Beauty in Linux (and free software)

Recently I wrote a post related to the beautification of LibreOffice and how we need a movement in the FOSS community towards making more attractive apps. In response to this post I received (constructive) criticism somewhere along the lines of, “if it works well, who cares how it looks?” Considering that I’m still writing about beautification in FOSS here, clearly I don’t agree. I think that if the FOSS community wants FOSS to be the standard, then they’re going to have to cater (at least in part) to the standard or average person. I don’t want fashion to take priority over function, but I don’t want function to outweigh a UI’s capability of seduction by a factor of 10 (in some cases).

On several occasions I’ve met similar apps with similar functions. I don’t think there’s enough options out there still, but that will surely come later as schools begin to adopt a computer science program to implement into high school. Anyway, if you asked me which I would prefer between two similar apps that functioned just about the same way, unless one had a killer feature compared to the other, I would always take the more attractive.

If you look at Mac or even Windows, you’ll see there’s what’s called a design ethos, and this is something that’s hard to achieve with software designed for Linux.If you’ll allow me to go full-on Bryan Lunduke, the fact that you have so much choice, the fact that you can use X or Y desktop environment, and do so at will, makes it difficult the developers to take chances with new UI elements in their apps. Often there are inconsistencies between Qt, GTK3, etc in terms of what you can do with the UI, and even the UX. Certain types of animations, for instance, might be supported in Qt, but are entirely unsupported in GTK3. There’s only a limited amount of effort that a limited quantity of developers can put into a given project. If there are issues to solve, I’m sure they’d rather be solving those, ensuring that functionality is up to par. I can see why people have the “who cares about beauty if it works” mindset, but still, I don’t agree.

There’s something to be said about an app’s beauty, no matter whether it’s on mobile or desktop. If I have to work with a piece of software day in and day out, it’s gotta be appealing to the eyes. There’s a reason that most people, when given the option, don’t choose a high-contrast theme. It’s jarring for the eyes, it doesn’t vibe well with the retina, it just plain hurts. If I wanted to put myself in pain like that, I would tear out all the network cables at work, or pull an rm -rf / on prod. Just because you, the average FOSS developer, don’t think that beauty matters that much, doesn’t mean that the average person in the general population doesn’t care. I’m not all about “catering to the lowest common denominator” but if you can cater to 80% of the population’s desires, with 20% more effort, then why not?

In the last post, I said something along the same lines, but clearly it didn’t resonate. The average user not only cares about whether the app works or not, but also how beautiful it can look while doing it. Ever wonder why Mac devices sell so well? It’s not by chance. It’s because they do the job advertised but also looks amazing doing it. Now, the Mac design ethos might not be for you, but I’m sure there’s some beautiful design ethos out there that could satisfy your eyes. It’s not only Macs that have this perk. Hell, look at elementaryOS! Now you can’t say it’s about keeping up with the Joneses. In eOS’s case, it’s basically an Ubuntu spin. Why do you think we fight about heavy desktop environments like KDE or Gnome3 and which is better? It’s not just about the performance or functionality.

If you’re a developer, try to get your fellow UI nerds’ opinion. Ask them what they think of your project, and then ask them how it looks, in that order. Ask them how you can do better, and then keep doing that. Ask your users what sorts of designs they’d like you to implement and whether they have an opinion on what your app currently looks like. If it’s not at least a 6/10, on average, then you’re missing something important in the way beauty.

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