Real collaborative design with open source software

Last week we organized a local Ubuntu conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which we plan on making it a regional conference from now on thanks to the help from our friends in the Uruguay LoCo. The conference was great but by far what stayed with me was a talk and some subsequent conversations with Guillermo Espertino about how a new-ish and small group of designers that used open source software to design professionally had gotten together and started a community called Gráfica Libre. These guys, individually do some very amazing things. As a group they’ve blown my mind  🙂

These are designers who are using 100% no-excuses free software on a daily basis to design and ship professional designs to customers.

These are some of the things they’ve designed as a group for the conference:

The video was edited by Guillermo Espertino and the 3D animation done by Martin Eschoyez. The blender source files are available on his website.

This was done by Lucas Romero


There’s a presentation given by Guillermo Espertino (you can see the work his company does with open source in their website you can download it (it is in spanish, though) and it highlights the challenges they’ve faced so far in putting together designs in the open and collaboratively. They still feel they have a few iterations to go until they have a settled process, but it certainly does look like they’ve cracked the hardest part to me.

Looking for a CSS/HTML guru to work on Ubuntu One

In the last few months, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to hire some exceptional people that were contributing to Ubuntu One in their free time. Every time someone comes in from the community, filled with excitement about being able to work on their pet project full time my job gets that much better.
So, everyone say hello to James Tait and Michał Karnicki!

Now we’re looking for a new team member to help us make the Ubuntu One website awesome. Someone who knows CSS and HTML inside out, cares deeply about doing things the best way possible and is passionate about their work.

If you’re interested or know anyone who may, the job posting is up on Canonical’s website.

Ubuntu, Natty and Unity

I have to confess, after I heard I found out we where shipping Unity in Ubuntu by default I was nervous. I got asked many times what my feelings were, and I think I generally dodged the question. This was a pretty risky move, which we are still a few months away from finding out how well the risk pays off.
Given that a lot of the design behind Unity wasn’t done in the open and hadn’t had a long time to mature, I’ve been sceptical of whether we  (as in, the Ubuntu project) could pull of such a massive change in a such a short period of time, and still have happy users.

I’ve been using Unity on and off on my netbook (which is my secondary computer), but while enjoying a long weekend I’ve spent the last few days using it a lot, and my feeling towards the it have changed quite a bit.

I think it was the right decision. Overall, it feels like an overall improved experience, even with its current rough edges. Exactly what I think we need to win over a wider audience and have them fall in love with Ubuntu head over heels. Everything is starting to feel much more tightly integrated and with a purpose, as well as some eye-candy sprinkled in a lot of the right places.
I’m really glad Canonical decided to invest to heavily in such a risky and insanely complicated task, Natty is probably one of the most exciting releases I can remember.

There are still a few key challenges ahead, most notably to me is making the design process more open and inclusive, but still being able to deliver something that feels polished and not a pile of consensus between people who have gotten good at arguing. The Ayatana community does seem to be slowly growing, though, so the future looks pretty bright. Getting the right balance between Canonical and a community around design feels like one of the hardest problems to solve, luckily, Canonical continues to hire the brightest and most enthusiastic minds around, so I’m sure it will eventually feel like a solved problem.

I think it’s been almost 6 years since I landed in the Ubuntu world, I’ve done all kinds of things in the community ranging from starting and building the Argentine LoCo to editing the Ubuntu Weekly Newsletter, to evaluating new Ubuntu members in the Americas region. With its ups and down, great press and wild controversies, it still feels like the best place to be.

Making usability part of the development process

For the first year and a half in Canonical I worked with the amazing Launchpad team, with the ambitious goal of building a new user interface, introducing AJAX in an established code base and rolling it all out on time. While all of that was overwhelming in itself, what was more important to me was making sure the UI remained consistent across time.
Long story short, it was a success and it’s been 8 months since I’ve left the team and the established process is still on-going.

I wrote a paper on the whole experience and presented it at the agile conference XP2010 in Norway.

Here’s the introduction:

When I started working with the Launchpad team I was tasked with designing and rolling out a new interface using cutting-edge technology on a well established product and team. The existing processes and team structure made it very hard to roll out big changes while also ensuring consistency as time went by.
While the general designs and work ow changes were being eshed out, I started to drive some change to the existing processes, enabling me to be successful at an objective that would take a year to accomplish, and unexpectedly, beyond that.
The project was 4 years old and had over 500 dynamic pages with different templates and layouts that had been left untouched at different points in time. The goal for the next year was to make the application easier to use, even enjoyable. I also had to make the UI consistent across the board, take the project from static HTML pages into the wonderful world of in-line editing, streamlined work-flows and predictable interactions. In parallel, fundamental features that had been developed were going completely unused and we needed to turn that around. A re-usable AJAX infrastructure had to be developed from the ground up, new features needed to be designed and delivered, and general navigation issues needed to be addressed.
However, this story isn’t about the success of the roll out of a new interface, but rather the success in the process changes that evolved during that year and how the project went from nobody feeling ownership over the user interface, to the developers taking strong ownership.

I feel very passionate about this subject, and hope this experience can help other projects and teams.

Here’s the paper for download: xp2010_paper.pdf

Moving to Ubuntu One

After a year and a half in the User Experience team at Canonical, I’ve decided to move to the Ubuntu One team. It’s been an amazing experience to be part of that team but I’ve been missing doing development on a regular basis a lot lately, so I’ve decided to move into a role where I can get my hands dirty more often.

I will start by taking on anything on the web interface together with an amazing team, we will deliver a great experience and a higher level of polish for Lucid. There are some exciting new features coming to Ubuntu One, so it’s a great time to be part of the team, especially with John Lenton and Elliot Murphy as managers.

This does mean I will be moving away from the work I’ve been doing on Launchpad which makes me sad, it’s a fantastic and ambitious project filled with the smartest and most passionate engineers I’ve known.

If in the next few months you don’t start feeling like life is getting better for you on the Ubuntu One web UI, please come and find me and point me and hold me up to my promise of wonderful webby things.

Research results on Launchpad icons

Following up on our survey on icons in Launchpad, Charline Poirier provides us with the outcome:

Edit edit:  High level of understanding, but a strong association with “attention”, “warning”, and “danger”.  Might be worth modifying colour or shape to distance the icon from that interpretation.

Merge merge-proposal-icon:  Reasonable understanding of “merge”.  However, participants were not entirely sure if the icon referred to the state ‘merged’ or the branches themselves.

Remove remove:  Icon strongly associated with “do not enter” and “delete”.  The interpretation “remove” comes only in third place.  The icon is strongly evocative and might be better used to designate a more consequential or prohibitive action.

Remote bug bug-remote:  A reasonable percentage of  respondents understood the “remote bug” icon.  Many, however, did not.  It appears that the key for interpreting this icon is the representation of the bug itself.  Various potential states of a bug were suggested as interpretations.  This icon could be made more explicit.

External link link:  Relatively well understood.  It is worth noting that the icon has powerful suggestion of globality and reach (associated with translation, languages, internationalization, etc).   It is a very evocative icon that could be more fully exploited perhaps in another context.

What next?  We’ll attempt to create new versions of the icons, run another session of user-testing, and if understanding improves, Launchpad gets new icons  \0/

Improving Launchpad icons, round 2

Following up on my last post about user testing icons, it has been incredibly successful!  We’ve had over 100 responses, and are now going through the data to put together a summary. I will post information on our findings as soon as we finish the work.

In the mean time, Charline Poirier, who is in charge of user testing in our team, has created another survey with 5 more icons to help us get more data. If everyone could give this survey another spin, and create some networking effects to help spread the survey to non-Launchpad users, it would be tremendously helpful to us. Here’s the link:

Help Launchpad get better icons

We’re trying to improve the icons we have in Launchpad so they’re more usable across different cultures and types of users, and our first step is to do some user testing on our current icons.

The Canonical User Experience team has set up a survey to gather information on how users see our icons, so if you have a few spare minutes (it’s very quick!), please take the survey and pass it on to other people, especially if they don’t use Launchpad, as they will be less biased.

Survey is available at:

User Experience everywhere

About a month ago, I went to Canonical’s office in London for a sprint, and made good use of my Sunday by visiting the National Gallery. One fantastic thing about London, is the fact that all museums are free, not just because otherwise a few years back I couldn’t of afforded going, but because the fact that they are free gives you the freedom of going to the same ones over and over again, and just calmly visit the bits you’re interested in.

As I was walking by, I saw a painting that really struck me. It was a terrible and dark dragon eating two men, one of them is in agony while it’s face is being eaten off. Quite shocking:

Two Followers of Cadmus devoured by a Dragon

After looking at it for a little while, I went closer to read the description of it, which unexpectedly shocked me ten times as much:

“This gruesome episode comes from the story of Cadmus which is told in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ (III: 1-151). Cadmus was sent by the Delphic oracle to follow a cow and build a town where it sank from exhaustion. The cow stopped on the future site of Thebes, and Cadmus, intending to sacrifice it, sent his followers to get water from the neighbouring well of Ares. They were killed by the guardian of the well, a dragon who was the son of Ares. Cadmus then killed the dragon and on the advice of Athena sowed its teeth in the ground, from which sprang up armed men who slew each other, with the exception of five who became the ancestors of the Thebans.”

This got me thinking on how much first impressions are important in the user experience, but really hit me how much more important the actual content is. We tend to relay the content creation and management to “the marketing folks”, when I feel it’s a crucial part that should be worked on together to balance off the amount of text, with the tone in which it’s written, and to ensure that we’re adding value to the users’ experience.

Yes, I’m starting to see UI everywhere.