While at CHI earlier this week, I went along to a session with the same title as this blog post. I was looking for some inspiration, something to take to a UDS (Ubuntu Developer Summit) session perhaps, something to turn into a blog post, food for thought.

The session at CHI included a food critic, a restaurant designer, a food stylist, a chef and a user experience director; correction: the chef couldn’t make it and Bill Buxton was supposed to be there but couldn’t so they asked the VP User Experience from Experian to step in (too much detail?).

I was very excited that this would be an interesting session but confess to giving up early. I think it was a great idea to put these people together but it just didn’t come together. No mind, the idea of it got me thinking.

Professional criticism is a genre. The food critic in attendance had worked hard at his particular tone of voice and had developed a persona that people would want to read. He talked about trying to give people a sense of a restaurant then was clearly delighted with the story he was able to tell about a restaurant with a particular set of photographs which he wove through his review. There is no doubt that his job is to inform but it is also to entertain. Restaurants need to be written about; reviews are a major part of their marketing plans. I can only speak for myself here but I enjoy reading reviews and I like them to be memorable. I will listen to what the critic has to say about the food and am curious about the atmosphere and service but a memorable review will might make me visit. The photographs from the example given would probably have enticed me into the restaurant – be they ridiculed or celebrated – as long as the food sounded good. Interestingly, the photographer rang the critic to defend their work.

The architect/restaurant designer told the story of a new restaurant that he worked on which had got a poor review – not for the food, but for his work, for the atmosphere. He described ringing the particular critic, inviting her for lunch and giving her the context of brief, budget, design intent.

Criticism as a word has negative connotations and yet, without it, progress would be extremely hard. I can imagine a scenario with a chef: “Try this… You like?”, “More tarragon you say? Interesting.”, “Hmmm, what about this?”.

Criticism and feedback are a vital part of any creative process, as is quality control.

Going back to our chef for a moment he may be willing to hear suggestions while he is deciding how to plate a dish: “You think it’s too green?” but, when the dish is about to be carried off to a table, the mode is very different: “There is no radish on this plate!”

The aim is, I have no doubt, to only let the food critic see the plate that has the radish.

In order to make my job, and my team, as useful as possible to the open-source and Ubuntu community, I need feedback at 3 levels.

1) I need to know if the radish isn’t on the plate.

2) I need to hear about the tarragon idea.

3) I need to be told about the overall impression. If the photos on the wall are distracting you from the food, I need to be able to address that.

Stealing an analogy that came up over lunch last Friday; releasing software in alpha is like inviting people to watch pre-production rehearsals of a play. As we see and hear it all come together we are still chopping and changing the script, the costumes, and the set.

For our part my team and I will do our best to do as follows:

1) Let you know we meant to put a radish on that plate.

2) Create a forum where the addition of tarragon can be suggested and discussed.

3) Continue to read the reviews.

The third area is the most interesting. While I am sure it would be a very interesting exercise to take every person who writes a review out for lunch and have a conversation about context and design intent, this approach isn’t scalable. Let’s start with design.canonical.com, #ayatana on irc, the Ayatana mailing list and, you are welcome to come and find us at UDS.

Tarragon you say? Interesting.