Not Meritocratic Yet

Andrew has posted an interesting post about how Mark has reported in a bug report that Ubuntu is not democratic, but is instead meritocratic. (only those with merit get to be involved)

What is interesting to me is that this is wonderful intent but this isn’t backed up by current reality of design in Ubuntu and while a lot of commentators in the above article agree with Mark’s sentiments, the people I know around the community have been describing to me their frustration with the design decisions being anything but based on merit and have instead been based upon being staff.

In the community we are trying to show that there is a whole raft of people who _do_ have design merit, who are good designers, good artists, they have a good eye and know how to do usability studies. That the process that leads to the final design of Ubuntu should be opened up to people _with_ merit and not just to employees.

Of course I think this is what Mark wants too, better integration, less need to hire every community designer. So I’m not suggesting that the intent need change, but there are some things we can’t know about which might be hindering this move to meritocracy. In the wording there is mooted that a lot of the design choices are in preparation for future direction, that these features or directions may somehow be covered by NDAs with Canonical’s partners and that unfortunately for us, we may not be able to interact with the design team fully. (take this as a pinch of salt, it’s hearsay)

The article is not in any way an attempt to change things, just voice my frustration at the ineptitude of poor design and poor community integration of the design team. I still hope that we can come together and do something to get everybody moving towards what we all want.

A meritocratic governance.

13 thoughts on “Not Meritocratic Yet

  1. I think we have some improvements to be made with the design team for sure, and Ivanka’s recent interview alluded to that – we are going to be working together in the next cycle to improve this, but I would say in general Ubuntu is a meritocratic place.

  2. Hey,

    Two small comments I have:
    First, it is my opinion that judging artists skills is somewhat hard and subjective compared to, let’s say, developer skills. How do you prove you’re “good at” art? Will you like my design skills?
    Second, I guess you have noticed, but since a few releases, lot of reorganization happen in the layout of the whole desktop, and I’m pretty sure this small button move is part of a bigger picture. And so far, it looks pretty damn good (the whole picture).


  3. Hi, I’d like to agree, but I think design is a bit of a special case… it’s not really like software or documentation, I’m not sure design benefits from having a huge number of contributors. a bit afraid that having many contributors to a design would kind of “dilute” the original ideas of artists.

    People have different styles, I couldn’t imagine a drawing made by several people… So as much as I value meritocracy, I think the design would benefit from a handful of very dedicated people rather than a huge community..

  4. >the people I know around the community have been describing to me their frustration with the design decisions being anything but based on merit and have instead been based upon being staff.

    I’ve heard some mentions of this but has any one actually expressed this above the level of rumors? Any blog/forum/mail posts about this?

  5. Hmm, interesting. I’ve been following Mark’s comments on the bug report, and I do agree with him. You can’t do anything and be successful if you only rely on a democracy.

    I think it is important to value the opinions of people who have proved their worth or have proved their experience. What I see from my perspective is that often Canonical staff opinions are wrongly taken as gospel and the opinions of the community members who have proved their experience are dismissed without much (obvious or public) consideration.

    It’s important to realize that just because someone works for Canonical, doesn’t necessarily mean they know more than the next guy who is *just a community member.* That next guy could be a world famous designer in his day job, but just contributes to Ubuntu in his spare time. How would you know?

  6. I love Ubuntu but it’s hardly a meritocracy. I think it’s even absurd to try to.

    Ubuntu is not really a community-driven distro, and IMO, community-driven is a precondition for being a meritocracy.

    Meritocracy is a hierarchy based on merit and meassured by peer-review. If you put in place a stronger hierarchy based on a commercial entity, that entity can manage something meritocracy-like, but not really meritocracy since the idiosincracies of a commercial entity will always clash with the meritocratic hierarchy.

  7. “I’m pretty sure this small button move is part of a bigger picture. And so far, it looks pretty damn good (the whole picture).”
    exactly. That is why i can;t agree with “ineptitude of poor design” statement. It is the opposite, linux desktop never looked so sexy. 😉

    I also do think that usability work should be done by UX people, and desig nwork by design people, developers are not able to design simple UI (as seen in maany apps). However Ubuntu design could improve “community integration”. Sth like Firefox, ie. that showed mockups for 3.7, 4.0 and wanted to here feedback. This would be a little bit better, but still kudos to Ubuntu design team for great work !

  8. @Yann

    Art may be in the eye of the beholder, but the UI isn’t art. UI design adheres to rules, just like everything else. It’s functional. Humans perform roles and tasks that are well known. When you attempt to mold the user into a design concept that violates these roles, you fail.

    With that being said sometimes it’s worthwhile to step outside the envelope and try something new. But always remember that humans respond to risk-reward behavior. If you are going to force them to do something new or risky, there needs to be a reward equal to the risk otherwise the user wont adapt.

    In the case of the latest design changes, the reward was promised after the fact, but not given. Thus, it is a massive design fail. Yes there were opinions provided and these can be ignored because of meritocracy rules. But good UI design needs to be based on fact. And the facts were not there to justify the change. This was pointed out. And hopefully completely understood.

  9. * Controls on the left
    * Spatial Nautilus
    * Upstart
    * Ubuntu Calendar
    * Funky Fairy naming

    … Ubuntu suffers from heavy-handedness from top down. I’m not judging these ideas, but in a “democratic” environment priorities may have been different.

    And while meritocracies can be good, they sometimes foster cultism where the loser is the user. The Gentoo community seemed that way to me in my pre-Ubuntu/Debian days.

  10. The funny thing about meritocracies is: Who gets to define what “merit” is?

    (Answer: Ideally, it is decided by a democratic process.)

    It’s the same problem that plagues pragmatism. Being pragmatic is all nice and good, but at the end of the day, you have to have goals underlying everything else. How do you decide what your goals are?

  11. When DrMo and I worked in Inkscape, I’d often emphasize that “Open Source is meritocracy, not democracy.” Not that I don’t love democracy but why should 9 people who have put 0 hrs of effort into something have more decision power on it than 1 person who has put 100 hrs into it, just because they have numbers? One person with a good, strong design ethic and the time available to implement it is worth dozens of bikeshed painters.

    At the same time, I also like the expression, “Patch first, ask questions later.” It’s almost a mantra in Inkscape. Too often have I seen creative, technically-solid ideas drowned in the bureaucracy of committee-itis. Don’t debate the merits of a given change, just put it in and see if it sticks. This doesn’t mean, “Roll stuff out without listening to feedback.” On the contrary, it means get the change into people’s hands, put it in front of them, and see what they think. Don’t hold back and over-analyze it before sharing. Share it soon. If it’s cool, every one will love it. If it’s buggy, it’ll be a priority to fix. If it sucks, they’ll says so and you can change directions on it before you officially release. This has worked well for Inkscape.

    Now, I have to admit that all this works fine for Inkscape, but Inkscape isn’t a company. We don’t have to worry about making a profit, or people taking our best ideas, beating us to delivery, and stealing our clients.

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