Contributing to free & open source software as a designer

CHI 2010 logo
Next Sunday there’s going to be a FLOSS HCI Workshop at CHI 2010 in Atlanta, GA. CHI is the annual conference on human-computer interaction’ [1] for ACM’s SIG CHI (Special Interest Group in Computer-Human Interaction.) Michael Terry from the University of Waterloo and Paula Bach from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have organized this workshop for both folks in the academic HCI community and HCI folks from the open source community. It’s going to be an opportunity for folks from either or both groups to get together and to share knowledge and propose directions for research both to help inform HCI tools and to further the user experience in free/libre and open source software.

My submission for the workshop was a 12-page case study [2] from my own experiences of being a designer in the Fedora community, on the Fedora Design Team. I wanted to post this before the workshop to get your feedback on it so I can bring it up during the workshop when I attend it next week! Let me know if there’s anything in there that’s wrong, anything that might have been forgotten, or honestly any other points at all you would like to see addressed at a FLOSS HCI workshop! I’ll do my best to bring them up and then report back post-workshop how it went. 🙂
Here’s a little outline of the paper contents – it’s broken into two major parts; one goes over various challenges particular to designing in a FLOSS community, and the other goes through some suggestions to try to address them:


  • Distributed development
    • Internet access / bandwidth concerns
    • Text-based mediums
    • Time zone dispersal
    • Cultural differences
  • Lack of central organization
    • Level of professionalism
    • Stakeholder identification and power
    • Upstream vs downstream – complex relationships
    • Ownership and licensing
    • Shared vision
  • Cultural Differences
    • Tools
      • Dogfooding
      • Economics / tool affordability
      • Avoiding bitrot
      • Building a showcase
      • Maintaining appropriate licensing
      • Democratization of production

      • IRC, mailing list, wiki, etc. etiquette and culture
      • Process transparency
      • Sharing information – release forms, etc.
      • Encoding issues
      • Remembering to be open/transparent – providing ‘source’
    • Lack of an established design community
      • Need more designers to get more designers
      • Greater need for mentoring – a time drain on an already time-pressed group
      • Difficulty in self-assignment
      • Getting beyond surface-level enhancements
      • Design tools not as strong as development tools
      • Designers needing to pick up developer skills – e.g., learning git and command-line tools – to be effective
      • Hard to establish authority when you’re considered a newbie
      • Overwhelming demand for design services stressful


  • Be visible in the community
    • Create a place for design
    • Hold real-time ‘hackfests’ for design
    • Attend in-person conferences
    • Blog and post frequently within community forums
  • Adapt to the culture of open sharing
    • Consider FLOSS licenses for your own work
    • Follow a transparent process
  • Upstream your work
  • Adapt to the communication methods
  • Get user feedback early and often
  • Provide mentorship
    • Break tasks into small, digestible chunks for mentees
    • Facilitate discussion and indicate clear deliverables
    • Give credit where credit is due

I hope these bullet points kind of illustrate where it’s going. Actually, outlining it like this I see I brought up a lot more challenges than I posed solutions for – whoops! 🙂 Anyhow, if you do have time to even read through the bullet points if not skim through or read the full paper, I would really appreciate your feedback or any discussion points you might have to add for the workshop.

[1] To me, ‘Human-Computer Interaction’ > ‘Computer-Human Interaction’ because I think the humans are more important thus should be listed first. 😉
[2] I fear it’s a bit excessive for a workshop, but I’ve not submitted to CHI before and figured erring on the side of excess was a better move!


  1. Andy Fitzsimon says:

    Fantastic work Máirín!
    A pretty good summary of the world we live in.

  2. Comments sent to Fedora mail address.
    HTH DaveP

  3. Very good presentation that actually display issues as designer who use FLOSS tools. There is no further suggestion to add.

  4. -Stéphane- says:

    Thanks to you, I've learned a new english word !
    It's always interesting for a none natural english speaker like me… Now I know what's "dogfooding" is all about. 🙂

  5. […] Duffy will be presenting a paper on design in the free software community at the upcoming ACM SIGCHI conference. That paper has been […]

  6. For a 'non English speaker' that's a very good English paper!
    I'm impressed with the English as well as the content!
    I hope it is well received.

  7. Your bullet point list very finely summarizes a lot of the issues around collaboration on FLOSS projects. The list actually matches some of the brainstorm notes I made while working on my thesis on a similar topic.
    I have only skimmed your paper, but perhaps you could make it even better by cutting down on the text that deals with the general challenges to online (FLOSS) collaboration, as these points are already pretty well established. Then you could focus on the parts related to collaboration on visual design and HCI in the context on FLOSS collaboration, as your points in that section are maybe more interesting to the HCI academics. Of course if said academics are not at all into FLOSS collaboration, your summary may be necessary.
    (Take this advice knowing that I have only skimmed your article).

  8. Nikki says:

    I really like this – I think it's a great rundown of FLOSS problems, and also addresses quite a few issues that are general to distributed/large group collaboration. I think one of the biggest points is the question of shared vision, and how to address the varied (and occasionally conflicting) goals that different stakeholders have. Personally, I feel that this is one of the biggest problems that a large, un- or semi-structured group of people can face, so it'll be interesting to see how different projects address that moving forward.

  9. […] reading Máirín Duffy’s awesome paper about contributing to Free Software as a designer I couldn’t help but get that image brought […]

  10. […] designing for free software as part of an open source workspace at the ACM CHI conference in 2010 ( I’ve also given talks at the Libre Graphics Meeting, SXSW, GUADEC, FUDCon, LibrePlanet, […]

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