Mozilla Labs Explores Open Source Design

Mozilla helped pioneer open source software for its Firefox browser. Now it's soliciting open source design ideas in a series of competitions

Software developers have dominated the open source community, leading to the creation of a tremendous volume of free code used to build the foundations of Web sites and browsers. Less attention has been paid to how they look and how easy they are to use. Design often gets short shrift in open source.

Pascal Finette is working to change that. The 37-year-old director of Mozilla Labs in Mountain View, Calif., has created a forum for user-interface designers to work on a collective redesign of the Web—or at least, the Firefox browser that is synonymous with Mozilla and which currently has a 24% global market share, according to Net Applications.

Mozilla Labs was created in 2006 to act as an innovation crucible in which Mozilla supporters could experiment with new ideas. So far, they have mainly come up with new Internet tools such as Prism, which allows Firefox users to run online applications on the desktop. But Finette thinks despite their impressive capabilities, browsers could be designed better, too.

Since last spring, Finette has launched six challenges that invite submissions around a particular design theme. Topics include designing a new Firefox home page and coming up with a new system to render browsing history in visual terms. Ideas for each challenge are uploaded to a Mozilla Labs Web site and are subjected to critiques on a discussion board. The ideas are also available for adoption by the wider Mozilla open source community.

the public votes on submissions

So far the challenges' most enthusiastic participants have been student teams, individuals, and design hobbyists seeking practice and exposure. Design professors such as Caio Cesar, assistant professor and program coordinator for the interaction design program at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, have even made the competition part of their curriculum. It's an important opportunity to get real-world experience, says Cesar. "This was a great chance to get feedback from Mozilla."

Submissions are put to a public vote, with winners selected by a panel that includes interaction design specialists and designers from Mozilla. There are no formal prizes, although Finette says an upcoming version of Firefox will incorporate some concepts from the challenges. (He declines to share specifics.)

Some commentators doubt that an open source approach can be fruitfully applied to design. "There are plenty of good ideas, but they don't work well together with the real world," says Jakob Nielsen, principal at the Nielsen Norman Group in Fremont, Calif. Open source encourages the addition of new solutions and ideas. In design, says Nielsen, "the brilliant idea can be the one unifying idea that can take away 10 other ideas."

For now, Finette is working to build an open source library of user experience design files. That way, he says, they can catalogue ideas and design patterns that might one day be used in the marketplace.

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