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Ubuntu's Design Team: Make It Look Good, Run Better

On Tuesday afternoon I spoke with Ivanka Majic, leader of Canonical's design team for Ubuntu Desktop and Netbook Remix. She's spearheading the effort to make Ubuntu that much more appealing and useful -- to make it more of its "Linux for human beings" namesake.

On Tuesday afternoon I spoke with Ivanka Majic, leader of Canonical's design team for Ubuntu Desktop and Netbook Remix. She's spearheading the effort to make Ubuntu that much more appealing and useful -- to make it more of its "Linux for human beings" namesake.

The design team's a group of fourteen people who comprise a mix of different disciplines: visual / graphics designers, interaction designers, and technical people. "The majority of us come from consultancies and agencies," Ivanka explained. "I was at a user experience consultancy called Flow Interactive, and I used to be a programmer, so I came into user-centered design. If I was thinking about what people were doing and how, I could help them accomplish that."

I was curious what kind of working relationship the design group had established with GNOME so far. (I focused on GNOME for now since the stock Ubuntu installation uses it, and therefore that's what most people have direct exposure to.)

"Part of my job is working out the answer to that myself. We're a fairly new team, and we've had to do some work trying to learn how to operate with the FOSS community. The Paper Cuts project [an ongoing project to identify trivially fixable bugs that otherwise annoy users -sy] was partly to get some small interaction problems fixed within Ubuntu, but also to understand how far we can push things. The team doesn't just cover Desktop, though; we have a little more freedom elsewhere in Netbook Remix.

"I think the relationships we're forming and setting up relationships within GNOME, meeting with them and having conferences, will in time have an influence and begin to feed into the GNOME development process. I can't give an answer yet as to how much we can do, since this is a unique environment to work in. We've got to form relationships in a way that are quite different from any other working environment. Open source is an amazing melting pot of enthusiasm and energy, and working out how to be useful in it is a skill."

UIs in open source apps, Linux especially, are a common source of complaints from the uninitiated. What can be done about that?

"I don't think there's a silver bullet. Being able to spend the last 7 months working with our own in-house developers, getting the language right (if I change an icon, is that a "bugfix"?) , feeding into the process at the right time, figure out the release schedules, all those things. Right now, there's not much to see -- there's a kind of shallow level of change from a visual perspective, but that's because we're just getting started. Nobody can do everything in six months but we can make it a little better. I think a brand-new design team trrying to work out how everything can't possibly have gone 'ta-da!' and handed you a brand new super shiny Ubuntu. But I think Ubuntu does get better with every release. Karmic has a kind of smoothness to it that Jaunty didn't have. You can already tell the difference. And I've got massive hopes for Lucid; I just hope I don't shoot myself in the foot."

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What's the design team's exact set of responsibilities?

"Our job is to create designs that make both Ubuntu and its attendant applications better and easier to use. We also need to find our audience, so to speak. We have a community of developers that are our primary users, and we have to balance off their needs against everyone else's. We also get user feedback to make designs that are a little less 'me-centric'. Designers are generally top down: you come up with the design, people make it for you, but that can't be the only pattern here. The last time we went to the Ubuntu Dev Summit, one of the things we did was a design clinic -- we just sat and had the upstream folds come to us and ask us how to make things better to use."

How do you perform use testing?

"We recruit people from various places - sometimes from within the community, but often we'll go get, say, six people who definitely use an MP3 music player and download music, and we'll get some interaction behavior between them and Ubuntu. We're looking for qualitative data, not quantitative. For most people, getting people started is quite easy on Ubuntu -- it's that they get caught on other things along the way.

"Most of the community is really keen to give feedback. We just need to ask the right questions in the right places. We don't always know what the more competent people are doing - we also want to know what people who simply use the PC as a tool are trying to do." That last category could include most anyone who uses a computer at all, couldn't it?

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