Here I go probably oversimplifying again.
There are two big problems with the design of Ubuntu (and probably most other big Linux distributions): the lack of a clear audience definition and the assumption that somehow we know what that audience wants and needs.
Clearly it’s a bit silly sounding to attempt the second without knowing the first, but the danger is that we assume the first in order to do the second.
I refuse to accept “everyone” as an audience (on the grounds that it’s impossible), so I’d have to say that Ubuntu lacks a publicly defined audience (please OH PLEASE prove me wrong here). I’ve heard many people say that Ubuntu is aimed at the person who is “new to computers”. I’ve also heard many people say that it’s aimed at “grandma”, or even better, that it’s aimed at the “average user” – whatever the hell that means. I’ve even been given a pointer to an irc log (here) that kinda sorta indicates that it’s aimed at “young professionals” who are “web-saavy”.. er.. but also everyone.
Even if we were to have a well-defined audience, I think we techie-Linux folks tend to make the mistake of assuming we know what that audience wants and needs. Worse still, we confuse it with what we want and need. This is all great if the target audience are techie-Linux folks. But if it’s not, I fear all of our best intentions will still end up with a product aimed at ourselves. And unless that is the audience, it’s a failure.
I don’t doubt that there are many creatively talented people working on Ubuntu. But for the design team I think there are a few important things that need to happen:
1. Define the audience – publicly and succinctly. It ain’t easy. You will alienate people. If you don’t you’re not defining it well enough. Don’t you think BMW, Nintendo or Apple piss people off with their design work.. even within their own ranks? Aim high. Let’s build a sports car or a minivan or a pickup truck. Pick one, but don’t aim at designing a Porsche that can seat 8 and haul sheets of plywood. It doesn’t work. It’s been proven. It weakens the result when you practice scattershot design. Focus.
2. Define the goal. What are you going to accomplish for that audience? Again, document it – publicly. This gives your design team direction. It cuts down on goose chases and keeps things moving in a single (and hopefully correct) direction.
3. Be strong in your design goals, but be transparent. Please never let it be design-by-committee or consensus. You already have talented people. Do 1. and 2. and you will make those people much more efficient. But explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Document the process in minute detail. This is the internet – it’s built for this sort of thing. Don’t do a complete identity rework and then have your head of design spend one single blog post defending it. This should have been explained to death. If you’re proud of your design, the designers should be bursting at the seams to explain their work and convince everybody that will listen as to why it’s great.
The last point requires relatively little risk and is easily accomplished however I don’t expect the first two, as important as they are, to be accomplished. There is this silly notion of having to aim Ubuntu at everyone – such a fear of pissing someone off, that I don’t think 1. and 2. are attainable.
I hope I’m wrong.