18th October 2013

Your private experiences

Graeme Blackwood

As we blogged last week, Aral Balkan gave an incredibly important Keynote at DrupalCon Prague. He talked about how much privacy we are willing to give up in exchange for the experiences provided by companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and many other similar organisations.

Have you noticed Facebook suggesting that you tag a friend in a photo? Yep, they have face recognition, and it is disturbingly accurate. Their business model is selling extraordinarily targeted ads at you, because they know so much about you.

Google have just announced that they will be using your photo and name to endorse the ads. That will make the business (even more) enormously profitable.

Skype was one of the first to join the NSA's PRISM programme. Seriously – they have probably been listening into phone calls and watching webcams for years. Think about that.

But this isn't just about ads. This is serious, because your right to safety and self-determination, personal relationships and private conversations is a serious matter. And yet many of us are prepared to accept all these infringements and abuses because of one fundamental thing: These services make life better.

They are designed for us.

These services are all closed-source and proprietary. They have no accountability except to their owners, and essentially they can do whatever they want within the law, or even when required by the law, often without telling you or giving you much of a choice in the matter.

But is there an alternative, where you control your own destiny and improve everyone else's? One where accountability is public, privacy can be protected and experiences have the potential to be even better?

Maybe this sounds like a utopian dream – but actually it's a reality. It's called open source, and already powers the majority of the internet in the form of Drupal, WordPress, Linux, Apache, PHP, Android, Firefox and so on. Open source projects are often developed by teams many times greater in number than most closed software projects.

To give you some idea, Drupal.org just passed one million registered users. Yet if we're really honest, the user experience open source provides often just isn't that good when compared with closed source. Take Time Machine on Mac. A wonderful bit of kit that takes backups of your hard drive every hour and allows you to roll back through the changes and restore at any point, often weeks back, using a beautiful UI.

This is the Linux open source alternative. Unless you're a deft hand in the terminal, you probably won't know what on earth is going on in that tutorial. The experience for 99% of users is horrific.

So what is the difference?


Open Source projects have historically been the realm of developers – after all, it's software, right? But they have their own languages and ways of thinking that are more akin to those of a mathmatician than the average person in the street. And therein lies the problem – the disconnect is all too real and it often manifests itself in a sub-par user experience.

Designers exist to bridge the gap. The job of the user experience designer is to fully explore and understand what it is that people want, how they think and behave, what turns them on and what makes them mad. Without developers we would have no software at all, but without designers, what we do have will be wasted.

Then those that do invest in design – the Googles, Facebooks, Microsofts of this world – will easily draw us in and exploit us for all they can get.

As designers working with open source, we have a huge burden of responsibility to address this situation.

We need to understand people better, and work closely with developers, fostering awareness and thoughtfulness of average users in them.

We need to learn more ourselves about development, so that we can talk intelligently about our ideas with the people who are most able to bring them to life.

Every developer should sit next to, and work with, a user experience designer. Companies commissioning open source projects should insist on user research and UX design as part of the process. And they should understand that closed-software companies have a vested interest in spreading uncertainty and doubt about the merits of open source: the one genuine threat to their superiority.

To be blunt, the open source user experience needs not only to be amazing, but also adopted as a real alternative. If we can make that happen, we have a chance to give the big companies a run for their money.