After working on paper cuts for a year, I realized how disorganized many open source projects affecting Ubuntu are when it comes to improving user experience. I would often go to upstream projects with a list of paper cuts to discuss and have a very difficult time finding someone to discuss them with. Either the maintainer was too busy, or nobody was interested in small user experience issues, or “the mailing list made that [design decision],” or there was no record justifying the existing user experience so project stakeholders assumed they were deliberate decisions made by the original authors, etc.

We simply cannot go on like this! We need to be able to address user experience issues at least as effectively as we address technical issues, and this starts with being able to communicate about these issues at least as effectively. If I discover a user experience issue in F-Spot, there should be exactly one person I can discuss it with, who will take responsibility for keeping an eye on it, and who will discuss and prioritize it with F-Spot’s development team. This person would be F-Spot’s User Experience Advocate, and everyone working on F-Spot would have this person on speed dial.

The User Experience Advocate is responsible for representing the interests of users within an open source project, and has the following specific duties:

  • Review usability and user research documents.
  • Communicate user experience research to the project team.
  • Review use cases if they are available or produce them if they don’t exist.
  • Review software against user experience guidelines, usability heuristics and brand.
  • Work closely with the maintainer and advise on solutions that are most aligned with users needs and findings.
  • Conduct usability testing or other research to support the project team’s decision making.
  • Write and follow usability bug reports throughout the lifecycle of the project.
  • Work closely with UX Advocates on related projects.
  • Participate in the greater user experience community.

Where do we find people with these skills, you ask? We already have them! To be a UX Advocate, you don’t need to be able to create pixel-perfect mockups in Inkscape or have an HCI degree. All you need is love–you have to love an open source project and the people who use it, and you need to be patient, persistent, and persuasive. Of course, if you have some background in user experience, that would be tremendously helpful, but it’s unnecessary; it’s far better for an open source project to have a novice UX Advocate than none at all.

Many open source projects already have people serving in this capacity; sometimes it’s the project maintainer, or sometimes there’s a de facto usability expert. My goal is to ensure that all major software projects shipping in Ubuntu can name their UX Advocate by this coming October. I would be delighted if the same happens for Kubuntu, or for any arbitrary open source software project for that matter. In my opinion, if an open source project has a Maintainer, it should also have a UX Advocate.

In his keynote address at O’Reilly Open Source Convention on July 22nd, 2008, Mark Shuttleworth challenged the open source community to not only to catch up to Apple in terms of user experience, but to surpass the user experience of Mac OS X within two years. That two year period will expire in 45 days, so how are we doing?

(Before people start complaining about this comparison, let me make it clear that I understand that many Ubuntu users are not interested in Apple or any of their products, and that many members of the open source community do not share the goal of making Ubuntu’s user experience surpass that of Mac OS X. That’s fine, I understand. I am writing this because it is my duty to make the experience of using Ubuntu better than the experience of using any similar product, and because Ubuntu and Mac OS X, as desktop operating systems, are similar products, it is my duty to make the experience of using Ubuntu better than the experience of using Mac OS X. I cannot accomplish this effectively without comparing the two, but I digress.)

It is an incredibly daunting task to compare the total user experience of Ubuntu to the total user experience of Mac OS X, so instead I will attempt a cursory comparison the rate of change of user experience over the course of the last two years. Any objective critic will readily admit that the Ubuntu of two years ago, Ubuntu 8.04, did not offer the same or better user experience as the Mac OS X of two years ago, Mac OS X 10.5. To trump the user experience of Mac OS X, Ubuntu’s user experience will necessarily have had to improve more in two years than Mac OS X did.

Ubuntu 8.04

Ubuntu, two years ago.

Here’s how the user experience of Ubuntu has improved in two years:

  • The Ubuntu Software Center made it a snap to discover and install software.
  • The Humanity icon theme gave us much improved, scalable icons.
  • The Radiance and Ambiance themes made Ubuntu more beautiful.
  • The Me Menu lets you Tweet, Dent, and change status from anywhere.
  • The Messaging Menu consolidated new message notifcations.
  • The Session Menu made fast user switching and other session states more accessible.
  • PiTiVi Video Editor enabled video editing out of the box.
  • Brasero made burning CDs much simpler.
  • Empathy enabled video and audio chat on supported hardware.
  • Gwibber Social Client brought Facebook, Twitter, and other social services to the desktop.
  • Monochromatic panel icons reduced visual noise and made the panel feel cleaner.
  • Improved window animations and effects made Ubuntu feel snappier and smoother.
  • Simple Scan made scanning a no-brainer.
  • The Ubuntu One Music Store puts a huge library of DRM-free music at your fingertips.
  • Rhythmbox added fantastic iPod and iPhone support.
  • We fixed 178 Paper Cuts.
  • When you start or shut down, there is less flickering.
  • Ubuntu boots very very quickly.
  • Encrypted Home Folders keep your files extremely secure.
  • Ubuntu One keeps your files synchronized across multiple computers and the web.
  • Bluetooth Setup greatly simplifies working with Bluetooth devices.
  • The Installer slideshow gives a slick overview of the Ubuntu experience.
  • USB Startup Disk Creator saves time, hassle, and CDs!
  • Notify OSD presents uniform, unobstrusive notifications.
  • Sudoku!
  • Firefox 3 brought private browsing, improved UI, better security, more speed, improved audio, video, and web fonts.
  • Transmission BitTorrent Client makes downloading large files very pleasant.
  • Easier configuration of multiple displays.
  • Much refined installer, including a nicer time zone selector.
  • Ability to enable auto-login.
  • Tomboy Notes sync puts your notes on all of your computers and the web.
  • OpenOffice.org v3 brought many new features and improvements.
  • PulseAudio gives us better sound control for multiple devices.
  • Improved out-of-the-box experience for users of Nvidia drivers.
  • Mobile Broadband support lets you easily connect to the Internet via your mobile phone.
  • BBC and YouTube support in Movie Player.
  • Guest Account makes it easier to share your computer.
  • Fast User Switching.
  • Improved user account management.
  • Evolution with Exchange MAPI support (not just OWA).
  • Plug-and-Play printing enabled by automatic printer driver installation.
  • Notification of USB device removal (i.e. “you can unplug now”).
  • PDF comment support.
  • F-Spot duplicate photo detection.
  • Improved WINE integration.
  • Autorun for media containing software.
  • Tabs in Nautilus.
  • Desktop background slideshows.
  • And of course, improved hardware support so more things Just Work.

Now I’d like you take a look at the improvements Apple made to Mac OS X in a two year period. Please visit that link and read at least the bold text, if not the entire page.

At the very least, can we not say that these improvements are comparable? I think they are. Of course there have been some regressions, but if someone would have shown me the list of improvements made to Ubuntu two years ago, and told me that all of these changes would be made in time for Ubuntu 10.04, I would have been very skeptical.

What will Ubuntu be like two years from now if every project assigns a UX Advocate to take ultimate responsibility for the user experience of that project? It will be amazing!