What Ubuntu’s Design Team Needs to Do

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.

6 thoughts on “What Ubuntu’s Design Team Needs to Do

  1. A great example of a company that’s doing no. 3 right is Mozilla. Their designers document everything, be it in blogs, wikis, mailing lists, bugs, or their new ‘Behind the Bikeshed’, where they simply post their musings out in the open, even if nothing will ever come from them. It’s transparent to death, and it’s fascinating for those interested, reassuring for users, and very conducive to iteration and progress. They don’t design by committee, but the community does provide them with valuable feedback and insights. I hope Canonical will learn from this model and stop trying to surprise people out of the blue. In terms of transparency, be more like Mozilla and less like Apple.

  2. I think you *are* wrong. Seems to me, Ubuntu is clearly aimed at the novice user. The main target seems to be to liberate people from Windows (and the Mac?). I used to think Ubuntu was for power users like me too, but I’m slowly backing away from that idea. Many recent aggravating changes and the reactions of Ubuntu leadership and the wider community to criticism has led me to believe otherwise. From everything I hear, the “new user” is the holy grail. I think the fact that that isn’t ever officially stated is due to the fact that they are cautious and don’t want to make it look like they are excluding other people. Often even the most novice user will become a power user at some point and losing those people to other distros obviously isn’t what Canonical wants.

    I think Ubuntu is actually doing much of what you propose. There is clearly a strong vision (Shuttleworth) there and a very astute team to put that vision into action. I personally don’t like the direction they are going (probably irrelevant) and I sure as hell don’t understand it (much worse). This is where I think the problem lies: Communication. That and premature execution. They unleashed all this new stuff on the world, some of it clearly not ready (just look at the half-baked colour scheme and icons on the web design stuff, some of the characters in the new font that aren’t in U-B-U-N-T-U, the uneven button placement etc.) and then they followed that up only with marketing babble. If Ubuntu has a design vision, they should clearly state it on a blog or something. And no, I am sorry, but “It’s Light” is neither a design vision nor does it explain ANYTHING. They should also clearly state that design is Canonical’s realm and stop pretending they are looking for contributions from “the community”. Ubuntu’s design list is a joke, I’ve followed it for quite some time. Compare it with what Fedora is doing and it looks really sad. I won’t even go into the fact that Ubuntu’s design lead recently admitted on UUPC that they don’t even use 100% Free Software tools. All of this is looking really bad for Ubuntu, IMO. I would say it’s sad, but in the last six months I’ve basically given up on it. Not that this matters to anyone but me, however.

    In my opinion, Ubuntu either should admit that their design isn’t community-run, execute their vision powerfully and communicate what they are doing properly (the Gods now all the tools are there to do that) or they should open up properly and get help and follow advice from the community — at the price of not ending up with Shuttleworth’s favourite desktop colour in the end.

  3. @David – thanks for the pointer to the Mozilla blog. This is exactly what the internet is for. I can’t understand why they wouldn’t want to share their work with the world.

    @Fab – You may think that it’s aimed at Novice users. But is that specific enough? I don’t think so. Also, until I hear it from the horse’s mouth, it ain’t decided in my mind. I don’t think a whole team of designers (and an eager free software design community) should base all of their design efforts on what we “think” is their target audience. They (as in Ubuntu) need to state it loud and clear.

  4. True. I do think they have a clear focus of their audience internally, though. I gather this from talking to Ubuntu devs mainly. As with a lot of things, they are just not telling anybody… :(

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