Can Strategic Design Improve the Design and User Experience Across Open Source Communities?

If you speak to anyone involved in Information Technology there is little debate that an open source development model is the defacto development model for the next generation of technology. Cloud infrastructure with OpenStack, continuous integration with Jenkins, containers with Docker, automation with Ansible – these areas are all being transformed with technologies delivered via the open source development model. Even Microsoft has begun to embrace the open source development model (albeit sometimes only partially).

The use of an open source development model as a default is good news for everyone. Users (and organizations) are obtaining access to the greatest amount of innovation and can participate in development. At the same time, developers are able to increase their productivity and gain access to more collaborators. As organizations look to adopt technologies based on open source they often realize that it’s easier to purchase open source software rather than obtaining it directly from the community. There are many reasons including support, cost, focus on core business, and even indemnification that make it beneficial to purchase rather than consume directly from the community. Red Hat (where I work) is an example of a company that has provided software in exactly this way.

This model works well when organizations are using a single product based on a single open source community project. However, the open source development model poses challenges to creating a cohesive design and user experience across multiple products derived from open source projects. This problem ultimately affects the design and experience of the products organizations buy. In order for open source to continue it’s success in becoming the defacto standard a solution for the problem of coordinating design and user experience across multiple communities needs to solved.

The challenge of solving this problem should not be underestimated. If you think that influencing a single open source community is difficult, you can imagine how challenging it is to influence multiple communities in a coordinated manner. Developers in communities are purpose driven, wildly focused on their problem, and are focused on incremental progress. These developers justifiably shy away from grand plans, large product requirements documents, and any forceful attempts to change what they are building. After all, that’s the way monolithic, proprietary software lost to the fast moving and modular open source development model.

What is needed is a way to illustrate to development and community leaders how they can better satisfy their problem by working well with other communities and allow the community leaders to conclude on their own that they should work in the illustrated manner.

By practicing strategic design it may be possible to provide the clarity of vision and reasoning required to effectively influence multiple open source communities to work more cohesively. Strategic design is is the application of future-oriented design principles in order to increase an organization’s innovative and competitive qualities. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, summarizes some the purposes of design thinking (a major element of strategic design) really well in his Strategy by Design article.

At Red Hat we have recently begun testing this theory by organizing a design practice trial. The design practice trial team consisted of experts on various technologies from the field and engineering along with user experience experts.

IMG_2282

Part of the workshop trial team (During the final exercise on Day 3)

The premise for our design practice trial was simple:

•       Identify a common problem taking place across our customers using multiple open source products.
•       Analyze how the problem can be solved using the products.
•       Conceptualize an ideal user experience starting from a blank slate.
•       Share what was discovered with community leaders and product managers to assist with incremental improvement and influence direction toward the ideal user experience.

Identify
The common problem we found was organizations struggling to design re-usable services effectively.  The persona we identified for our trial was the service designer. The service designer identifies, qualifies, builds, and manages entries in a service catalog for self-service consumption by consumers. The service designer would like to easily design and publish re-usable entries in a catalog from the widest range of possible items.

Analyze
The products we used to analyze the current user experience are:

•       OpenStack to deliver Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)
•       OpenShift to deliver Platform as a Service (PaaS)
•       ManageIQ (CloudForms) to deliver a Cloud Management Platform (CMP)
•       Pulp and Candlepin (Satellite) to deliver a Content Mirroring and Entitlement
•       Ansible (Tower) to deliver automation

Looking across our communities we find lots of “items” in each project. OpenStack provides Heat Templates, OpenShift provides Kubernetes Templates, Ansible provides play books, and on and on. In addition to this, the service designer would likely want to mix items from outside of these projects for use in a catalog entry, including public cloud and SaaS services.

What would it look like for the service designer to assemble all these items into an entry that could be ordered by a consumer that leads to a repeatable deployment? During a 3-day workshop we put ourselves in the shoes of the service designer and attempted to design an application.

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 1.49.03 PM

The Example Application

The team was able to design the catalog entry in about 8 hours and we feel we could have done this even faster if we weren’t so new to Ansible Tower.

Here is a quick video demonstration of deploying this application from the catalog as a finished product.

Or in MP4

I’ll spare every one the detailed results here (if you work at Red Hat send me a note and I’ll link you to our more complete analysis), but the exercise of analyzing the current solution allowed us to identify many areas for incremental improvement when using these products together to satisfy the use case of the service designer. We also identified longer term design questions that need to be resolved between the products (and ultimately, the upstream projects).

Conceptualize
What would the ideal user experience be for this? Another exercise we performed in our workshop was designing an ideal user experience starting from a blank slate. This included challenging assumptions while still defining some constraints of the concept. This proved to be challenging and eye opening for everyone involved. Starting from scratch with a design and not worrying about the underlying engineering that would be required is difficult for engineering minded individuals. We began developing what we believe the ideal user experience for service design would be. These will be worked into a workflow and low fidelity mockups to illustrate the basics of the experience.

Share
As next steps we will share our findings with community leaders and product managers in the hopes that it positively impacts the design and user experience. We will also continue meeting with customers who we believe suffer from the service design problem to continue to refine our proposed ideal design and to help them understand how our current solution works. If all goes well, we might even attempt a prototype or mock user interface to start. There are plenty of other angles we need to address, such as the viability of customer adoption and customer willingness to pay for such a concept. For a 3-day workshop (and lots of prep before), however, we feel we are off to a good start.

Will the community leaders accept our assertions that they can deliver a better experience by working together? Will any of the concepts and prototypes make it into the hands of customers? This remains to be seen. My hunch is that none of the communities will accept the exact conceptual design and user experience put forth by the Design Practice, but the conceptual design and user experience will positively influence the design and user experience within the open source communities and ultimately make it’s way to customers via Red Hat’s products and solutions. In any case, the more time we spend practicing design, the better the lives of our customers will become.

-James
@jameslabocki

 

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