Designing for All

At Coko we are tackling the long unsolved problem of design in Open Source. I have written a bit about this elsewhere, and it is a hard problem to solve, mainly because it is not solved anywhere – there are no good community models for this and very little discourse about the issue.

Design, of course, covers many things. I am chiefly talking about UX, although we have also solved the problem of designing for users by getting users (I prefer to call them ‘use case specialists’) to design their own systems. But this is not about that. I want to talk just about community processes for UX that will yield common best practices, while also enabling each organisation to realise their desired aesthetics ie achieve the look and feel they want that best reflects their organisation. As reflected in the following screenshots of xpub-Hindawi, xpub-eLife, and xpub-collabra:

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There are several mechanisms that we have employed to achieve this. The first is that we have ‘elevated’ design to the same level of value in the community as code. I say ‘elevated,’ not because we had to raise its value in the Coko community, but rather the estimation of the value of design in the open source community at large is very low. So, against this, as a baseline, at Coko we have chosen to value design more than in your typical open source project. Also, I don’t want that to imply there are other disciplines in the software development process that do not rank as highly as these two – documentation, feedback, testing and so on… these are all equally valued alongside design and code, but for now I want to focus just on UX design.

To ‘elevate’ design, it took just the simple step of stating it to be so. As the co-founder of this community I have some sway over the direction and form of the culture. So I cashed out some of this capital to make a very simple statement when I was facilitating a community meeting that we must value design as much as we value code. It was this simple statement that set a placeholder for building processes that put design in the value-center of the community.

Next, when there was a call for more processes to assist communication across the various orgs, I made sure we had two work groups which each consisted of one person from each collaborating organisation. These two foundational WorkGroups were the Dev WorkGroup and the Design WorkGroup.

The Design WorkGroup then went ahead and started discussing how we might contribute to a platform where each org could have the look and feel they wanted. It was a process of first understanding the problem and then working through possible solutions. It was necessarily like this, a process of discovery before implementation, because there are not very many established or discussed processes like this in the open source world that we could follow (as mentioned above). So we have to discover the problem, and then invent a solution.

The problem boils down to small levels of abstraction. Interfaces are, after all, made up of many small parts. The problem therefore resided in how to account for different stylistic approaches to, what we now call, atoms (see Brad Frost’s article on Atomic Design), and how atoms fit together to form ‘molecules’ ie. we needed a level of abstraction that would allow any org to have the look and feel  they wanted for an (eg) button, and also how that button was situated with other elements.

Julien Taquet (Coko) and Nick Duffield (eLife) met with Yannis Barlas (Coko) in Athens for three days to thrash this out.

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They came up with an agreed common set of standardised CSS attributes per UI element, and associated reusable CSS variables that could be used across any UX element.

You can see these lists here…

  1. Color Variables
    https://gitlab.coko.foundation/pubsweet/design/issues/1
  2. Typography Variables
    https://gitlab.coko.foundation/pubsweet/design/issues/2
  3. Form Variables
    https://gitlab.coko.foundation/pubsweet/design/issues/3
  4. Spacing Variables
    https://gitlab.coko.foundation/pubsweet/design/issues/4

That is the simple starting point. In effect, this means that if any organisation designs a feature using UI elements (eg a login form) they can use these shared style names and populate them with their own values. This means another org’s stylesheet will apply equally well to inherited/reusable components as it does to the ones they build themselves.

Which seems simple: it is… but understanding the problem space, and where the commonality lies, was half the battle.

The group has now also identified a common set of UI elements that can be reused and are iterating through this list, designing them as they go. See https://gitlab.coko.foundation/pubsweet/design/issues/21

This is required because even the simplest UI element may have several contexts it has to account for. Take the example of a ‘simple’ button, one of the simplest UI elements of them all…. however, there are actually 5 different button states that must be accounted for – the default state, active, hover, pressed and disabled. In each case, the style variables must be applied appropriately. See here for more information – https://gitlab.coko.foundation/pubsweet/design/issues/19

So, it’s not quite as easy as it might first seem.. the good news is that the teams are very committed to working through these issues, as without doing this groundwork, components are really not reusable.

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The result is you can grab components that another org has made, be it a page-based component (eg. Dashboard), or a molecule (eg a Staff Assignment dropdown) and plug it into your system and it will look like it is part of your system.

We are making good progress on all of this, including now integrating common best practices for accessibility into the design process. Also, since this groundwork has come quite far, new orgs joining the Coko community can benefit a lot from the work already done and pick up components from the shared/common UX stylebook and integrate them… pretty cool….

Coko and Open Source

We’ve tried to build software for other people before, but it wasn’t until we worked with the Coko Foundation that we realised how important a “community-first” approach is. The benefits from the conversations, before any code is even written, is obvious when you start writing and even more obvious when you see the quality of the finished product.
– Paul Shannon, Head of Technology, Elife

Paul Shannon is a great advocate for the way we work in the Coko community. eLife was one of the first to see the potential in the way we work, and I remember clearly sitting in a pub talking to Paul about it with Kristen. He was enthusiastic and genuinely supportive when we explained in straight forward terms that we were trying to establish *real* collaboration and not collaboration in name only which is unfortunately so often the case.

We work closely with Paul and the eLife team, as well as the Hindawi team, and in many cases we are each extending the others team. That is what close collaboration is all about. As Paul states:

I love the pleasant surprise when one of your collaborators solves a problem for you, or when you find a problem you thought was just unique to you being discussed elsewhere. For us, the main benefit is knowing that what we’re building is useful to others and is solving the important problems – things get built more quickly and more correctly which reduces the burden on everyone.

This is very true. In a community when you share the burden of a problem you have the luxury of bringing in a bunch of active minds who have a desire to solve the same thing but are not on your payroll. So, you can leverage expertise in areas that your team doesn’t necessarily have. Software development in publishing these days covers a huge scope – everything from workflow, to file formats, OAuth, to containerised deployments and much more. Its hard for any one team to have that scope of expertise. But we have so far found, even with our relatively small foundational group, that we have always been able to find someone in our community that knows a lot about any given problem space.

So, extending your own team and being able to reach out to others with specific expertise is a huge advantage of working in the Coko community. But it doesn’t stop there. It is often the case that someone will be able to improve on your approach to a specific problem, and sometimes it is also true that someone in the community will offer to build it since they have the same need.

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This leads to, as Paul says, things getting built more ‘quickly and correctly’. I absolutely agree, as does Andrew Smeall of Hindawi who also collaborates with us:

[Coko] have marshalled a diverse group of publishers towards a shared goal. Together, we’ve implemented a radically open process of constructive collaboration, where each member benefits from the strengths of the others. The result has been rapid progress towards an elegant, maintainable product.
– Andrew Smeall, Head of Strategic Products, Hindawi

This is awesome stuff. Imagine not having to solve all the problems of building a publishing system by yourself?

Of course there is a cost to this. To communicate this I sometimes use the phrase ‘The cost of collaboration is conversation”. This is very true. In order to benefit from collaboration in an open source project, you have to be communicative. We have several mechanisms to help with this, the mattermost chat channel is one. If you visit the Coko GitLab (where the code is stored) you will also find it is very active with conversations in the commits and the issues (eg https://gitlab.coko.foundation/XSweet/XSweet/issues/106) . We also have a lightweight RFC process (eg https://gitlab.coko.foundation/pubsweet/pubsweet/issues/341), and we also have smaller WorkGroups for developers and designers. These WorkGroups consist of one person per collaborating organisation each meeting and is facilitated by Coko. This keeps the group small and the conversation focused, lowering the overhead for all.

The result of all this is that we can keep the overhead low, and produce better products than if we were working alone.  We can also produce them faster, learning from each other as we go. As Andrew also says:

An improvement for one becomes an improvement for all. Individual communities can focus on core areas of expertise — peer review, hosting, discovery — knowing that their innovations will improve the entire system.  The result is more creativity, a more diverse set of solutions, and, ultimately, faster progress.

There is a secondary benefit too… communities are in themselves motivating, as Paul Shannon says:

Having other people build components to solve the problems you are facing is a great benefit of a common infrastructure, but also knowing that what you’re building is useful to more than just your team really adds energy and purpose to our teams of developers and designers.

All in all, its hard to argue against this kind of value in collaboration. I’m not currently seeing any downside except (for me) lots of travel! But thats in my DNA now, so I can handle it….would be good though if there was better surf in London and Athens…

We will add more organisations to the mix as we go…some announcements coming shortly. But here too we are being careful. Its important that we add the right orgs, ones that have a willingness to put in as well as take out…we don’t want to host parasites… this ecosystem can only work if there is close communication and a dedication to working together. This requires trust and good faith and if an org enters this tight community with the intention of free riding they will soon find out they are not welcome. For this to work for you, you need also to work for it. It is not a one way street. If you can accept that and get into the right mode, you will benefit greatly AND you will have a great time… communities are also fun when done right and so far our community meets are super fascinating and filled with awesome folks. It is an honor and a joy to hang out with them and solve problems together.

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One of the additional benefits, which I touch on above, is learning from each other. In the last community meet, we had a few weeks ago in London each of the three foundational orgs – Coko, eLife, Hindawi – presented where they were with their journal platforms built on top of PubSweet. Each had taken slightly different paths to solve similar problems. There was much overlap of course, but where I learned the most was where someone had tackled the same problem slightly differently…this was really the first time this had occurred in our community and it was tremendously exciting.

As it happens, there seem to be quite a few orgs wanting to jump into the community. So, from here, it is all about scaling gracefully. We will work out processes to manage and maintain this good faith and good will as we grow. The foundations are there, now it’s all about the mechanics of growth…

Workflow Tweaking at Coko

Yannis and the Athens crew have been tweaking our workflow for the products built on top of PubSweet. This includes (at present) Editoria (book production system) and xpub-collabra (Journal system).

Essentially, after the initial design and build process we slip into faster iterations where I step out of the way and the ‘client’ and developers work in very fast iterations to tweak features and fix bugs. We loop in Julien for UX as necessary. Then we move into a stabilization phase for landing the product.

Right now both Editoria and xpub-collabra are in the tweaks and bugs phase, and we have started adding a ‘roadmap’ to each of the READMEs to list what we are working on now. See:

https://gitlab.coko.foundation/xpub/xpub#roadmap

https://gitlab.coko.foundation/editoria/editoria#roadmap

We’ll be adding a similar table to XSweet and other products. It is a simple, readable, format.

GitLab as Back up

GitLab has a great feature for backing up git repos located anywhere. You can just provide a URL and it will clone that repo and poll every hour for changes and update the mirror accordingly. Info on it here:

https://docs.gitlab.com/ee/workflow/repository_mirroring.html

Super easy to use. I’m using it as an additional backup (we have other back up processes) of our main Coko GitLab repo.

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It Always Amazes Me…

Book Sprints is something that popped out of my brain and a lot of experimentation. It’s now its own thing and it constantly surprises me.. .here for example is a post about a Book Sprint last week, where my friend and colleague Barbara Rühling facilitated Cisco to produce a book in 5 days. It had 100 illustrations (!) and will be printed next week…incredible..

https://www.booksprints.net/en/blog/catalyst-9000-done/

I currently don’t facilitate Book Sprints as my Shuttleworth Fellowship requires me to focus on Coko, which is fine with me. It is in good hands 🙂

Rolling Birthday…

I had a rolling birthday over a few weeks. Covering NZ and Berlin, maybe soon birthday drinks in SF….First was  bbq at my place in NZ with the neighbors and Nokome, Jure and Yannis… then dinner with Ma and some old family buddies, and then drinks in Berlin… It was cool for me to see people from different parts of my life hanging together. some photos…

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Pondering Editors

Editors are a hard problem. I don’t mean editors-the people… although that might also be true 😉 … I mean the technology you use to write and edit WYSIWHAT?documents. Its tough stuff. Over the years I’ve bet on several of them starting when I first replaced the native wiki-markup editor in TWiki with TinyMCE… and then later CKEditor…and so on with FLOSS Manuals..

The point with editors is that they are like racehorses… you put your money on the best one available at the time. They will win for a while, but no horse lasts forever.

After I abandoned TWiki and we started building Booki, which was later to become Booktype, I brought a bunch of people together in Berlin at an event called WYSIWHAT? to choose the best horse. Which is funny to me, looking back at it, as I had forgotten that over the years I’ve been involved in trying to build community around several different editors.

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I had gone into the WYSIWHAT meet thinking it might be the Mercury Editor which was an extremely innovative editor at the time… but the community chose Aloha Editor (see also Kathi Fletcher’s notes from the meeting). So we built that into Booktype. Aloha has since been left behind, although at the time it was the right choice. Funny thing is with these things I still hear people saying “jeez…you chose Aloha, and it wasn’t the best choice”…well… big news… it was the right choice a the time but if you haven’t looked at a clock lately then you might need to be reminded that times change… I wouldn’t pick Aloha today, nor would I pick TinyMCE… you got to go with what is the best choice at the moment.

Then, I chose the Wikipedia Visual Editor for the Tahi/Aperta project. Which was complex, but the right choice at the time.

So, through this history, I have learned some stuff… In my mind, there are several things to consider when choosing an editor, or the underlying libs for building an editor (which is what we are doing now with the Wax editor at Coko). Essentially they come down to:

  1. will itdo what you want it to do technically?
  2. is there good documentation?
  3. is there good community?

It goes without saying that I am talking only about Open Source options. And, just to point out the obvious, with closed source options you might do well on (2) above for user (but not API) documentation, but fail on 1 (because you can’t see the code) and 3 (because closed source isn’t about a development community).

Anyways… now we are somewhat down the road with what we are doing at Coko, we know a lot more about community and why it’s important. For that reason, the above would have once been my order of priority a few years ago, but today it looks more like this:

  1. is there good community?
  2. will it do what you want it to do technically?
  3. is there good documentation?

You can go a long way with community support if the tech isn’t quite there – either with help to work out ways to do things in ways you hadn’t considered, or by eventually getting features you need into the core code. In essence, a good community plays a supporting role (as a good community member you should reciprocate) and a good community listens to what it is that you need…

Although docs are very important, and every project should have them, a functioning community can also help a great deal if the docs are lacking.

That’s not to say that the ideal solution doesn’t check all the boxes (community, tech, docs)… just to say that an open source project with community ranks miles above one without. It is going to be more fun and get you where you need to get quicker. Also, and perhaps most importantly, an open source project with community is substantially less risk for you going forward. The more active the community the less chance the project will die if any one individual decides to leave or change direction.

So… back to the races…