The Role of UX in Open Source Software
Updated: Apr 20
From 2017 until this summer, I was both a member of an open-source trade organization and earning my Master’s degree in User Experience Design. One of the first projects I completed for that open-source org was a content audit and very, very basic user research that was used to inform an update of the project’s documentation landing page. As a result of these activities, the page saw an uptick in organic search referrals and page views in the period following the refresh. In short, the benefits of incorporating UX in open source projects were clear to me, but less clear were the entry points for UX professionals interested in working in OSS beyond UI design.
Different types of OSS governance structures. The governance structures for open-source projects vary greatly, but can generally be grouped into three buckets: (1) projects maintained by an individual or a small core group; (2) projects managed by a larger set of maintainers, like community-driven projects, and; (3) projects that are managed by large, open-source organizations. The ones maintained by open-source organizations are more likely to engage with UX professionals than in the other two types.
This matters because UX needs to be an early stakeholder in the development of a project to be prioritized accordingly. An example of this is GatsbyJS, who involved a UX designer early in its evolution.
Code contributions are seen as more valuable. With many open source projects hosted on GitHub—a platform that is built around sharing and hosting code—code-related contributions are more readily visible than other contributions. Specific UX-related activities—like content strategy, usability testing, user research, content design, wireframing, and prototyping—are ill-suited to the GitHub workflow (UX designers will likely use other tools to capture this work), and therefore do not benefit from the wider visibility code contributions receive.
A misunderstanding of what UX is. For a variety of reasons, UX design is oftentimes mistaken for UI (user interface) design or even visual design. Projects may put out a call for a “UX designer” when they, in fact, need a visual designer to design a logo or to design a website skin. A project may decide there’s no need for a UX designer because users won’t interact with a tool via a GUI. This fundamental misunderstanding and lack of exposure to the various UX disciplines means that many projects miss out on the opportunity to realize UX-based solutions beyond those that can be readily visualized.
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