For open source legend Eric S. Raymond, user-centric design is long overdue - Technical.ly Philly

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For open source legend Eric S. Raymond, user-centric design is long overdue

Open source software can only move forward with more design thinking, he said. The Penn dropout and longtime Malvern resident better known as ESR held court at FOSSCON this weekend.

Eric S. Raymond speaks at FOSSCON 2015 inside the Philadelphia Friends Center meeting room, Aug. 22, 2015.

(Photo by Christopher Wink)

It took a while for Eric S. Raymond, one of the founding fathers of the open source movement, to prioritize the end user. But now that he has, he wants you to know how easy it can be.

“Watch the users use your product,” he said, in his rather sweet tone. Then “sit on your fucking hands while they use it … and don’t be an asshole when you get feedback.”

A longtime resident of Malvern in Chester County and a Penn dropout, Raymond, better known as just ESR, is legendary in his vibrant cornerstone of the technology community — the ultimate sign of this may be that you can buy a T-shirt that throws shade on him.

Nearly 70 developers sat Saturday afternoon in the Quaker Meeting Room of the Friends Center in Center City for an Ask Me Anything-style session with him. The session was part of the annual, one-day, volunteer-run open source conference FOSSCON. The event is organized by Hive76 board member Jonathan Simpson and Christina Simmons, along with a cast of volunteers and sponsors like Linode and SunGard. (Full disclosure, this reporter also spoke at the event).

The questions, like with any AMA, ranged wildly — for example, Python is his go to language, he doesn’t support updating Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) to remove leap seconds, he says some of the security concerns with the cloud are overblown and he thinks the adoption of open source hardware will take far longer than in software. But the theme of the end user dominated.

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So why, decades after the beginning of the free software movement and nearly 20 years after his landmark “Cathedral and the Bazaar” open source manifesto, is the idea of thinking about how users interact with software products still not a given?

“It comes from the ancestral culture of open source [developers],” Raymond said. “We are not interior designers by nature. We are plumbers and stone masons. We build from the engine out.”

Adding: “User-centric design requires a kind of ego-less approach, but we often feel we are the smartest in the room, certainly smarter than the dumb user.”

But for the open source software community to continue to spread adoption, developers “must become ashamed of bad UI.”

If governments and corporations and other mass-scale users of software are to become familiar users, the end user must be prioritized (and balanced with security concerns). How to know it’s working? One of the signs of a successful software product is its intuitiveness, said ESR.

“If you write documentation for a user centered design, then you already fucked up,” he said, noting that as a systems engineer he isn’t traditionally tasked with front-end design but must, too, keep users in mind. When viewing user testing, “don’t correct the user. Their mistake is yours.”

ESR was born with cerebral palsy, which got him bullied as a kid, and walks with a limp. Today, he commands a tech talk stage with confidence, humor and charm. He is full of the quirks often associated with a polymath. Portly and mustachioed, he’s a self-described Libertarian gun nut and Tae Kwon Do black belt, a tech conference regular with 13 years of blogging experience who also happens to play the flute. He has a LARP resume.

For so long, he has been among the de facto spokesmen for the global open source community (when Heartbleed came, The New York Times called ESR), so will he be taking on this cause of rallying more design thinking in open source development?

“I didn’t like being famous, so I’ve all but given it up,” he said, referencing his being a face of open source. “Someone else will have to take that lead.”

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