Why open-source often means “badly designed”

Mary, an interior designer and Bob, a carpenter are working on a job. Working with the owner Mary has drawn up detailed plans for some built-in cabinets in the living room but to get them installed they need to get some mahogany planks and brass hardware. Mary knows exactly where to get them at a specialized designer building supply store, but she needs Bob’s van to get there because the supplies won’t fit in her car. Mary and Bob get in the van and Bob drives. As they head out Bob says to Mary that he needs to pick up Joe, the painter along the way.

When they pick up Joe, Bob mentions where they are going and Joe suggests that another store he knows of that’s much cheaper. Mary objects but Bob intervenes and suggesting they try both. Mary acquiesces and they head to the store Joe suggested. When they arrive at the store Mary quickly sees that there is no Mahogany, only birch, and they only have stainless steel, not brass hardware. She tells Bob that they need to go to the other store but Joe pipes up and says he actually prefers the birch and stainless, and anyway it will be easier to install because birch is a softer wood and Bob won’t have to pre-drill screw holes. This idea appeals to Bob and he tries to get Mary to change her mind. She feels outnumbered and beholden to Bob, because he is loaning her the van, and agrees to go with the birch and stainless.

They then head back to the job. On the way they pick up Steve, the plasterer and recount the story of the two stores and the supplies. Steve questions why they are going with built in cabinetry at all because he could just as easily build recessed shelving right into the drywall and plaster it. Bob likes this idea because it’s much simpler and involves less carpentry work, so he agrees. Mary at this point is no longer concerned about Bob’s feelings and strongly disagrees, but Joe chimes in and since it’s three against one they go with the drywall.

Back at the job Bob and Steve finish off the recessed shelving. Bob realizes that the birch they bought for the shelves is too thin to be used on it’s own so instead he uses some salvaged pine he had on hand. At this point Mary is so demoralized that she doesn’t even protest she no longer cares one way or the other because nothing she does can bring back the original vision. Every single part of it is gone, the cabinetry, the mahogany, the brass, all of it.

When the job is done and the owner comes to view the completed work, She blames Mary for the poor design of the recessed shelves and can’t understand why nobody paid attention to her needs.

This is what it’s like to be a designer in an open-source community.

The Marys of the world do the research and produce the design artifacts that become software, but the “van”, the shared systems that software gets built on (github, bitbucket, stack-overflow etc.) were built by and for developers for a development process. When you own the process you own the outcome. The workflow that’s often baked into the development toolchain put’s decision-making in the hands of, you guessed it, the developers. Design will only ever be a first-class citizen if the big communities empower designers by establishing a parallel process with equal weight and equal voice in decision-making. Until then the fourth person in the van is always going to be voted down and the user is not going to get her mahogany cabinets.