DevConf.us 2018 is the first annual, free, Red Hat sponsored technology conference in North America for contributors to free and open source projects. It follows on the success of DevConf.cz and DevConf.in, and will highlight emerging technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence, serverless, containers and orchestration, as well as important foundational practices like quality engineering and user experience.
We sat down with a few of the Red Hat speakers presenting on user experience (UX) in open source technologies to talk about user experience and how it impacts them in all of their different roles.
First, a question for everyone. What got you interested in user experience design?
Máirín Duffy (Principal Interaction Designer): The plan was to be a video game artist when I grew up, but that changed [in high school] when we started using Linux at home. The user interface was completely customizable, the OS never crashed (in the age of crash-happy Windows 95 & 98), and the software freedom aspect was compelling… I dropped my dream of becoming a video game artist and decided that I wanted to make software freedom more accessible by improving the user experience of FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software).
Sara Chizari (User Researcher): I started my education in computer science, but shifted my focus to human-computer interaction when I began my postgraduate studies as an international student. To some extent, my interest in UX comes from my own life experiences that made me think an international 'persona' like me wasn't considered in the design of systems or products.
As an example, to apply for a student visa I had to to complete an online application that asked for my full name in my native language. But the website didn’t allow right to left alignment or support Persian characters. This one simple error caused a three month delay in my application and forced me to defer my admission to the next year.
I also have a desire to connect with people and learn their stories, so that’s another reason I decided to pursue this career.
Phillip Bailey (Engineer): User interfaces have intrigued me since I was a kid. I pushed any button, flipped any switch, and turned any knob I found. As an adult, when I see a device with buttons, knobs, etc, or a UI with the digital equivalent, my curiosity still kicks into high gear. I feel a need to know if the interface responds how I would expect it to respond. Does it make sense or is it frustratingly obtuse?
Petra Sargent (Technical Writer): I always wanted to know the impact of my work. It is important to me to know "why". The why goes back to the user's goals.
How has UX impacted your work or outlook on your work?
Máirín: While it's not the most common view of user experience as a practice, coming from a free software perspective I see UX work as a social justice issue…In the current software climate, where many apps are 'free' and the users are the product, getting access to software involves giving up your personal data.
It is a serious issue when user experiences are designed to disarm users into giving their data away to be sold, when they are designed to keep users’ eyes on the advertisements in the application and away from their real lives. Free software short circuits that, so it's really important that it has an excellent user experience in order to provide those advantages to people and society.
Phillip: When I use poorly designed software, I often find myself asking questions like "why did they do it this way?" and "what would I have done differently". Conversely, when I don't find myself asking those questions, I try to stop and admire the amount of thought that went into making the experience seamless and enjoyable, because I know it didn't happen by accident.
Being able to provide those types of experiences for others made working in this field an easy choice. The frustration I feel when I use an application or device with a poorly designed interface motivates me to provide the most enjoyable experience I possibly can to the users of the projects on which I work.
Máirín, what difference do you think user experience can make for open source projects?
Máirín: With open source, you kind of can't compete based on the excellence of your codebase - we all have access to the same FLOSS libraries and platforms. One of the main differentiators between open source projects is the user experience. Who cares if your open source project exists... who cares if the code is out there and the functionality exists if you can't actually make use of it?
A good user experience is critical in allowing people to access your hard work and for it to make a positive difference in their lives. Many of us in the open source field believe in software freedom - the best way we can spread software freedom so more people can benefit from it is to make our open source software more accessible through the UX discipline.
Sara, you’re working on a project focused on accessibility. How has this work changed your outlook on user experience design and development?
Sara: The accessibility project is a great example of why we need to include actual users in our development process as early as we can. Through collaboration with visually impaired students, we learned that it is better to plan ahead and consider all variations of user needs in early stages of development rather than to wait until a problem arises and then try to fix it. Retrofitting websites to improve accessibility is sometimes more difficult than building websites with accessibility in mind from the beginning.
Also, even though there are Web accessibility guidelines and standards, we learned that testing and including the users who use Web assistive technologies is the only way we can understand their real needs, expectations, and preferences. The results of our work showed us that complying with the standards does not necessarily offer the best user experience, especially when it comes to users with special needs.
Phillip, you’ve been working a lot with our open source design system, PatternFly. Explain the impact that working with a design system has had on your work. Have you found it beneficial?
Phillip: Patternfly is the only design system that I have worked with extensively, but the benefits it has provided make me wonder how designers and frontend developers ever functioned without one. When I use the styles and patterns it contains, I can rest assured that my work will provide a consistent and cohesive user experience across all the products that also use Patternfly without ever having to open those other applications.
I don't have to waste time conducting conversations about individual details, because all of that work is already done. The style guide also explains the reasoning behind many of the decisions that have been made, so I get to learn about the intent of the style or pattern instead of blindly following arbitrary rules.
Petra, how does technical writing/documentation factor in to the user experience?
Petra: Documentation that is written from a user perspective is more useful than documentation that only describes a feature.
Finally, what’s the risk of bad UX? Is good UX really worth the investment?
Máirín: One of the projects I was involved in early on in my career is something I'm still pretty proud of. I was tasked alongside a developer to investigate a feature request from a product manager. We followed - as closely as possible given physical access and timeline - a contextual inquiry based approach to researching customer needs to see if the feature was something that customers would actually use and would solve problems for them.
Our conclusion was that the feature, as spec-ed out, would not actually help customers. We were able to shut down the feature request and shift months of developer time and financial investment towards another feature that we determined *would* solve customer problems: it ended up being a success and helped drive product sales for a long time.
Investing a little in UX up front can help you avoid pouring time, effort, and money into features that won't get used or help your user-base. Why wait until after you've put all of that in to find out users don't want or need it?
Don't miss DevConf.us!
Make sure to hit up our UX-focused (and others!) talks at DevConf.us August 17-19th to hear even more from these speakers. Walk up registration is available, so if you are in or near Boston and haven’t registered yet, you can still join us and learn much more about UX.