julia ferraioli: Hello, everyone. My name is julia ferraioli. My pronouns are she/her. I am coming to you for Open Source Stories on a very drizzly, rainy day in Seattle, which is why I have a ton of lights on in the background not only to grow some basil and mint, but also to make it not dark. And I’m here today with Eriol Fox. And Eriol, would you like to introduce yourself?
Eriol Fox: Yeah, sure. Hi, everyone. I’m Eriol Fox. My pronouns are they/them, she/her. I am calling in not from my usual base in the southwest of the UK, but from Brussels today. Open Source conferences are happening again, and human rights conferences as well. It’s very odd to be doing the traveling thing again, but delightful as well in ways.
I was in Brussels for FOSDEM, basically, right before the pandemic hit.
Eriol Fox: Same!
julia ferraioli: I would love to go back. But I’m not quite traveling at this time.
Eriol Fox: Yeah, that’s, that’s fair. But when I landed, I got very, like, nostalgic FOSDEM vibes, like so walking through the streets. I was like, “Oh, I’d be catching a very packed bus to the university campus. Like last time I was here.” So yeah, it was nice to reminisce.
julia ferraioli: Please have a waffle for me, if you are so inclined. I do miss that.
Eriol Fox: Yeah, absolutely.
Creativity and cartography
julia ferraioli: So to kick us off, I had a question for you. Which is: What’s the most creative thing you’ve ever been involved in?
Eriol Fox: I love this question. Yeah, this is great. It’s really hard to choose. Maybe I’ll preface this with saying that my background, my educational background, is in — technically it’s a degree in Fine Art — but we had a department that was called Time Based Media, which I don’t know whether it’s a common department, but we basically made art that exists within time. So this was everything from using computers back in the early 2000s to make internet art, video, sound installation and performance stuff. So to be honest, I think that, like tons of that sort of stuff was some of the most creative stuff that I’ve been involved in.
But I would say more, more recently, I came to really understand and enjoy through a lot of the community work that I did shortly after my degree, what it means to design collaboratively and like design within a community for a community. And I would say that probably the most creative — not necessarily, it’s hard to quantify and describe the word creative — but I think the most nourishing for my creative soul was when I did a mapping project with a local community.
The maps were co-created. Lots and lots of different kinds of things were done in the community that weren’t just about kind of, “Oh, we’re gonna gather information about what you want on this map.” It was very involving of all the different kinds of generations or the different kinds of cultures that were present in that community. And yeah, it got printed in two different languages, English and Welsh, and distributed to every home in that area. So it was pretty, pretty special and I think there’s still a physical sign up on one of the community buildings. So yeah, it’s a fond memory.
So I have to admit that I have a soft spot for cartography. This sounds like one of the things that I would do as a kid was go through one of our old atlases that had so many different types of information beyond just geographic borders, right? And of course, now all of that is online. But this sounds even more complex, even more deep in terms of the insights that you would get from such a map.
Eriol Fox: Yeah, it really — well, to give kudos to the project that took inspiration from it was the Green Map Project, which I think came out of New York — but this project really also sparked my love of cartography and maps, which I think before then I kind of just figured the other people did, right. I just figured that maps weren’t necessarily a thing that just everyday-me using a map could kind of get involved in and it really helped me understand “No maps are community artifacts”, and in a lot of ways, that they can be community owned. And also this was sort of before, a lot of Google Maps and a lot of online mapping platforms were super prevalent, I created this really, really badly coded sort of website to express all the different mapping icons that all the community members chose to to create, and what they chose for it to define and how they wanted to how they wanted to, like improve in the future as well, the local area.
So yeah, it was, it was a great project. I really enjoyed it. And it really set me up great for working at Ushahidi in my later years when I went into open source.
Cartography to community and contributing
julia ferraioli: Well, that’s an amazingly perfect transition to…can you tell me a little bit about your journey to open source?
Eriol Fox: Yeah, sure. And I think the story about the Green Map in the community helps me to really kind of put into position what I found within open source that I really enjoyed, and it was the community aspect of things. So I didn’t really, I have somewhat of a techie background. I trained in design.
After getting my art degree, I did lots of night classes in web design and coding way back in, gosh, like the 2007-2008 back when things were quite, I guess, old fashioned now. And yeah, so I was always very techie. And I was always kind of very community driven, as well. So I used a lot of my techie skills within the community, but way back then, and did things like social media surgeries, where like, people that have like older generations that didn’t know how to use social media would come and ask, not just about social media just about “How do I use this darn computer?” sort of thing.
We would set up in the community, space, and we would help folks out. I think that — fast forward a little bit, because I did a lot of regular jobs after training to be a designer, sort of commercial proprietary things — and my journey into open source kind of really began after I heard in a couple of my proprietary commercial jobs. I got really curious about what it was like to be a developer. So I was working with CTOs, I was working with lots of devs. And I would hear them talk about this, these like projects, and like these libraries, when I was doing design work with them. And I’m like, “What do you mean, this library is free to use? Can you explain it to me? I don’t quite know, what do you mean, I need to design and have a look at this library and figure out like, how that works with InDesign?”, and a lot of those great devs back in my sort of early design career, were super giving with their time of, like, explaining to me what open source is and how it kind of functioned, but not in a sort of open source language or vocabulary in a sense, they just kind of explained to me what it was.
Examining the work behind open source work
Eriol Fox: And I sort of was like, “Hang on a minute. You all — do you all do this in your spare time. Like, what? What’s the deal here? Like, do you go home after this job, for eight, eight or 10 hours and then spend another eight or 10 hours contributing to these open source pocket projects? Is that kind of like, how, how it how it just works, how it’s always worked?” and they were kind of like, “Oh, well, you can but you don’t have to, but it’s great if you do and there’s a community and all this kind of stuff.” And I was like, “Huh, that’s really interesting.”
I kind of left it alone for a little bit because, well part of me was like, well, hadn’t had a really kind of initial problem with how non-inclusive that kind of was, in a sense. I was having quite candid conversations with these male identifying developers that I was working with at the time. I was like, “Well, what do your partners do while you’re there in the evenings contributing to open source?” And it’s like, “Well, they do all the stuff that makes the household function.” And I was like, “Do you think that they would want to contribute to open source or their version of open source?” and they were like, “I’ve never thought of that.”
So it’s kind of one of those things where I was interested in it, because it was a cultural part of technology. And then when I was looking for a new job after finishing my master’s, I think that was 20— gosh, I can’t quite remember— years now. That’s anyway, it was, it was a while ago, I was really looking for a job that helped me bring in my love of NGO community where like, stuff that uses skills for good, and design and technology, and I fully in a sort of, I think, miraculous luck, stumbled across Ushahidi in a job posting and I applied.
If folks don’t know about Ushahidi, it’s an open source mapping data collection platform that is open source, has been since it was created back in 2000 and — gosh, I think, 2006 or 2007 now. It’s an NGO run by an absolutely fantastic person, Angie Odour Lungati, now she’s the executive director who’s been there since the beginning. And yeah, it’s all about using data and mapping data for human rights, human rights causes and natural disaster mapping. And basically, like all the kinds of good things that people do for each other in crisis or with a sense of community.
I got hired as a lead designer there, stayed there for a few years, and then really just fell in love with open source and started to contribute a lot more. I got involved with a lot of communities like opensourcedesign.net, the Sustain OSS community, moved to another couple of open source organizations. I worked at the Open Food Network. I worked on some CiviCRM projects at one point. And now I am in the most fantastic organization, Simply Secure, working on like a ton of different open source projects and design for open source with a bunch of really fantastic votes.
julia ferraioli: That is a meandering and wonderful path to open source. I love it.
Thank you very much.
julia ferraioli: And I have also had those conversations with —around inclusion and an open source and the ability, like who gets to contribute to open source is a big topic of conversation. Who is — who has the societal structures around them that enable them to contribute? So I think there’s a lot of area to dig into there. But perhaps for another time?
Eriol Fox: For sure. Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of it in a way, like design and doing design with an open source as a function, I’ve always been interested in how that is non-inclusive, or not as inclusive. So like, when I was having those first conversations with those devs about these libraries, I was kind of like, “Well, that can be designed better.”, but I was like, “Well, this isn’t for me”, I was thinking at the time. There’s no entryway for me here. So I can think those things and say those things to these devs that I work with, but there was no clear way that I was like, “Oh, there’s the bit where it says designer — Hey, designers, we’d like you to come and be involved.” So I’d love to see more of that at some point.
julia ferraioli: Yeah, I think all of open source could really benefit from that kind of encouragement and that kind of inclusion.
Eriol Fox: For sure.
Examining the core of open source design
julia ferraioli: How do you think about open source design? Can you kind of give me an overview of what that means to you?
Eriol Fox: There’s loads of different ways that design can be done in open source and a lot of what I talked about in like conference talks or workshops, since getting involved in from my days at Ushahidi, well actually, stems from a question that me and my colleague at the time, Justin Scherer, who was also a designer at Ushahidi, we asked ourselves, like, as we were building the designs for Ushahidi’s user interface and doing research and doing the design kind of in the same way that we’d always done like, but just for open source, we were starting to sort of interact with the same sort of mechanisms that developers would do.
So a lot of our design work was, we wanted to make sure that it was on open repositories, that it was documented well, and we sort of started to ask the question of like, “Why is it just us, that are employee at Ushahidi that is doing this design process?” Like, surely one of the things of open source is that anybody can contribute should they need—want to—have the ability to—have the inclination to, and it’s open and available. So we did a lot of work at Ushahidi in the time that I was there to try and really make it clear that Ushahidi wanted more than just coding contributions, it wanted all different kinds of contributions, and that design contributions don’t have to necessarily be, and probably shouldn’t always be from people that are trained as designers.
So there is a huge amount of value in trying to understand and better involve your users or people, humans (I have a complicated relationship with the word user, especially in an open source context, because there’s a lot of writing and a lot of debate about the user of open source). So you’ve got kind of like, the user of open source that also modifies and maintains and all those kinds of different users. And then you’ve also got the user that would, that doesn’t do any of that, that users essentially, there’s still benefits. And there’s a lot of discussion within the open source design communities about, like how you design well for both, are inclusive of both.
Typically, we get trained as designers to not test with user tests or not necessarily designed for users that are highly proficient in the tools first. But within open source, it’s kind of a little bit tricky, because a lot of users of open source—anyway, so we’re getting into some of the problems already. So that’s just a little flavor of some of the things that I think of on a day to day basis. But design and open source is creating graphics, UI—visual work and product work. Wireframes. It’s user testing. It’s doing lots of in depth user research.
I think the user research part of things really touches on a lot of how open source works with community engagement, or how the community is— is or is not constructed, or encouraged, or facilitated in a lot of ways. So, I mean, a great deal of my work, especially in the Open Food Network, and some of the other open source projects I’ve been involved in, was “How do we, how do we listen to the community effectively? And how do we involve them within the process of making their tools better?” That’s designing.
That involvement piece is the act of designing. And it’s tricky, it’s super hard. It takes a long time to set up and facilitate. But the things that come out of the end of it are typically much better design tools for all different kinds of people. But also, one of the things that doesn’t get talked about as much in the design side of things is the net benefit to the community, like, positivity and engagement piece. So yeah, that’s I guess that’s a little flavor of some of the design bits that I’m up to.
At the moment, I’ve just finished a great project with a colleague at Simply Secure about creating, like, a resource hub for different design processes, techniques, and things like that within open source. So at the moment, I’m trying to build accessible resources for developers to do design within their own projects.
julia ferraioli: That’s fantastic. And I— I love that it sounds like design work, in and of itself, really does lend itself towards kind of open source philosophies, so there’s kind of a natural bridge there, as well.
Research into open source design
Eriol Fox: Absolutely. One of the things I forgot to mention, I always forget to mention this, is I’m doing a PhD about open source at the moment up at Newcastle University.
I’m researching how designers are involved in open source projects with a humanitarian or human rights focus, and one of the things that I discovered in a lot of my reading about the history of design, and the history of open source is that there is a history within design about the, quote unquote workers seizing the means of how they, how they build their tools. So this is some of design history from sort of the unions side of things about how design professionals and design researchers went into factories and different places where workers were using machinery.
They did a lot of work with the workers to say, “How do you want this machine to respond to you? And how do you want to work with this machine.” And I see a lot of comparison with how like, the workers, quote, unquote, the people working on open source and maintaining open source or configuring that for their own, their own needs, and the community’s needs as well. The whole sort of history of design is about like that, that’s a net benefit to the workers, like, not just that individual, but many. So I see a lot of overlap with how design is done when it’s done in community and how open source is done when it’s done in community.
julia ferraioli: I—no pressure, but I am very interested in reading your dissertation at some point once you’re there!
Eriol Fox: So I mean, another six or seven years, so we’ll get there eventually but yeah, I’m, it’s PhDs are hard yo. Yeah. Like, yeah, mad props, anybody that has done any kind of graduate education.
I will fully confess that I dropped out of my PhD program. So maybe someday, but not today.
The importance of design
So you talked a little bit about how open source, as it is, in its current state, doesn’t really encourage design contributions and designer participation. How does the — how do we maintainers discourage designers and what signals that a project is welcoming to designers?
Eriol Fox: Yeah, good questions. This is a lot of what we’ve been thinking about in the opensourcedesign.net community for the last like six or seven years since the community was founded by some fantastic folks. I was not there at the founding. But there are like some truly amazing people that founded this work. And we think a lot about how to work. I mean, opensourcedesign.net exists to try and be that space for when designers— however they discover open source— to be that space where when designers might meet a barrier of trying to be involved in open source that maybe they can go to opensourcedesign and say, “Well, designers are here and they say they’re into open source. So I’ve got a community here.”
Often, that’s what we find when we are engaging with folks on the forum. It’s like, “Oh, I tried to contribute to an open source project but I don’t know where to start. How do I do this?” And we’re like, “Oh, well, maybe you want to go check out the README, maybe you want to check out if they’ve got a CONTRIBUTING, maybe you want to learn about licenses. If you don’t, you don’t have to, but maybe the first place to start is with a conversation with the project.” And we do a lot of like, informal mentoring that we’re trying to bring a little bit more formally, we’re trying to spend some of our donation money on better mentorship for designers in open source.
I think the things that maintainers tend to do, or just people within open source projects that they don’t necessarily do them purposefully— I think it’s just open source projects often get created by individuals or groups of people with an itch to scratch, right? That’s kind of the old sort of saying is that open source is scratching a particular developer or group of developer’s itch for something. And I don’t think, those developers shouldn’t feel or shouldn’t necessarily think that they should be experts in design to be able to, they’re scratching their own itch. So of course, we’re not expecting them to design the perfect thing for other people.
But one of the things that one of the other community members at open source design speaks about —Belen— she speaks about as soon as you put your project out there, it’s no longer just your itch to scratch. As soon as it’s open, there’s at least one to two, then maybe 10s of 1000s, maybe even hundreds of 1000s of people seeing that and using that so that no, no longer is scratching your itch. It’s now trying to scratch other people’s itches. And you’re — no matter how great you have the developer or maintainer you are you’re going to need somebody with some skills on how to interpret user needs.
That’s where designers can, can help out. So it’s not necessarily the only maintainers who do it initially, because they want to, I think it’s kind of grown out of this, “I want to create something. Oh, no, it’s gotten really big”, or “Oh, yeah, it’s gotten really big. Oh, now it needs to consider all these different things. How do I do that?” And I think a lot of maintainers, and developers kind of scramble around trying to do design, to the best of their ability and some of the fantastically well, and they should continue to do it, like if they enjoy it. But at that point, really do consider reaching out to designers and saying, “Hey, how can you help me kind of make this better for these other folks that want to use it.”
The other thing that is really bad, but I’d love to remove from the open source community— so this is a bit of a spicy statement, maybe— is the kind of thing that I think is not happening as much anymore, which is the “Go Read The Manual”, sort of mentality, right? So you can’t participate unless you do the effort to, like fully grok the entirety of this deep system, right? And a designer is just not going to do that. Like, hey, like in the nicest possible way, we are not going to go read a manual of stuff that we don’t want to learn. We want to give you our design skills.
The meeting in the middle of that is you meeting us with some of these technical skills and helping us understand how we can help. We’re not expecting you to go more than halfway, but you just, you got to meet us halfway. And you can’t tell us to just go read the manual, if we want to contribute design. You’ve got to make it a little, like a little bit more accessible for us to contribute.
julia ferraioli: Yeah, that’s, that’s an attitude that I think is shifting a bit. It has been blissfully a number of years since I’ve heard “RTFM”. There seems to be more focus on bringing people into projects and guiding them through, but that guidance needs to differ based on the area of contribution.
Eriol Fox: Completely agreed. So yeah, I think I am so pleased to say that I very rarely hear the “Go Read The Manual” anymore. It’s much more of a question of “What about deploying this? Or what about trying to run this, this tool didn’t work for you? Where are the skills gaps? And where’s the, where are the things that somebody can help out with?
So some of the best things that have happened to me is when I’ve really wanted to contribute to a project. And there’s very little likelihood of me having the skills to be able to spin it up myself. But I’ve had developers step in and say, “Hey, I’ve got this running. Can I make you a video? Can I make you a series of screenshots? Can I take you through, on a call, what this looks like or how this functions so that you can do what you do?” And I’m so so grateful when that happens.
So to answer, I think the second question that you said is “What can be done?” It’s reaching out with that just that little bit of extra effort really is like, what can you do to to help a designer like actually really get involved in the project, and I guess like more and more accessible sandboxes and more, more and more accessible kind of ways of seeing the tools is only going to help designers be involved for sure.
julia ferraioli: Yeah, I love that idea. One of the, one of the fun parts about open source is the connection with the global community which means that sometimes setting up those calls can be challenging so figuring out how to communicate through other media is so important. And process videos, process logs with screenshots. And it’s so helpful. Those are great suggestions. Thank you.
How maintainers can help onboard designers
Eriol Fox: I think the other thing, the other things that maybe I’ll quickfire, some sort of, like great suggestions on for maintainers to help designers to be involved— is designers, okay, so designers are just not going to quite know the culture of open source. So the more that you can do to deconstruct the culture of open source, the better.
So like, I’ve had designers come to me and say, “Hey, I tried to contribute to this project and like this comment thread on the issue was, like, 50 comments long, is that normal?” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, that’s totally normal. Don’t worry about that.” And like, “Okay, cool, cool, cool.” So it’s just, it’s stuff like that, that just isn’t common in design. And the other thing that designers often really struggle with with open source is, if they’re coming from a commercial proprietary world, or like education, they will be used to a sort of faster kind of cadence of things getting done, maybe even a quite a structured review process.
Designers will often say, “who’s going to review this work?” And it’s actually kind of open source? It’s like, well, the community kind of will, but maybe there won’t be a clear decision so maybe part of the design work is helping us come to a clear decision based off of information and a lot of designers go, “Oh, right. That’s sort of new. Like, usually, we have somebody that goes, ‘Yes, this design’ or ‘Yes, this this, this direction.'” So helping designers kind of understand that there is a community, often not always in every project, that like a community way of agreeing on what will happen and how it will happen, that that will help it tons.
Also the time, right. So open source sometimes just takes a long time for stuff to get done. Design also takes a long time, like good research takes a long time, good design, creation of visuals takes a long time. But I think as clear communication on how things are done, the better everyone’s going to kind of play together in this space. So yeah, there’s some other bits and pieces that already I’ve seen, when they’ve been kind of implemented, I’ve seen have had really positive effects on design in open source.
julia ferraioli: I think in general setting expectations, and clearly spelling out norms within a project is helpful all around, but specifically for people who may not have the background that a project necessarily expects is helpful. So yeah, those are amazing suggestions. Thank you. Thanks.
Fund open source design
julia ferraioli: I would, I would happily talk with you for like another hour and a half, but we’re actually running up on time. So if I will, I will jump to the end of my question list and say, if you could speak to the open source community for five minutes, what would you ask them?
Eriol Fox: Wow. There’s so much, five minutes is a little small amount of time. Do you know something that I’ve been thinking about more and more over the recent years is—and I know this sounds—this could sound a bit contrary to the kind of community effort of open source, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how open source is funded and how it becomes sustainable. I’ve been thinking a lot about how design is funded in open source as well.
I have talked to so many different designers involved in open source that really, because good, robust design takes time, it takes effort, it takes money to hire like user testers and have all the tools that you need to be able to do it. It’s really tricky to do it not only for the sort of the things that we share with developers, like time and skill level, but also, just being able to self fund is a privilege in a sense to contribute. So I think if I could speak to the open source community for five minutes, I would want to speak with them and have an open conversation about what is a realistic way of, of helping designers be funded in some way and move towards like a model where funding designers within open source projects that have staff becomes normalized.
That funding design tasks within open source projects that maybe aren’t sort of staffed in a sort of semi-traditional way, becomes, again, more normalized. How do we make sure that there’s money out there for not only the security of open source platforms, but the usability of open source platforms? And how do we sort of understand design, and the funding of designers working in open source as that kind of critical element of how open source improves, and is more like, like I said, more usable, more sustainable, works for more people that are using it, and good design also tends to be more secure and more private, and better in those ways. So I think it would be, yeah, let’s— I don’t have any of the answers. I have no idea how we fund it. But I would love to figure it out with some folks. So that’s what I would talk to the open source community about.
julia ferraioli: I think that is right on topic for the various sustainability conversations that are happening right now in open source, especially with some of the some of the security issues that we keep running across. And design definitely has an important role to play in, in making sure that the components, the projects, the libraries that we use are more secure and easy— like, I’m, I’m rambling right now, because I haven’t had enough coffee today. But yeah, I think that keeping design in mind as part of the overall development process, the overall quality checks is, is definitely an area that we need to improve in open source.
Eriol Fox: Hmm. Yeah, I think what you’re saying around design, making things like it’s, it’s about making things not just work for one person inside their head as they’re figuring it out but for all people inside their heads as they’re also figuring it out so they can make those informed choices. Design really is not about pretty visuals, particularly— it’s about solving complicated, like, human problems, and like making the series of choices and the series of understanding of information clear to everyone possible. So that definitely impacts things like security. So, yeah, I think fund usable, secure, open source for sure.
I like it. I like it. Well, thank you so much for all of your amazing insights and helping us better understand open source design. Really appreciate it.
Eriol Fox: Thank you very much.
julia ferraioli: Thanks for joining us on Open Source Stories.