Eriol Fox

Designer, Open source Design core

November 2020

Eriol makes FOSS and takes our Twitter mic from November 04 to 11. Thank you, Eriol!

Please tell us about yourself

Hi there! My name is Eriol Fox, pronounced ehh roll, and my pronouns are they/them. I’m a designer who’s been working in tech companies for 10+ years now. I started out like most designers in general organisations and companies that are ‘closed’ or for-profit and realised after a particularly challenging role that had me working on dubiously ethical designs I decided I’d only stay in tech if I could work in an organisation that didn’t exploit people (or users) and after finishing a masters in design communication where I worked on future technology that helped terminally ill people and their carers, I found a role at the NGO and open source tech organisation Ushahidi. I worked as a designer there on some fantastic projects including their flagship FOSS data collection tool for human rights causes and peacebuilding programs. I finished my time at Ushahidi by delivering on a grant from Adobe that was about involving designers in the process of building FOSS tech for good tools (like Ushahidi’s tools) called ‘Open Design’. I then briefly worked in an organisation focussed on CiviCRM and now, Open Food Network. Since then, I’ve loved all things open source, human rights and how design becomes more entwined in these.

What are you working on right now?

I have a permanent part-time role at Open Food Network Global as a designer, working across the complex needs that FOSS tech tools have for design from user/community research, product UX/UI design, helping out with good user documentation and as much front-end coding as my novice skills can help with! I’m working towards a PhD in computer science at Newcastle University which follows on from the ‘Open Design’ project I started in Ushahidi that explores how designers interact and contribute to humanitarian focussed FOSS. I’m working on developing talks and workshops around a few key themes like design in oss, human-rights centred design and research and diversity in design. I also volunteer time for various human rights and oss projects like the sustaining design and UX working group, human rights centred design, CHAOSS, Open source design core team, foss responders and many many more!

I also take on freelance projects 1-2 days per week to supplement my part-time income from OFN so if you’re in need of a designer, let me know!

What is most interesting about that?

Open Food Network is interesting due to the nature of how they organise as a community that is, arguably as non-FOSS techy as it is FOSS-techy. I love the blend of social justice that is food-systems focus and openness from an OSS perspective and well, the design challenges for the user base both for the existing projects and potential improvements is fascinating! how people grow food, distribute and get food globally and how this can be more open is absolutely a cause I’m here for. I’m as excited as I am nervous about my PhD research! I’ve never considered myself academic and I’m not a natural writer but I love FOSS, human rights and design and I’m ready to explore, tackle and understand how these all work together and then sharing that knowledge is just so exciting!

How did you first discover FOSS?

I actually first heard about it when I was working in closed companies. I remember sitting in the developer part of the office for a design and dev project one time and the developers were talking about project contributions. Being the curious person I was I wanted to know what they were talking about so I got my first explanation of OSS and why it’s important. I thought that’s nice! and forgot for a year. I then heard a similar conversation in my next org, asked again and got more information about why OSS is important as part of a developers journey and I became more curious…but also forgot for another 6 months. Then, I found Ushahidi and really went all-in on FOSS!

What prompted you to start contributing to FOSS?

I think for designers it’s still quite unusual to contribute to FOSS, that’s why my first contributions were as a paid member of staff at Ushahidi. After I understood that contributing is not dependant on only code-based contributions and there are communities that welcome and encourage other kinds of contributions I made many, many more to both Ushahidi and other FOSS as volunteer contributions. Now I feel an immense sense of responsibility to help other designers and non-code related functions find routes into FOSS contribution, because it enriches how and why you do design.

Why should others get involved with FOSS?

Speaking as a designer in FOSS I believe contributing and being involved in FOSS can give you a new dimension to your design work. You can expand the kinds of projects you work on, skills you practice, people you work with and try out different applications of current skills and processes. There’s a huge need for better design in FOSS too as well as a general appreciation of how far FOSS has come with limited design voice and support. Generally though, the reason I stick around and continue to be involved in FOSS is because of the sense of community. I used to do a lot of on the ground community development work and missed it once I moved to a new city. FOSS communities can offer an online way of connecting with and being part of a community.

How should they get started?

Talk with existing FOSS contributors, find a community meeting or a conference, explore and discover what kinds of project you want to be a part of, not just in what kind of contributions you can and will make, but what kind of environment you’ll be at your best in. FOSS isn’t just about contributing code/design/docs etc. and getting kudos, it can be about the participation and how that is held by your fellow community members. Be wary of entering FOSS communities where you’re being exploited, treated poorly or misunderstood.

What difficulties and limitations do you see with FOSS?

There are quite a few so It’s hard to focus on one without thinking about the others! I see a difficulty with FOSS and designer involvement as something of an inclusion problem and something of a resource problem. I think if FOSS projects had the capacity (either financially or infrastructure wise) there could be more design contributions happening in a sustainable way but that doesn’t necessarily make a good and inclusive place for designers to operate. I think there needs to be this ongoing effort to broaden what making good FOSS involves beyond code, and knowing that people (designers) are out there wanting to contribute and be involved but struggling with the existing methods that centre a developer experience and discredit other contributions. There’s also an organisational problem with the attitude towards design and design processes. Each FOSS org I’ve worked in has had a hard time understanding design in it’s own terms and not sprint/development terms. Sometimes design has a different speed and needs that dev work so listening to your designers here is key and not to try and fit them in a dev shaped box.

How can they be solved?

Speak to designers about FOSS, listen and understand them. Find new ways of working or adapt and try something new. The quickest way to designers bouncing off your FOSS project is being told they ‘must’ fit into what you expect. They’re there to offer their design perspective and insight so listen and work with them and encourage that in the ways you can and make an effort. Also, just as designers do their best to understand how best to work with developers, developers would do well to better understand design, read design blogs, follow designers, watch talks and lectures and maybe take a short design course to better understand their perspective. I guarantee you that along with a good collaborative attitude this appreciation of each other’s functions will ensure you do great work together.

Where do you see difficulties in contributing?

Typically where a resource-constrained FOSS project is needing to make compromises. Design is the first on the chopping block and often investment in development is prioritised. I would encourage you to reconsider this perspective, doing user-centred design typically ensures that what then gets developed is what users want and need and you don’t end up developing things you think they ‘might’ need. The investment in design is the shift of investment in ‘over developing’ something and developing something that is user confirmed as needed and works well.

What does a perfect day off look like?

Whats a day off? haha…hmm well I would say it involves walking in nature, good weather, good company, good food and good experiences. But then again, I’m also very partial to a full day of video game playing!

Do you want to tell us something else we didn’t ask?

I kind of focused on design (well I am a designer!) and there’s plenty to say on the design topic. However, I’d like to also signal my interest and dedication towards diversity, inclusion and justice in the FOSS space. I read reports on who contributes to FOSS through reports like StackOverflow’s and I’m always disappointed in how much further we need to go in order to build FOSS project ecosystems where people can contribute and participate in safety and thrive. As someone whos reported 3 instances of bad behaviour in the FOSS community I often feel bad for even reporting! that’s the kind of ‘victim shaming’ culture that protects and provides spaces for abuse and assault and I never, ever want another person to experience what I have so I’d like FOSS as a community to build places where people are safe to participate and do not face discrimination or danger.