Cathedral, Bazaar and Design


After tweeting this

UX and open source are uneasy bedfellows:
In Open Source, ideally, users are also creators of the product: “You are also the creator!” they say to their users.
In UX, user and creator are ideally experts in their domains: “You are not the user”, they say to the creators.

I continued to work on the topic and wrote a longer-than-a-tweet text on it – happy about feedback and connections to other work.

Design and open source development: Cathedral and Bazaar

E. Raymonds Essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” is an essay on Open Source development. It is not about open source as a legal construct but about a possible development style of bottom-up activities in a community of creators. This bottom-up style Raymond calls “the bazaar” and contrasts it with the top-down-planned “cathedral” style of development. The bottom-up style is often praised as a egalitarian, democratic model of software creation. However, the core assumptions about the development of software are hard to combine with the culture and goals of UX design.

User and Creator: A person or a collaboration?

The user in an open source project is ideally a programmer as well. Indeed, in Cathedral and the Bazaar this is assumed to be the case:

  1. Treating your users as co-developers is your least-hassle route to rapid code improvement and effective debugging.


  1. Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.

as well as

  1. Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch.

Developer and user of the software, in these examples are the same person.

Design, on the other hand, has a tradition of being a service for others and for people who are not designers. It is even a sin to assume that one is the user oneself. There is no core text stating the idea first but many instances of it and “you are not the user” is treated as a kind of mantra among designers:

Examples on the “you are not the user”

The hard division between user and designer is plausible since UX design draws from psychology, classic graphic design and anthropology. In psychology and anthropology, working with people who are seen as different than oneself is frequent and graphic design is usually a service in which the designer works together with several other disciplines to create a product.

While in open source, user and creator are one person, in UX design user and creator are separate, the creator is working for the user and the user is assumed to have a different perspective than the creator.

Something that might be normal in “Bazaar” development, like “trying out a function and see how that goes” would be strange for the designer. Vice-versa, the designers asking of what users need might be alien to the bazaar-style-developer

The whole and its parts: coherence and competition

How parts can work together in open source is what the metaphors of “Cathedral” and “Bazaar” are about: the Cathedral stands for centrally organized coherent planning, the Bazaar is self-organizing as a marketplace with many players. “The Cathedral and The Bazaar” praises the Bazaar model of development and suggests principles for it to work well. The basic principle is process emphasizes self-organization and positive competition. The single parts might be different, but they are held together by some basic rules of the metaphorical marketplace which is the softwares architecture and how competing modules are integrated.

In design, in contrast, coherence of the outcome is an important value: It is aesthetic as well as easy to use because what one learned once is applicable to all parts of the product.

What is favorable depends from the roles creators and users see themselves in. If the user and creator are the same person, the modularity and exchange at the bazaar are great and the skill of the person will allow to deal with minor obstacles in use. If the users and creators are separate, the cathedral model if often favorable, since it makes it easier to ensure a coherent outcome and the gains of the bazaar model do not exist for the non-programming user.

The effect on how software appears to its users

The bazaar model favors user-creators and modularity, while the cathedral model makes coherence for users more likely to archive.

The choice of interface for a bazaar model is thus likely to be a command line. It allows heterogenous software to be combined to work together and its relatively simple linear, text-based structure allows only limited user interactions which avoids overly complex interfaces and inconsistencies. In contrast, a graphical user interface which is “good” according to designers is likely to be hard to build in a bazaar model of development: For an graphical interface to be consistent, you need some sort of central rules, defining how to do what in the graphical interface. Such rules are unlikely to emerge from the bazaar: The important thing is to have them, which ensures consistency rather than finding the best possible via a competition of rules. It is theoretically possible for such rules to be defined by a project’s leader, overseeing the bazaar, however, these people, in the bazaar model will be programmer-user and thus unlikely to have their core competencies in defining rules on how a end-users interface and functionality of a software should be.

(and it still lacks some summarizing end)

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…published as The user in the cultures of UX design and open source

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