Easing contributions for creative thinkers

MacSlow brings up some interesting points in his most recent post, and although his idea about the library he suggests makes perfect sense to me, I would like to broaden out the discussion a little to explore ways in which visually creative people and others can better help the desktop experience, without suffering through processes alien to them.

Part of the problem is that the current development model is fundamentally based around programmers. Even if you have an artist working away in Inkscape doing some art, the artist typically needs to know about Subversion and needs to be on the bleeding edge, checking out code so they know which icons to draw. Even then, when it comes to icons there are different sizes, and technical reasons and contexts when those sizes are used. This all fundamentally detracts away from the core skill that person brings – to create beautiful artwork.

In recent months we have seen an explosion in the visual side of the desktop with Tango, Cairo, Compiz, XGL/AIGLX and more maturing. I am really interested in exploring better methods of putting visually creative people in a position where they can express their ideas in such a way that makes sense to developers/users and can be implemented easily. Now, in the long term, expansive changes to desktop infrastructure could theoretically accommodate this (such as the oft-discussed CSS driven theming engine). In the meantime I put this to you – let us try and create usecases that are amenable to non-programmers and build around it.

A few examples:

  • Artists – artists should not need to know what version control is, they should not need to know about code, development, checkouts or other fluff – they should just need to know (a) which icons/imagery is required and (b) any guidelines (such as Tango) in producing that art. When art is created, it should be easy to pass it to the developer, and the developer should be easily able to manage it.
  • Documentation writers – docs writers should again not need to know about this programming fluff, and they really shouldn’t need to know about markup languages. The docs writer should just be able to view a page and edit it straight away. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just click on the text on a wiki page and edit it directly instead of having to learn all that pesky wiki markup?
  • Bug reporters – bug reporters should not need to know about severity, versions, milestones, products etc. The reporter should know the problem and be able to tell the developers easily. Bug buddy is a step in the right direction with regards to this, but I still think the problem can be eased. Bug reporters are users, and anything that sounds vaguely non-userish will be seen as gibberish and will put the user off reporting bugs. We should treat bug reporting with the same level as care as we treat the desktop. Why don’t we use Istanbul to record the bug happening?

All of this is about process – we need to identify methods in which we can preserve the seedling of that skill in question and not run it through the shredder. Fewer obstacles in the way of contribution means more contributions and a greater eagerness to contribute. Contributors just want to do the thing in hand, and I am convinced there are huge opportunities to ease this process.

  • Treenaks

    I don’t agree that people shouldn’t know about versioning. They might have to know about it in a different/easier to grasp way than ‘svn commit’, but still, they should at least know that it exists (and how it can help them ;))

    In the ideal situation, everything should be versioned so you can go back to an older version of your work. Look at it as longer-than-session undo.

    Imho, the focus should be on making versioning easy to do (like, your editing tool automatically checking files into the underlying versioning system every time you save the file, and a way to retrieve old versions of files)

    Look at Apple’s new shiny time machine for something like this. There are also some plugins for nautilus that enable you to use versioning in an easier way.

  • Joe Buck

    I think that artists are perfectly capable of understanding the basics of revision control, and would go beyond that: they need it. The problem is giving them an intuitive interface to it.

    In my experience, technical writers do understand markup, they need to. Being able to cleanly seperate the content from the presentation style is vital to what they do.

    Bug reporting systems need to be redesigned to reflect roles: most systems today ask the user for information that the user doesn’t know, and they tend to expect the user to somehow isolate the bug when most users aren’t capable of it. Perhaps we need two seperate types of bug reporting systems, one for end users and one for developers, who might also take the role of propagating bugs detected by users upstream.

  • http://www.alexhudson.com/ Alex Hudson

    I disagree in some ways too. Version control is one thing – I think programmers and non-programmers need to work in the same world, otherwise the non-programmers just end up being excluded basically – and documentation has a lot of technical issues (eg., translations are important for a lot of in-program documentation).

    I think the issue is less about the tools being wrong, and more that some of the interfaces and things could be improved.

    It would be interesting to try and find out how much of a barrier this actually is. I would suspect that people don’t encounter this barrier until they actually try to contribute: so, the measure would be failed contributions, not people put off contributing.

  • http://linuxrevolution.blogspot.com GameGod

    Interesting you mentioned the Istanbul thing, as I was thinking something similar myself. I think it’d kickass if Istanbul was built into the GNOME bug reporting tool somehow. That’d be pretty slick/helpful.

  • http://www.realnitro.be/ Jens Geiregat

    I disagree too about the version control. Version control is the way to go with projects. Some (possibly crazy) ideas about this: - Subversion (or other version control) support in Inkscape. Configuration for versioning should be very easy (username, password, repository), contributing should be as easy as pushing a button. The ideal would be to map undo/redo directly to the version control. This is mostly what Treenaks said in comment #1. - Create dynamic websites (like Trac) that allow artists to browse the art, view previous versions, add comments, etc. Allow them to upload their art to this website.

    This shouldn’t be limited to Open Source Software projects. Users could use these features to create other content as part of a school/work/just for fun project.

  • http://desdeamericaconamor.org Quim Gil

    Jono, agreed. Add to your list pure creative people (I mean the non-designers) in relation to specs writing. Also people should be able to report improvements without needing to be developer or user experience insider.

    The known problem is how to solve the equation of useful input, noise and developers’ time to deal with higher levels of quite unprocessed information. There must be a way.

  • jono

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that version control should not be used, far from it – it is essential for projects. All I am saying is that artists should not need to be bothered with version control – I don’t think that version control fits in conceptually with artists. It fits in with programmers fine.

    I am just saying that I am positive there are ways to improve this process. Different people of different diciplines work in different ways, and we need to identify these differences and optimise them.

  • http://advogato.org/person/AlanHorkan/ Alan Horkan

    Getting WebDAV document management into Inkscape (planned) and GIMP (may already be possible using gnome-vfg) would be a good way to provide artists with basic document management without the burden of full version control. Adobe uses WebDAV. Besides the file formats and softused by artists are not well suited to full version control systems.

    Does such a thing as a Docbook editor exist or does everyone use a text editor? Abiword has docbook support, recently overhauled. It might be possible to improve that enough that documentation writers would not need to know any markup but I suspect it would be a whole lot of work if it is even possible.

    Bug buddy could probably benefit from more developer love, and in turn make it easier to manage the feedback users do provide. I am under the impression bug-buddy does not have a lot of developers working on it on a regular basis. Given the option I would love to be able to turn on more aggessive tracking and reporting features and provide much more usage detail (it would have to be optional though, the Netscape Feedback tool is quite good in that way).

    (captcha image problems, adding more words to avoid warning.)

  • dpope

    Hi Jono,

    I definately agree that a major problem with OSS is the way its driver by coders who (1) tend to be poor at UI design and graphics (in general) and (2) spend enough time worrying about code to not have energy to worry about documentation, usability, etc… I think often non-coders like to use OSS but don’t feel that they can contribute because it is, after all, called open source. We’re trying to start a graphics library project (still unnamed, though maybe called agora) on the compiz forums and one hope I have for it is that we will take a long time before coding to think about usability of the library, both in terms of having a good interface for developers using it but also in terms of including features that will allow for a more appealing, tightly knit desktop. I hope you will consider participating to some degree, at least to get things started in the right direction. I started a new discussion thread about this at:

    http://www.compiz.net/topic-2856-compiz

  • Benjamin Otte

    I think the biggest problem right now is that the artistic community and the Free Sftware community are two very different communities. All those reasoning about version control is fine, but I think it would solve itself once the people in those communities would start talking to each other.

    To give a case example, I’m interested in gtk+ themes and do work there. I know all the developers of the required code (theme engines, theme selection, all that stuff) but I have no clue who the artists are that actually create the themes and icons. I’m hanging out in the #gnome-art IRC channel, and every relevant developer is in there, but I’ve yet to meet a second artist. This surprises me quite a bit. I had thought they know each other very well and hang around together.

    And I’ll give another example, this time focussing on the differences between communities: I once thought about creating my own icons by just copying stuff from different icons and mixing it together. So I thought I’d get the source for those icons and do it. But there was no source. The Free Software community even puts in their license, that you share your stuff in “the preferred form of the work for making modifications to it”. Yet all the icons are in PNG format, and I’m pretty sure they are edited in the Gimp. It’s just that this kind of sharing is not part of the artist community.

    But if you put those people in touch – not by trying to make them work together, but by making them hang out together, in the same IRC channel or whatever – you’ll get them talking about these issues. An artist will complain about some version control issue and some coder will say “Hey, that’s easy, lemme code it for you” and all those things will start solving itself.

    This is btw not only limited to developer and artist communities. There’s also musician communities where I don’t really know anyone from (and I’ve been a GStreamer developer) or computer gaming communities, to name just a few. They are all very seperate – with a few exceptions.

  • http://thejf.blogspot.com Jean-Francois Arseneau

    I have limited programming experience, so I’m not entirely sure how hard what I’m suggesting is, but I’d have to go with something like what the previous commenters said, which is basically to make versioning a cinch for artists, almost an automatic process, implement a better Wiki editing interface in the browser complete with the ability to WYSIWYG, and the ability to submit “simple” bug reports, which could be cleaned up and reproduced to detail it further by someone on the bug report team then sent upstream, as suggested by Joe Buck.

    Semi-Automatic Versioning: It’s possible to do this by adding a menu entry to Inkscape and GIMP and whatever other program you want to use, but it would be much cleaner and better from a UI perspective to have Subversion and CVS integrated through the virtual filesystem. For example, in Gnome, you would go in “Places”, “Connect to Server…” and then type in the information needed for the version control you use. Then from Nautilus, you could update and all that by right-clicking on the Version Control-mounted directory. I think something similar has been tried before though… Anyways, the artist would just connect, and then use his or her graphic application, navigate to the VC-mounted directory in the file dialog, and save or open (that’s possibly not the right term but bear with me), and all the VC stuff would be done without the user having to bring up the console.

    This could be taken a step further with some kind of Linux-only Firefox plugin, where you could click on a particular link (with a svn://, cvs://, or vc:// protocol or something), which would contain all the info you need and it would send it to the “Connect to Server…” app., which would have to be hooked up to receive information from the plugin, and it would ask the user if they wish to mount the SVN or CVS directory (or something easier to understand), and if they choose yes, it would bring up a file dialog to choose the directory where you want to mount it, and do it all automatically from the info the link provided.

    So in three-clicks, two if you take out the query, the user would be able to contribute using version control.

    So yeah, to do that, need to modify gnome-vfs, that “Connect to Server…” app, Nautilus and possibly the File Dialog, plus create a new Firefox plugin to handle Version Control links.

    Better UI + WYSIWYG Wiki: Well, there’s already some out there, like Wikiwig and I’m sure there’s others, so it’s really just a matter of using those I suppose.

    Simple and Advanced Bug Reporting: First, if you want your general, passive user to report bugs, you pretty much need to stick it in his face when something goes wrong and reduce the number of steps necessary to send in the report. Using Istanbul and stuff like that to take in as much info without user input would be a good start, and having a few dialog boxes on a single page that pops up after the error, or have a button somewhere written “Report bug for this application” or something (and you can write “Type in as much as you know, but these fields are optional”)

    Because last I remember, a few years ago, I was using Fedora Core 1 or something, and when it came to bug reporting, you had to click “Next”, “Next”, “Next” all the time, and ultimately, I would just give up on bug reporting because it was too much trouble.

    It would make a bunch of sloppy bug reports, but at least you’d get some information out of them.

    And I apologize for the length of this.

  • http://donscorgie.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk Don

    About the documentation. We (the GNOME docs people ;) ) are working on it. Ubuntu has a SoC project to improve the docbook output for MoinMoin. Shaunm is working on a new doc writing language as part of Project Mallard, which he describes as “2^infty times easier than docbook”. lgo has a GUI editing interface already. GNOME has a SoC working on creating libgo. Hopefully soon all this will come together to produce the greatest-doc-writing-experience Evar!!11!!!!one!!1!!1!.

    There is an old attempt at this at http://live.gnome.org/DocumentationProject/UserGuide which allows people to make changes to the user guide (but is now out of date).

  • http://v0xel.wordpress.com Petar

    Jean-Francois,

    There is something like this nautilus integration you were talking about, but it’s not yet available to the public.

    Nevertheless, I was impressed when I saw it. You can see the demo here:

    http://plone.org/products/nautilus-plone-backend/

    That kind of integration of standard Gnome tools with community pages (think wikis for artists) is necessary for successful expansion of art community.

  • http://jeff-ratliff.com/2006/08/24/more-on-writing-documentation/ Jeff’s Amazing blog » Blog Archive » More on Writing Documentation

    [...] Jono has been writing lately about open source communities and how to make it easier for people to get involved. While I could quibble with the details, I agree with the principle. People contributing to open source projects shouldn’t have to deal with technical details. Art guys should know the intricacies of Inkscape, but not SVN and bugzilla. Coders should (just) deal with code, documentation people should deal with documentation. [...]

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