what are buzzwords, you ask?

Buzzwords are words that come and go in fashion for people to use when they’re talking out of their arse – in other words, when they have absolutely no idea what’s going on but want to sound smart just to fuel their ego. They’re commonly seen in the marketing department. I like buzzwords myself and use them, but mostly when the context actually deserves them. Most of the time they’re thrown about like lemmings off a cliff.

Case in point, an example everybody (at least visiting this page) should be familiar with is Web 2.0. The first sign that it’s a buzzword is that nobody off the street can tell you exactly what this Web 2.0 is – everybody will give you something different from another. The second sign that it’s a buzzword is that it requires even more buzzwords to describe it. Heck, the Wikipedia page uses words like "user-centered design", "information sharing", and "folksonomies". The third characteristic of buzzwords are quite surprising – it’s normally that the word or phrase itself if taken literally is completely self-explanatory, but when used as a buzzword it loses all meaning in an abstract nebulous mist of paradigms and whatno- oh sorry. Couldn’t resist. In a nutshell, there are few quality buzzwords, and even fewer buzzwords that have become timeless fashion statements in the English language. Web 2.0 might be one of them, but as per definition, nobody can really be sure.

Going back to the topic, buzzword bingo is normally distributed to attendants to a function like a meeting where the speaker is well known for their use of buzzwords, like Al Gore. We sit there, listening intently but not really absorbing anything at all. At least it’s an improvement from sitting there neither listening nor absorbing. Upon hearing a column, row or diagonal line in our conventionally 5 by 5 grid we exclaim Bingo! … and go back to catching up on sleep.

The game originated in 1993 and was popularised by a Dilbert comic strip a year later.

Just wanted to share it – I brought in Bingo cards to my business studies lecture the other day and although not a winner myself, had a lot of laughs. Gotta love the look on his face when I heard "Bingo, sir."