October 9, 2007

Brainstorming ideas for the GIMP's next interface

Author: Nathan Willis

The GIMP image editor is preparing for the start of a new development cycle, and you can have your say in the way the next version looks by submitting a mock-up to the GIMP UI Brainstorm blog. User interface designer Peter Sikking spoke with us about the project and how it fits into the larger work of creating the GIMP's UI.

Sikking heads Man Machine Interface Works in Berlin, where he budgets time for work on open source projects. He leads a small team of interaction designers working on planning and implementing the next iteration of the GIMP's interface. The team formed in 2006, when it joined the GIMP Developer's Conference at the request of the core GIMP developers. There the team helped to identify the app's key usage scenarios, and followed up on each scenario with usability testing in the lab. The results of this work are publicly available on the GIMP GUI wiki, and are interesting reading for anyone who deals with user interaction problems, and particularly those working on graphics applications.

In addition to those tests, the GUI team has taken on specific interface tasks when so charged by the core GIMP developers. For example, it reworked the select and crop tools for GIMP 2.4.

Gearing up for 2.6

Of course, by that time 2.4 had been in development for several years. The upcoming start of an entirely new development cycle is both a bigger opportunity and a bigger challenge. Being involved from this stage of the process on allows the UI team to work together with the core developers to find solutions for all of the issues raised by the usability tests.

Sikking describes the process as analysis, followed by setting a strategic direction, which will then eventually develop into the precise solution. Though he displays high confidence in the abilities of his team, he recently took the unusual step of opening up the design process to public input.

It all started in August, when Esteban Barahona asked on the gimp-developer mailing list where he could submit a mockup of his own proposed UI changes. That struck a chord with Sikking, who responded by setting up the GIMP UI Brainstorm blog.

Anyone can submit ideas for the blog by emailing them to the moderator's address. Sikking's team only asks that submissions adhere to a few simple rules: only images are accepted (any necessary explanations must be included in the image itself), submissions that criticize other submissions will not be accepted, and all submissions must be licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Not criticizing other submissions is a key factor; as the blog's instructions succinctly put it, "polemic kills brainstorming." Consequently, there are no discussion forums associated with the brainstorm, and comments are disabled.

But submissions that build on top of previous submissions are allowed. One of the reasons Sikking wanted to start a UI brainstorm was so that the pool of ideas could inspire creative thoughts and generate still other ideas. "Anything goes, as long as it adheres to the rules, in our brainstorm," Sikking says. "Anything can trigger the next idea."

The blog has posted almost a hundred user-submitted mockups since its debut on September 9. Sikking says the blog has rejected about 20 submissions for not adhering to the rules. The most common reasons for rejection are sending text instead of an image, and sending unaltered screenshots of other applications.

When submissions meet the basic rules but do not properly attribute borrowed images (such as those that play off of an earlier submission), Sikking requests a correction. But submissions that don't meet the basic criteria are simply dropped without comment.

Benefits of opening up the process

Browsing through the entries posted so far, you see a number of recurring themes. Not many of the ideas are truly off-the-wall, and in fact plenty are more cosmetic than about introducing new ways to interact with the program itself.

Still, it is an intriguing experiment, and there are gems to be found in the brainstorming process that would not arise out of controlled lab experiments and surveys. These submissions are entirely voluntary, and the suggestions they describe arise directly from real users' real-world experience. And what UI design process could be more in tune with the open source spirit than that?


  • Graphics & Multimedia
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