3 reasons why you should support Ubuntu Edge

Crowdfunding has been steadily proving itself as a viable way for increasingly commercial projects to seek upfront financial support from their customers, yet up till now, no-one has attempted anything quite as big as the £32m Ubuntu Edge project.

Ubuntu Edge aims to build and ship 40,000 mobile phones, all running Ubuntu. It’s already breaking records and I want to give you three reasons why, like me, you should be helping them to reach their final goal:

1) Competition is a good thing
According to the most recent set of figures I have seen, Android has 80% of the smartphone market and Apple, well iOS, has 13%. That means that two organisations (Google and Apple) cover 93% of the market. Microsoft is what a friend of mine termed ‘on the phone OS endangered species list’ and frankly, if Microsoft want to do something about that they can afford to. Google has pots of cash and it knows everything about us; I don’t think you need to be even slightly into conspiracy theories to find that a little bit uncomfortable. Do you? Samsung, Apple, Google, Microsoft are all worth in the region of $200 billion. How many of us suffered – and continue to suffer – the consequence of the monopoly of Windows on the desktop? I don’t think we want to allow that to happen to us on our mobile devices. My latest Android phone – the Samsung S3 – is coming up to its first birthday and I have got lost twice in two days because the navigation app doesn’t seem to be able to stay alive for a 4 mile cycle across London. Really? Crashing apps? How very last century.

2) It will feel good
For as little as $20 you can be part of something that could be a catalyst for industrial change. Wow! Crowdfunding is still in its infancy and this could be the very project that helps it go mainstream and big. Can you imagine how Dragon’s Den would be different if the viewers got to vote? Well, this is it. You are a Dragon. Your opinion, your money counts.

3) It’s an open source project
In a recent Guardian article Charles Arthur concluded that: “It’s fairly certain that the project will hit its funding target – there are enough people in the world who think that running open source software confers a sort of magic on a device, and have the spare cash. ”

Open source does not confer magic on a device but the fact that this is an open source project matters enormously. We need this sort of collective thinking and problem solving in order to overcome the pressures we are putting on the planet. Ubuntu running on a phone will not save the world, but the working methods and business models that it represents and breaks can pave the way to new ways of working that change the definition of successful and the definition of reward. Open source is not the only way that business is being reimplemented these days, think Tom’s shoes, for example. More is good.

I was listening to the Chief Medical Officer for England (Professor Dame Sally Davies) being interviewed on BBC Radio 4s Women’s Hour and she listed antimicrobial resistance as the one public health issue that concerns her more than any other. There have been no new classes of antibiotics since the late 80s. As she puts it “we have market failure”. There is not enough money in it. There is not enough money in the business of saving people from flesh eating bacteria.

Money and the making of it will always be a prime motivator.

This project will let you remind the phone industry that you have power and it will tell the world of business that there is another way. We need projects that tread a different path.

And, do you know what? You might just end up with a great device which is running a beautiful and usable operating system.

Go on, do it!

Links and references:
Ubuntu Edge crowdfunding page at Indiegogo
Professor Dame Sally Davies
Tom’s shoes, our movement
Android market stats
Guardian analysis
Apple pc market share
What they’re worth

Posted in humanity, technology | 1 Response

Designing in the open

On Tuesday 9th of April I gave a little talk at Mozilla’s “Designing in the Open” event. Along with the rest of the speakers I was asked to prepare a 10 – 15 minutes talk and to be prepared for a discussion to follow.

In preparation for the talk I spoke to a few people – designers and engineers – and one of them (@sil) said: “I hope you are going to publish this somewhere”. So here I am.

To help stimulate some discussion I decided to present some truths. You will have to wait for my follow up posts for something with more answers than questions!

Thank you for the fantastic illustration @zhenshuofang


Truth #1: It’s complicated

Design in the open is an ambiguous term behind which hides an endless stream of potential pitfalls, challenges and rewards.

It is complicated not just in the practical sense of not sitting in the same country, nevermind the same office, as the people you are working with.

I’ll go a bit stronger, design in the open is in my view an ill defined term which is why it is often such a contentious and emotionally fraught activity. I don’t want to get too philosophical but there are some questions that definitely need to be considered before you embark on a project to design something in the open.

Why design in the open? What is it that you hope to gain from doing this? What do you think your co-contributors are going to gain? Why do you want to make something in the open?

Do you really mean build something in the open? I would argue that design and engineering are both integral parts of making something and therefore to make that thing well you should never talk about the two activities as somehow divorced.

Something can be made in secret and still be completely open-source.

Do we mean everyone has a voice in the open? Because that is what it feels like to me. I don’t think people want to necessarily participate in a design process but rather they want to be heard. They want to feel included and like they have some influence and control.

When I first joined Canonical and Ubuntu I had this awful emotional pressure to do what felt like sitting in some sort of zoo that hosts design so that people could watch me work. “In this cage you will see a group of designers using what they call ‘post-its’. They can often be seen engaging in this activity where they stick them on walls and argue with each other about what should be written on them and how they should be grouped.”

Is that how design needs to be done to be truly open?

@mpt put it as: “the real issue is how much delay is there between someone having an idea and it appearing in the public and whether people who are not in the same room can get involved early enough to make a difference.”

That’s true and sometimes it isn’t possible for everyone to get involved in everything and that should be OK too. I have opinions on whether or not the Ubuntu Dash should be engineered in NUX or QML and I like my opinions to be heard but I don’t expect to actually have direct influence.

Are we talking about design in the open as in OpenIDEO or do we mean design in an existing open-source community?

I do have some very specific thoughts and suggestions around this but I will provide them in a second post!


Truth #2: Have no secrets

 If you want to design in the open you can’t have secrets. You can’t operate in a world of partial disclosure. It is an additional burden that quickly gets sidelined. It is too hard. There can be no trust and therefore there can be no real collaboration.

Since I joined Canonical in March 2009 we have been pursuing a design strategy of cross device convergence. Most of our work – and even the fact we have been doing it – has been confidential. This year we have gone public with our phone and tablet story and already it is approximately a million times easier to organise work with our community. I say a million but I might actually mean 2 million. You see, if your design strategy isn’t truly public then how can you explain your design direction? And, in an open-source environment which claims to be a meritocracy how can you properly justify your actions if you can’t tie them back to a clear design strategy?

The flipside is that in a world where a tada moment is still a useful promotional tool, can you ever have full disclosure and, if not, how can you work around that?


Truth #3: Play nicely

 Over the years (nearly 40 of them!) of school then work and life in general I have come to the conclusion that most people don’t get up in the morning and say to themselves: “Today I would like to be mediocre.”

 One thing that is hard with doing anything in the open is that it seems quite a number of people appear to assume that people *do* get up in the morning wanting to be mediocre or worse, that everyone else *is* mediocre (or worse!). It is another truth, but one that doesn’t justify a number of its own, that it seems easier to make that negative assumption when you are sitting in front of a computer writing a comment, filing a bug or writing to a mailing list.

 This works all sorts of ways round. From people on my team coming back from a Google Hangout and saying: “the developers had some really good ideas!” or a classic following an internal sprint: “you know, I really enjoyed myself hanging out with the developers this week, they are really a lot of fun!” to the developers saying things like: “I didn’t realise you guys actually cared about Ubuntu!”

 One could argue that if you are going to take a walk down a busy street then you should be prepared for people to bump into you, but in reality social norms exist which help us walk along a busy street without incurring actual injury.

I know what meritocracy means and I also know that some merit takes time to show and proving it is not always a case of: “your code compiled and you passed the code review”. Wikipedia asks us to assume good faith, let’s do that and also remember that you don’t actually need to shoulder barge to make your way down a crowded street.


Truth #4 Educate and share

 In order to work with people you need to communicate. Starting with the word design, moving on to the word open, and then through words like wireframe, mood board, sketch, distro, motu, if these words don’t have the same meaning to everyone who is trying to use them then you can’t actually have a conversation!

 It is very hard to collaborate if you can’t communicate. Take the time to explain what you are doing how and why.

 Have evidence-based conversations. Not because you need to prove yourself – that can be a really negative thing to carry around with you all the time – , but because it helps people learn. Engineers like to – need to – break problems down into tiny parts so that they can build them, help them break down and understand your ideas.


Truth #5 It’s brilliant

 This is the best truth of all. I get to work with some outstanding – if not awesome – people. Vish, Sense, Thorwil, Jason de Rose, and so many other who are community volunteers who have helped me deliver.

 Being part of the community itself is an experience that I don’t know how it would be possible to replicate elsewhere. Some of you may know that I travelled from Alaska to Argentina on a motorcycle and the open-source (note, not just Ubuntu) community helped me more than once. The most amazing example of which was the help we got from the Central America Software Libre guys and girls. We were in El Salvador and one of the bikers we met travelling had some bad news from home and needed to leave urgently. The problem was what to do with his bike and gear and how to organise flights etc. I spent 45 minutes on email and IRC (thanks to the 3G dongle I borrowed from the owner of the hostel we were in) and in that time people had volunteered secure parking in San Salvador and Managua (thanks @tatotat, @leogg and @n0rman and everyone else.)

 I agree that my story is more an opportunity to tell tales of my trip (can you really blame me?) but making the effort to be part of a community is more than just lines on your CV and that bit actually is awesome (pronounced with a British English accent to give it gravitas).

 These engineers I work with, they like to make things work. They go “WOW, this is going to be the best clock app in the world ever!” And then they go off and make it. Just like that. In their spare time!

Now that, that’s brilliant.

Posted in design, observations | 3 Responses

Dangers of double negatives

Riding around British Columbia one can’t help but notice the posters encouraging people to either vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in an upcoming referendum. Being the curious type I have of course asked around and discussed it with a few of the locals we have encountered. As a temporary visitor any opinion I might form on the actual tax is totally irrelevant but what has been building slowly as an irritation is the way the referendum seems to be worded.

Citizens of BC are being asked to “Vote Yes to extinguish HST” or “Vote No to keep the HST”.

So, if you don’t want it then you must vote Yes but if you do then you must vote No.


A link here to a local publication covering the same story.

Posted in inclusive design, observations | 4 Responses

Ivanka, quo vadis?

On the 1st of June 2011 I will be departing these shores on an extended honeymoon with my husband of almost 3 months!

I am taking what I believe is officially called ‘a career break’.

We will be traveling from the top to the bottom of the world on a motorbike. (Yes, one motorbike. No, I don’t ride.) From Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

My 2 years and 3 months at Canonical have been amazing. Amazingly hard, amazingly rewarding, amazingly productive, amazingly challenging and amazingly enjoyable. Everything in extremes. No time for moderation. I don’t mind admitting that a break is very welcome.

I accepted the role of Creative Strategy Lead 3 weeks after I joined having been initially hired to set up a user-centred design practice. I began hiring even before I joined when I introduced Marcus Haslam – our Brand Lead – to my predecessor and, since then, I have been on an almost constant quest to hire outstanding talent.

Bringing design in terms of branding and user experience to any technology-driven organisation is always a challenge. When that organisation has such ambitious goals and the core product effectively ‘belongs’ to a community of contributors the challenges are greater.

I remember hearing of the CEO of Marks and Spencer saying that the best and worst thing about the brand was that everyone *feels* they own it. In the case of Ubuntu, everyone does own it!

I have been very lucky to work so closely with a visionary stakeholder and have had a unique opportunity to work with him to refine and deliver his vision.

Mark Shuttleworth sets high goals and Canonical Design aims to attain the very highest standards.

Thanks to a most wonderful and talented team we have created a visual identity for Ubuntu and Canonical that supports the brand vision, we have continued to evolve ubuntu.com and set solid foundations for canonical.com. Ubuntu tested extremely well in our recent round of market research and the results of our latest usability benchmarking were excellent. Ubuntu is no longer the smart geeky kid sitting quietly at the back of the class; now it can strut through the playground with its head held high and it can be noticed.

As a team we speak in terms of user experience which combines usability, branding and effective design that can deliver on the vision for the product. While there is such a thing as a design gut feel – for some people based purely in talent, for others in experience – it is a dangerous modus operandi when resources are scarce and the job is vast. Good design thinking and data transform gut feel into a credible direction. There is more work to be done but the direction is firm.

My whole experience at Canonical has been supported and challenged by a very active and engaged community of contributors. I am not going to pretend that doing anything design-related in an open-source community is anything other than a challenge. Thankfully, for the most part, the right sort of challenge – the type that helps you progress.

Imagine walking into a room where a few hundred people are talking to you at the same time. You can’t hear, you don’t know where to start, the noise is overwhelming and you are just about to put your hands over your ears and scream when you notice someone catch your eye and smile; you notice another person pick up something you have dropped and put it where you can see it, a cup of tea appears in your hand and someone else starts quietly answering one person, then another. The desire to scream will come again, but the support is invaluable. What starts as a feeling that everyone is telling you what to do evolves into the sure knowledge that there are people who will help you catch a dropped ball. A massive thank you to all those people.

My return date is not fixed but I know I am leaving the design effort at Canonical in the hands of people who care deeply about the project and the company, and who have the talent and the sheer force of will to deliver.

To life, love, and experience. Cheers!

Posted in general | Tagged | 24 Responses

Surveying contributions

If you have ever contributed to an open source project or wish you had got round to it then please can you fill in this survey?


It isn’t a quick one, but if you have about 20 minutes to spare then your response would be very much appreciated. I will publish the results on my blog and the design blog so, if you are interested you won’t miss them!

Posted in design | Tagged | Comments closed

In support of students

For me, it is very simple: restricting access to education is wrong.
Education is as much of an investment for a government as it is for the individual.

Here is how I think about the idea of limiting access to higher education to those that can afford it or are willing to begin their adult lives with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt.

Most people will get 3 quotes when they are building an extension or having a new kitchen fitted. Why? Because by increasing the sample size there is a higher probability of getting some great work done at a great price. Restricting your choice of doctors to the ones that can afford to study medicine would be like opening the yellow pages and choosing the kitchen fitter with the biggest ad; you may well get lucky and they may be able to afford that advertisement because they provide excellent service at great value but it would be a gamble.

I am not interested in hearing comparisons with the United States or anywhere else. This is Britain. This is our society and we can make it what we want and need it to be.

I was in the first generation of students who didn’t get a grant. I had part-time jobs through University and confess (at my late father’s suggestion) to using the very cheap student loans to travel round Europe every summer. It was brilliant. (And I can tell some quite amusing stories about changing my car suspesion in a campsite using rocks to prop it up – another time maybe.)

Despite being born in the UK and being a British citizen from birth I had spent 8 years out of the country and there was a suggestion from the local education authority (LEA) that I should pay ‘foreign student’ fees. That would have been £10,000 a year. For me, there was an easy out because all I would have had to have done was wait one year and apply for University when the arbitrary time period would have elapsed and my sin of living abroad would be forgiven. My father and I wrote lots of letters, I went to see my local MP arguing that as I wanted to study engineering spending a year traveling and forgetting all my algebra wouldn’t actually be that ‘enriching’, the LEA relented and I went to University, as planned. It was 1993, those of you with knowledge of Balkan politics will understand why we simply could not have contemplated paying £10000 a year for University fees.

Subsequently I paid for my own Masters. I continued to work part-time earning a pretty penny thanks to my first degree.

Now, I have not invented the cure for cancer nor have I painted a Titian but I have been a high rate tax payer in this country for well over 10 years, through my work I have created employment opportunities, helped small businesses get off the ground, helped big and small business sell more and I sit confident in the knowledge that my University education has helped me enormously. What is more, it has helped me contribute to the society I live in.

In turn I have been helped by doctors, nurses, engineers, philosphers, artists, architects, economists and countless others.

I was listening to the Today programme recently and the politician being interviewed (I forget which one it was) was talking about how unfair it was for postmen and miners that their tax would be spent educating others. Sarah Montague started her next line with “The question is” and went on to finish with “is this going to stop students from poorer families going to University?” No Sarah – I said, shouting at the radio – the question is: When you go to hospital who do you want to treat you? The best doctor or the one with the biggest yellow pages advert?

Today, all I can do is ask that Messrs Cameron and Cleg stop playing with my society and spend my tax educating the people with the most potential.

Do I support the protests? With all my heart and mind. It is a sad society where the youth don’t think that they can shape their world, Britain’s youth is alive and fighting for all our futures. Awesome.

Posted in humanity, observations | 15 Responses

Looking at Ubuntu Brainstorm: Idea #25801

The Ubuntu Technical Board is currently conducting a review of the top ten Brainstorm issues users have raised about Ubuntu, and Matt asked me to investigate Idea #25801: Help the user understand when closing a window does not terminate the app. In other words, figure out to signal to the user that an application will continue to run after all of its windows have been closed.

This is more than a good idea, it’s an important gap in the usability of most of the desktop operating systems in widespread use today.

It’s also come up in our user testing: Charline’s research on Unity identified a lack of feedback to users and she observed the same absence of good feedback in the Rythmbox interface, where Rhythmbox can continue running in the background, playing music, with no windows visible.

We do have a few useful elements to work with.

We have been making some changes to the panel, replacing the old system tray with a set of menus known as indicators. One of the innovations there is that background services reflected in indicator menus can signal that they are running, using the triangle on the left – as applications in the Unity launcher do.

We have also been encouraging application developers to think carefully about whether or not an application needs an indicator, or exclusive use of an indicator. We want to reduce clutter in the panel, generally. So we need a solution which will cover 3 different types of applications: those that use their own indicator, those that use a category indicator (such as the Messaging Menu or Sound Menu) and those that don’t have an indicator at all.

The proposal in the Brainstorm idea is a reasonable option, and would work well for all 3 types where the applications without indicators could animate towards their icon in the launcher. This solution does have limitations from an accessibility perspective and an additional solution would need to be designed to cover the accessibility use case. It would be important to mock them up and test them with paper prototypes or simulated (flash?) interfaces. It’s inspiring to see creative proposals – the best way to have a great idea is to have lots of ideas, so more are welcome!

The next steps would be for an animation designer to design the animation and an API designer to design the API. It is also important that the accessibility solution be investigated at the same time.

If you would like help working through ideas on this subject it would be best to jump onto the Ayatana mailing list or #ayatana and look for Otto Greenslade who is working with Mark on exactly this sort of problem. The Ayatana list also has plenty of engineering resource which would mean we would be able to talk about feasibility too. For the accessibility aspect, I would be very interested in working on this as a first point of contact and then we can involve people from the accessibility team for further review and discussion.

Posted in design | Tagged | 13 Responses

So, you want to provide an API for the world to use?

I conducted 5 qualitative interviews with developers and here are some findings.

You have two problems. The first problem is to design the API. The second is to help people learn to use it.

Great API design

Is consistent, predictable, learnable. You are creating an API that developers will interact with. In the same way that a graphical user interface (GUI) might use visual design to provide users with a language to predict and learn behaviours, an API can use naming and format.

“I think like the word I would use for a good API is predictability…yeah – make intelligent guesses there should be no surprises when I move to new features it should behave basically the same way”

“‘guessability’ is the most important thing for the API and that comes from consistency.”

“some APIs are unnecessarily complex in the sense that they give you multiple ways of doing the same thing or an API where you can see a list of your friends and also a list of messages, both are lists but some APIs would do both lists differently”

“there is an idiom to a particular API and then you can guess how to use things. A poorly designed API is where that is inconsistent so you just have to google and hope for the best.”

Gets better.You will need to iterate on an API, make sure you can do that and support the people who have invested time into using your API.

“They should be designed so they can be easily extended. [You don’t want to see]Multiple versions of an API and have it break on you…you don’t want to work with something that will be phased out.”

“Last.fm was really poorly maintained”

Great API documentation

Has an overview What does this API do?

“There will be high level description of the capability which needs to be presented in a feature way and then the methods”

Is concise and logical: By all means explain what Rest is but don’t let that information for a beginner obscure access to information for the more experienced developer.

“Google is well documented but there is a lot of information and you have to read a lot to find the answer”

“it is easier to have things narrowed down to 2 sentences rather than why it was like that and why it was decided. It just has to do what I want it to do; the rest doesn’t interest me.”

Uses navigation to expose content

“Well I mean as soon as you have clicked on one of these things on the Flickr one you are in back button land…”

Has tutorials

“If I am starting from scratch I have to look at tutorials”

More support

Make sure people have ready access to examples

“if I find some sample code or code snippets that is for me like heaven, I can take it and adapt it”

If you don’t provide them on your site then people are likely to Google for them.

Try before you buy
Two participants highlighted APIs that provided tools to try them before going through the effort of getting keys or authenticating in any way.

“what is probably more important [than examples] is that you have some facility for testing the API yourself.”

“Facebook needs keys and you have to jump through lots of loops to even try it”

“the nice thing about the Flickr API – there is a page where you can test the API”

Give people access to the code.
Easy for open source APIs.

“Being able to inspect the code is useful.”

“I am looking for a language I can easily read”

Before you ask, no it doesn’t make any difference what type of API. The only exception to this is the “try before you buy” which only applies to web APIs.

Posted in design, technology | Tagged | 3 Responses

I am we.

A few days before I went on holiday my regular newsletter from the Fawcett Society opened with the following:

The Fawcett Society has filed papers with the High Court seeking a Judicial Review of the government’s recent budget

This blog post has been brewing ever since and I apologise, mostly to myself, for not getting it out sooner.

Let there be no doubt in your mind that my response to this news item was positive. The point of my post is to applaud and invite support. My relationship with feminism has had its ups and downs over the years but my relationship with equality has always been clear.

In New York in 2000, the UN Millennium Development Summit set out ‘challenging but feasible’ goals to be achieved by 2015.
These goals are:

  • Reducing by half the proportion of the world’s people in extreme poverty
  • Reducing by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger
  • Ensuring that children everywhere are able to take a full course of primary schooling
  • Ending sex disparity in education
  • Reducing by two-thirds the mortality rate among children under five
  • Reducing by three quarters the rate of maternal mortality
  • Halting and beginning to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS and halting and beginning to reduce the incidence of malaria and other major diseases
  • Reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water

Let’s not forget that we might not have to travel too far from home to see some of these goals being missed. Keep an eye on your politicians, or at least support those that do.

Posted in general, humanity | Tagged , | 1 Response

Unintended consequences

Two stories.

1) A former colleague of mine did a research project for a power company on one of those machines you have in your house that goes red if you are consuming lots of electricity. One participant started boiling water on the gas hob when she was making tea because that way she could keep the thing from going past amber.

2) A different colleague of mine uses an iPhone app which is designed to help you monitor your power consumption to see if his flatmate is home. If it is amber then the flatmate must be home.

Over to you.

Posted in design, observations | Tagged , , | 7 Responses