On Tuesday, Chris Messina wrote a post about open source and design, where he laments that open source (whatever that means nowadays) and design seem to be opposed to each other. The crux of the problem seems to be that good design requires a unity about it and that since in open source all voices are heard, you inevitably end up with something that has been glommed together rather than designed. This is something that Mimi Yin and I discussed in our 2007 OSCON talk about the challenges of the Chandler design process. Chris is gloomy on the prospects of open source design processes, because he doesn’t feel that there are any examples that have succeeded. I think that this is a legitimate place to be. I don’t really see any successful open source desktop application which was designed in the kind of open design process that Chris or we at OSAF had in mind.
Is organization the problem?
On the other hand, I think that I’m slightly more optimistic about the situation than Chris is. Chris holds up the idea that there ought to be a design dictator, who drives the design and preserves the unity of the design. I’d point out that there are some open source communities where there are such people. Perhaps the best example that I can come up with are the programming languages. A good language is very hard to design. It needs to have the kind of unity that one expects to find in a good design. In some of the language communities, these designers have titles such as “Benevolent Dictator for Life”, and the community as a whole has recognized their giftedness and given them the ability to make final binding decisions about design issues. This isn’t end user facing desktop or web software, but it’s also not bunches of libraries, or implementations of JSR’s, IETF RFC’s, W3C recommendations or POSIX standards. These situations are very delicate mixes and their success is highly dependent on the particular individuals who are involved, so they tend to be rare. Nonetheless, I do think that its possible for communities to work even if there is a chief designer.
I also don’t think that there needs to be a single chief designer. Chris cited Luke Wroblewski’s description of the design process at Facebook. Very early in that post you read:
The Facebook design team works on product design, marketing, UI patterns, branding, and front-end code. The team consists of 15 product designers, 5 user interface engineers, 5 user experience researchers, 4 communication designers, and 1 content strategist. 25 designers in a company of 1,000.
Design can be done by teams. I think that we all know that, but in many of the discussions that I’ve had on this topic, the focus seems to be on the need for a dictator. The dictator model works, but so does a team model.
I think that the organizational challenges of design (dictator vs team) can be dealt with. If you bootstrap a community with a DNA that is committed to good design, and to the value of a good designer, and if the designer has won the respect of the community, then I can see a path forward on that front.
The problems that I see
In my mind the problems are:
How do you find a designer or designers who want to work in this kind of environment? We know that not all developers are well suited to distributed development. I’d venture that the same is true for designers. It’s much easier for coders to self select into a project than it is for all other types of contributors, including designers.
How can a non-coding designer win the respect of a (likely) predominantly coding oriented community? If you believe that open source projects should be organized around some notion of merit, then what are the merit metrics for designers? Who evaluates the designers on these metrics? Are the evaluators even qualified to do so? In my examples of communities with designers, those designers are all coders as well.
Can we actually do design using the commonly accepted tools of e-mail, version control, wiki’s and bug trackers? The design process relies very heavily on visual communications. The code (including design and architecture of code) process is predominantly a text based process. It is very difficult to do design efficiently in a distributed setting using the existing stable of tools. This is going to be a challenge not just for designers but for many other problem domains that could benefit from commons-based peer production.
What’s with you and that long word?
I prefer to use Yochai Benker’s term “Commons Based Peer Production” instead of the term open source. The problem with the term open source is that everyone means something different when they use it. Some people just mean licensing. Some people think of a particular community’s set of practices. Others think that it means some kind of fuzzy democracy and mob rule.
One of the reasons that I went to work at OSAF was to see if it was possible to design a good end-user application via some kind of community oriented design process. As far as I am concerned the jury is still out.