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You are here: Home Bulletins 2016 fall So here's the thing: free software isn't cool

So here's the thing: free software isn't cool

by Georgia Young Contributions Published on Nov 02, 2016 01:55 PM

Now, before you say, "Who cares about being cool when it comes to freedom?" let me explain what I mean, and why cool should matter to the movement.

Let us define cool for this context. A 2014 study by S. Shyam Sundar, Daniel J. Tamul, and Mu Wu in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies identified three criteria for measuring coolness in technology products: originality, attractiveness, and subcultural appeal. In other words, a cool piece of tech is inventive, it looks stylish, and it helps the user assert their identity: these three criteria are my focus here.

Why should free software advocates care about the cool factor when it comes to free software projects and activism? Adoption. People need technology – but they want it to be cool.

Many of the people who drive free software development, use free software, and encourage others to ditch proprietary software in favor of freedom are involved because the Four Freedoms are more important to them than what is cool. Maybe you have been hacking on projects since childhood, or maybe you used proprietary systems for years, until something went wrong: Microsoft forced a Windows update on your home computer, or you learned that your supposedly low-emissions Volkswagen was anything but. You have great reasons for going free.

But other people do not prioritize freedom or change their habits when they realize they are being treated unjustly. Maybe they fret about how they are going to afford an extra $159 for wireless headphones to go along with their new jackless smartphone, but the power of cool can be strong enough to override such concerns.

The key to cool in software and hardware is often rooted in design. We avoid Apple products because they deny us our freedoms, but others perceive their products as easy to use and beautiful, because they are designed with an eye to great user experience and a pleasing look and feel.

But we want everyone to use free software, and that means free software (which by nature promotes user freedom) must find its cool. That is best achieved through design that will be delightful and seamless for the user.

The good news is, we are already on our way. Need a simple way to build a website? Try WordPress. Want a great desktop user experience for your GNU/Linux system? GNOME and KDE have embraced beautiful design throughout their desktop environments. Maybe you or a child you know want to experiment with electronics. Try littleBits, useful and beautiful electronics prototyping hardware. And of course, cool is often about fashion, so the FSF has you covered there with our RUN GCC t-shirt.

WordPress is a web-based publishing system, and a hugely successful free software project. Used by over 25% of the world's 10 million most-visited sites, WordPress makes it easy to assert your identity on your website, offering different themes that change the look and functionality of a website without altering its substance. You might even use WordPress to create a site for your free software project.

GNOME and KDE are GNU/Linux desktop environments that have emphasized user and developer experience in design, and (especially in the case of GNOME's distinctive design) that makes them stand out. GNOME offers human interface guidelines that may inspire your own efforts to integrate good interface design in your development process.

littleBits makes modular electronics pieces that snap together by way of small magnets. They are meant to make prototyping and learning about electronics easy. They are freely licensed, and the best part is: they are fun! Each bit is color-coded using a neon palette that defines their function, making them easy to identify and experiment with. Magnet-based connections mean there's no soldering involved. There are so many invention possibilities, and they are so simple to use, kids (you can download and watch this video without proprietary JavaScript using ytdl) and teachers alike get excited about using littleBits. How can a color palette and a consistent look for common elements in your program make it more useful and cool?

Now that you are thinking about how cool your free software project could be, what about your own look? Take the hip-hop inspired RUN GCC t-shirt. While most people probably do not know the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) – a key piece of the GNU Project – Run-D.M.C. are a wildly popular American hip-hop group founded in the 1980s. Their personal style – black fedoras, Adidas tracksuits, and thick, ropelike gold chains – was as memorable as their lyrics. Their logo, RUN DMC in huge white letters on a black background, framed by horizontal red bars, is highly recognizable, and the RUN GCC logo created for the FSF mirrors that style, sparking curiosity in those unfamiliar with GNU.

It just looks cool.

How might visual and user experience design improvements make your favorite free software project cooler, potentially attracting more users? Share design-related resources and your thoughts on LibrePlanet.

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