Towards a LibreOffice Briefing

This has to be discussed inside the project of course, but perhaps my audience can help with some input :)

Ideally all design and development activities should be based on a briefing, a mission statement with the overarching goal of the project. It’s important to know what you are actually trying to do. Especially in a collaborative project.

While I think I have a reasonable clear picture of the desirable characteristics of a font already (more work to follow), the larger visual design effort needs a strategy, a message, based on the mission.

So what is the most minimal core of a missions statement, what is the essence, the high level goal just a bit more specific than make the world a better place? ;)

A first, rough proposal for a Mission Statement

Develop an office productivity solution and make it and the project itself available to and accessible by a majority of humans.

It follows:

  • Internationalization
  • Given our modern world, there needs to be software
  • Free Software
  • All major platforms
  • Interoperability
    • Open, documented interfaces
    • Open, documented file formats
    • Compatibility with other solutions
  • Collaboration
    • Meritocracy (there needs to be some hurdle for contributing and based on ability*effort is best, if you care about the result)

Notes

I would usually encourage defining an audience as narrow as possible, but it seems the widest possible scope is actually defining for this project. If not, please step forward with definitions of a narrower audience.

The statement is phrased in a way that opens the door for education and non-software bound approaches.

The word develop shall imply optimizing the process and outcome. Best
possible
or optimal would just bloat the statement, as it’s clear that you don’t want an just-acceptable solution. However, it’s not clear what optimal or best possible really means in the end.

But what is an office productivity solution or an office (software)
suite
, actually? How do you define the scope here, short of enumerating the current components? How do you include enough, but not too much?

You could say: the solution must cover:

  • text documents with embedded graphics, from letters to books
  • presentations, including animations, embedded sound and video
  • doing Calculations, including in a tabular fashion (spreadsheet)
  • managing interlinked data and doing queries (relational database)

Long term, both spreadsheets and relational database might be too specific, as they don’t define the actual needs and goals being
addressed. Seeing spreadsheets and relational database as solutions, can you define the problems they solve succinctly?

How to rule out (given we really have/want to):

  • (full-featured) audio and video editing?
  • advanced animation features (think Flash, Synfig)?
  • advanced scientific and engineering needs regarding calculations, including simulations?

Audience

Not many people who can or could use a computer at all can be excluded from the wider audience. The strategy and visual design doesn’t have to try to address everyone, but should rather focus on where it can make a difference.

It is important to note that what LibreOffice has to offer is or should be  interesting to all kinds of organisations, including companies of any size and government agencies. Reliability, continuity and support solutions  are important, here. Think of the impression you want to make and translate it into visual design.

Back from UDS-N

Got back home from Ubuntu Developer Summit in Orlando on Sunday. Had some good times and it was great to meet people, who I have been communicating with online, in person. Thanks to everyone who made this UDS and my attendance possible!

Two sessions about user testing have been among the more interesting for me.

One about Charline‘s work in China, a first foray into researching the needs and possibilities of adapting Ubuntu for chinese users. The participants interpreted the window buttons on the left as a sign of Canonical/Ubuntu not understanding the chinese culture. Apparently a culture with a strong preference of the right hand and putting things to the right. But wouldn’t that include the menubar contents? Is there really a difference to western culture? Could it be a kind of idiom, said to quench any discussion?

The other about testing Unity. Charline walked us through several issues that had come up repeatedly with the test participants. A very good reminder of how much powerusers, including developers and designers, have behavioral patterns and background information they don’t think about anymore, and how less technical users don’t have this mental framework. Trying to recount the session here wouldn’t do it justice. I hope Charline will repeat the demonstration in front of a camera, as suggested by a member of the audience.

The best reason for me to be there was the Reinvigorate the Artwork Team session and related discussions. I suggested to turn the Artwork team into a Design team, because the terms Art or Artwork suggest a rather intuitive, not planned approach, are not very fitting for themes and mockups and rule out interaction design. I think the team should be enabled and encouraged to cover the whole continuum of design from wallpapers to information architecture and user experience.

There is a strong consensus that the wiki is not suitable for submitting and managing assets. We talked about the needs to track requests, for proper briefings and guidance through the design process and the educational aspect.

We will start a web presence project, not necessarily ubuntu-specific. First step will be a questionnaire, to be created by Ivanka. Well … stay tuned :)

Design Center

Or should it be Design Centr to be both hip and US/UK neutral?

There has been talk on the ubuntu-art mailing list about creating a replacement to our wiki section for submitting artwork. To lower the barrier and for making it more manageable. Tracking request for artwork has also been brought up.

There’s the DesignHub project, thought up by Máirín Duffy of Fedora.

SpreadUbuntu could be suitable, though it’s positioned a bit different.

There should be good reasons, if you start yet another project, instead of joining or building on existing ones. But before you join or build on existing projects, you should think hard about whether they are or can become what you really want or need.

I have been thinking about what the underlying goal should be:
Foster quality and quantity of design efforts and outcomes in the Free Software and Open-Source realm.
or perhaps:
Foster quality and quantity of open design efforts and outcomes. Open design efforts shall mean ones that favor collaboration, meritocracy, sharing and permissive licensing.

If there’s going to be a project to build not-that-trivial infrastructure, I think it shouldn’t be tied to Ubuntu.

How could one go about reaching that goal?

  • Offer a place to go for open design projects
  • Increase the visibility of design efforts, outcomes and participants
  • Make design more enjoyable, make it happen easier and faster
    • remove technical hurdles
    • shape social interactions in a positive manner
    • encourage feedback. silence hurts
  • encourage constructive criticism, discourage unspecific and unfounded criticism
  • encourage participators to pay attention to constructive criticism
  • avoid and protect against flaming, trolling and vandalism
  • apply automation
  • assist in managing various aspects of design projects
  • Offer guidance and education to enable more, and more capable, participators
  • take care of deployment/packaging/distribution

Proposal for the concrete part of the briefing:

Create, deploy and maintain a website for managing design processes and assets.
Where assets are any kind of content wrapped in files such as images, audio and video recordings or compound (text and images) documents.

Web Frameworks

Ubuntu Wiki

I did a lot of editing and organizing the Ubuntu wiki section of the Artwork Team. I saw enough traces of people not understanding how to use the wiki, attaching images to random pages without telling anyone. Lots of struggling with the markup. Writing a step-by-step guide for how to add wallpapers and accompanying text made it even clearer to me that there is a significant hurdle that shouldn’t exist.

The strictly hierarchical structure is an issue, when what you would actually need would include things like: show me GTK+ Themes for 10.10. VS show me everything for 10.10. Faceted navigation, please.

If you have too many images on a page, you can get to know the surge protection (the wiki refuses to deliver the page and uses a timeout penalty).

Add the fun you can have with locking/warning and edit conflicts.

A fellow experienced contributor had no clue that you can bring back a deleted wiki page, if you just know its path. A deleted page looks just like one that does not exist, except that prior versions are accessible via the Info link.

The Ubuntu wiki is much better than having nothing comparable, but it’s not exactly user-friendly. There should be WYSIWYG editing. I’m well aware that it can get in your way, but people shouldn’t have to learn markup and shouldn’t have to deal with the edit-preview-save cycle. You should be able to drop images right into place, optionally appearing as thumbnails. With previews for SVGs.

Etherpad-like immediate editing, collaborative in real-time, would streamline editing and get rid of edit conflicts. Though branching and merging could be useful, too.

Manual Project

There’s this idea of putting the Ubuntu Manual online and making it editable. Edits would have to be approved. Translations should happen online, too. All based on Docbook or maybe a similar custom XML format. By far not the only project that could benefit from an online documentation editor/viewer. I think Etherpad-style editing could do wonders here, too. Doing translations is a very interesting user interface design challenge by itself.

Artwork team

Oh how I wish it was called the Design Team. Aside of what I mentioned already regarding the wiki, there are additional needs or wants for handling artwork and design assets:

  • Mandatory specification of a license and author(s)
  • Enforce a minimum size of uploads (for wallpapers), maybe even one of a list of fixed resolutions/aspect-ratios
  • Manage source files such as SVG and XCF
  • Link derivatives to originals
  • Versioning, perhaps by tying in Launchpad
  • Comments per version of a submission, ideally nested
  • Add notes or scribble on top of images to provide clear feedback

A Common Platform

The specific needs vary, but all 3 could sit on top of a platform that handles, accounts, concurrent editing and allows to structure pages in components.

One could think there has to be a CMS with concurrent editing. In absence of such a thing, what would be the best language and framework to implement it?

Frameworks

There are terribly many frameworks out there. I would rule out everything PHP based. As impressive as some projects build with it are, it looks more like a running gag than a programming language to me ;)

Django or Pylons/Turbogears look like a safe choice, generally. All Python.

Looking for frameworks that are designed with AJAX/Comet in mind, I came across Lift, very full-featured, written in Scala.

Nitrogen (Erlang) features an even-driven model, same syntax to build or update a page …

Weblocks (Common Lisp) and Seaside (Smalltalk, Pharo) are interesting for their use of continuations, among lots of other interesting properties.

Now if only there was a easy/quick way to determine if the features of one of those less well known languages and frameworks would lead to a net win …

What I’d be looking for is:

  • Very low noise-level, no or little boilerplate/glue code
  • secure by default
  • serialization turned into a non-issue
  • excellent support for AJAX/Comet
  • ideally existing, open implementation of concurrent editing
  • good documentation
  • Unicode support

Flattr

Users of the online service Flattr pay a small monthly amount and then click buttons associated to things to share out the money among the authors of those things. A thing can be anything you can link to, but is meant to be about specific content or a project.

If you don’t give, you can’t receive.

The minimum is 2 Euros per month. Flattr itself takes 10% of the revenue, to keep the service afloat, as they say (I hope they will lower it, once there are more participators) . You can add money to your Flattr account via Moneybookers and PayPal.

I had been considering to take part already, and then andrewsomething suggested it in a comment, saying it seems to be all the rage these days.

For now, I just added one button for my blog, also appearing in this post, but you might want to think of one of these as a reason to use it ;)


Flattr this

There’s a number of Free Software projects registered. For example SparkleShare. If you’re into music production on Linux, Ingen and Qtractor could become things of your appreciation.

Every flattr will be appreciated! I might well end up sharing it all out again.

Ubuntu Artwork Crisis

Some people who care are not happy about the state of the Ubuntu Artwork team and mailing list.
Saleel’s take on the Ayatana list (good read, as off-topic as it might be, there).
Vish’s take on the Artwork list (you can see a lot of thought went into this.

Seems like a good opportunity to offer some reflection on how things developed and how at least one particular contributor ticks.

First post

My first post to the Artwork list happened towards the end of 2007, in roughly my fourth year of creating logos and mockups in the FLOSS-realm. After switching to Ubuntu, it seemed just natural to get involved there. I just loved the Circle of Friends symbol, though I never thought much of any other part of the official presentation.

Motivation

I have to admit that increasing my chances of being hired by Canonical was part of my early motivation. Well, that didn’t work out. A constant part of my motivation, besides quite simply enjoying the creative process, is gaining experience, training and getting portfolio pieces out of it. Note that this can complicate cooperation, because under this aspect, it may hurt me if my work is altered outside of my control, or if it becomes unclear what exactly has been my part in a larger effort. Of course, experience with teamwork and having examples of it, is valuable, too.

Discussions

Back then we had long discussions on the list. Many opinions, many words, not many results. There have been phases where we saw many theme mockups, but only ever a few theme implementations. Can’t fault anyone there; I also only created mockups and no themes. It’s just so frustrating, a lack of control coupled with hard to understand gtkrc files. But thanks to only few people, a community-themes package happened. Nothing new there, for this cycle …

The mailing list used to be noisy at times, but has been rather dead as of late. Though we will likely see some live now thanks to Vish’s post.

Direction

There was a lack of direction. I once tried to address this issue, by writing about design methods, target audience, desired tone and message on the wiki. There was some interest, but after a while it became clear there was no one else to work on that level and I didn’t have the energy to pull it through to results on my own.

Design Team

Later on, the formation of the Design Team at Canonical made all of that pretty much pointless. That’s also when I really buried the hope of having chance of creating a default wallpaper. It had been dwindling before already. Used to be motivating for a quite a number of people. The Hardy heron wallpaper was a success. The Ibex not so much. The author wasn’t happy with the result, his vision had been perverted by forcing it into another direction. Might be part of the reason why he ceased to be active. Though maybe he’s just to damn busy as a freelance designer, like I should be, too, if only I had my priorities straight :).

I wouldn’t hand it to a bunch of hobbyists either, if there’s a trained full-time designer in direct contact with decision makers. Sorry, I mean it would be embarrassing if that was a competition. Though the outcome is full of things that leave me puzzled.

Once in a while someone shows up with the assumption that the artwork-team is responsible for Ubuntu’s default look, still.

Wallpapers

For Karmic, I took care of the wiki and put a lot of effort into organizing wallpaper submissions. Still proved to be hard for some people. The wiki “surge protection” kicked in, because of to many images on a single page, refusing to load. Complaining about that often enough led to ticket in tracker that predates Launchpad, but that’s all. Then the Flickr group took off. So I created the policy that we would not accept wallpaper submissions on the wiki anymore, knowing that they wouldn’t make it into the selection, anyway. All this also highlighted that the wiki is just not suitable to collect work from contributors. Too hard to edit, too much management effort required, doesn’t scale.

Mockups

People used to add mockups to the wiki that went beyond theming into interface and interaction design territory. Usually unrealistic, never possible within a release cycle, even if there would ever have been developers to implement it. To not have those mixed up with things that could work for the upcoming release, I created a place that is basically a concept graveyard :/.

There are a few other things I could mention, but I better wrap up for now.

What works?

First what doesn’t work:

  • Unguided discussion on the list
  • Creating themes without iron willpower
  • Artwork submissions on the wiki

What does work:

  • Collecting wallpapers on Flickr and selecting a few per cycle
  • Countdown banner contest

Why do these work? Likely because of:

  • visibility of what’s going on.
  • low barrier to entry on Flickr.
  • clear mission and deadline for the countdown banner.

What else?

54 active Members in the Artwork team, according to Launchpad. One can really wonder what most them actually do, regarding artwork.

There’s an Art & Design forum. Currently it doesn’t look too bad when compared with the list, but I think like all forums, it encourages useless single line statements, terrible quoting habits and costs even more time because you have to actively go there, instead of just pulling messages. The need for email notifications in forums should tell you something …

Oh, and then there’s ubuntu-artists on Deviantart. Deviantart doesn’t even do email notifications, because going there to check your messages in addition to your regular email is so much fun.