Open Source needs a new UI

As a freelance web developer, I’ve seen and used my fair share of open source web applications (and desktop software), and I’d like to point out something that I see all too often in open source projects: the user interface almost always lets the project down. Let me explain…

The Problem

I’ve used a considerable amount of open source software (web-based and desktop), and I feel that a large portion of them are let down by their UI. The functionality is brilliant, the code is great, and the product is useful, but the user interface often just lacks the smoothness and level of polish that people tend to expect these days if they’re to download an application and give it a fair go.

First Impressions

Most of the time, it’s not even the software itself, but rather the promotional site—the face of the project—that makes me cringe. For example, as I explore the web, I come across sites for open source projects on a daily basis — recent examples from my browsing history include Cyberduck, FileZilla, GnuCash, BambooInvoice, GitX, and Vim — and while the promotional sites convey all the necessary information, most of these sites look stuck in a much older paradigm of thinking about web design. It’s not just a handful of projects, though—I actually think it is by far the rule rather than the exception with open source projects in general. Surely it’s not the best first impression to be making about your software.

The Products Themselves

It’s not just the promotional websites though—if you look at the actual software products themselves in many open source projects and compare them with the commercial applications they’re essentially competing with, it’s usually the UI that is the separating factor. Take ProjectPier for example: it’s functionality is significantly similar to that of commercial projects like Basecamp and activeCollab (which is actually a direct descendent/fork of ProjectPier that went commercial, by the way), however ProjectPier’s UI feels miles behind to me. Despite moving to a new theme in their more recent releases, the default UI (and most other themes available too) is still reminiscent of websites that were all the craze before YouTube was around. It’s a similar situation when you look at projects like Cyberduck and Filezilla compared with commercial FTP applications like Transmit and Forklift; or for Git GUI apps GitX compared with apps like Tower and Gitbox; and I could think of numerous other examples in just about every other problem domain too. What it boils down to is this: as a consumer of software, it’s the quality of the UI that sways my decision in almost every case.

Getting it right

There are, however, plenty of great examples in the open source world of good UI design in terms of both promotional sites and software products. Here are a few examples (not an exhaustive list though, by any means) of projects I think are getting it right:

There’s also a few community projects to do with the open source community in general, which are placing a focus on the UI of open source in general. The most readily available example of this is MoveTheWebForward.org which aim to make it easier for people to get themselves involved in the open source community. Sites like this are fantastic, but I don’t think it’s just the web that needs to be brought forward—I think it’s the UI of many aspects of open source software too.

Maybe this is just a rant

Who knows? Maybe I’m just being an elitist snob because I’m a designer for a living myself—but I wonder what effect a focus on improving the UI of open source software would have on the rate of uptake of open source software projects, especially by users who are less technically minded (and thus more interested in the elegance of the UI than the elegance of the code). Is there a preconceived notion held by the open-source community that paying attetion to design (especially of the promotional websites for projects) is superfluous? Or is it just a shortage of time, effort, and contributors? Do we need to get more designers involved in open source to balance out the focus on development?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, so if you’ve got an opinion about what I’ve said, let me know on Twitter.

Disclaimer

If you happen to be involved with one of the project’s I’ve used above as an example, then I apologise—open source software has made my life a great deal easier, and for that I’ll always be grateful. My intention is not to offend, or to belittle the valuable contributions people have made to the projects mentioned above, however I stand by my point that open source UI in general has a long way to go to catch up to its commercial counterparts.

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