SX, UX, Social Coding, FOSS versus Penpot's VC deal

Hi there Designers :wave:

I’d like to inform you about two topics you may find interesting…

First is the recent venture capital deal where Penpot received $8 million to further develop their product. I noticed a lot of concern in FOSS circles about the VC involvement, which I share myself. So I reacted on their forum and received great response from the CEO. Just gave another reply, which is TL;DR’ed in a post on the Fediverse:

The Penpot forum post contains reference to SX or Social Experience Design which has piqued my interest:

My personal take on SX …

Which is nothing more than a hunch. I feel that UX, though initially seen as a fully holistic approach, in recent years has become more focussed on application design and workflows rather than the social impact that these applications have to those using the application on a daily basis. In other words that considering that SX is a more holistic approach and it is valuable to revive this field of expertise.

Here’s an introduction on SX:

And a paper that delves into positioning of UX versus SX.



As I do not worry much about the VC deal, I only comment on a small aspect cited here:

Which is nothing more than a hunch. I feel that UX, though initially seen as a fully holistic approach, in recent years has become more focussed on application design and workflows rather than the social impact that these applications have to those using the application on a daily basis.

I don’t think that UX, in practice, has ever been “fully holistic”. In the 90s it was practiced (and pioneered!) in large companies, which did care for their dollars like today’s companies do. What has changed, I think, is not so much the social concerns inside UX as a discipline itself, but that UX designers are hired by more companies and that these companies have different (and arguably sometimes more problematic) business models than the companies of the 90s.

At least in academia’s Human Computer Interaction courses (where many of UX designers are educated) there was a development towards concern for social impact. Early HCI focussed on brains-as-information-processors model which did not include social impact (except maybe for ‘people can understand it better’), whereas sociology and ethnography that are now part of the curriculum are historically more concerned with social impact of technology.


UX is a term people use to refer to all sorts of things. I don’t think it’s really important what it’s called and I don’t think it gets at the core issue to use a different word really. Something to keep in mind..

I’ve never heard of social experience design in a professional setting. I’m not against any of the things you’re advocating for I just don’t know if vocab is the meaningful way to slice things here. Would be better to speak in concrete terms.

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You are right, of course. Most words that want to capture a concept or philosophy are still rather meaningless at the outset. The true meaning comes with how concrete activities give it body, flesh it out. Then slowly the words starts to embody something. They are a bit like cargo containers, empty at first, but that can ultimately carry a lot of load.

I do find terminology we use to be very important, especially if new or - in the case of SX - unfamiliar. We have simple words in IT that became huge trends and hypes even, and where the words itself have a subtle effect on people’s mindset. But with, I think, large consequences if they get such wide usage.

A good example here is “Digital Transformation”. The term that is now also fully embraced by EC/EU. What does it imply? That things must become digital? Why? I don’t think many people want things to just transform into something digital. Yet, there is some sort of mindless dash to do so. I am sure that in the ‘instruction manuals’ for Digital Transformation it says somewhere that people’s needs must always be taken into account. That they should come first. This is not how I feel it works out in practice, where I get the impression that “cost saving and higher ROI” is the main driver.

Meanwhile my poor old parents are cut off from all the services they could rely on for all their life. “Go on the internet” to do stuff. This internet that is arguably not designed to be used by the elderly. It is inhumane what is happening to them. The elderly are getting increasingly isolated if it wasn’t for their children or other, younger folks to help them out.

Back to SX. What I find intriguing is how the internet and Social Media have affected our notion of “Social”. What’s in a word, right? I recently did a search on Pexels stock photography site, and found about 80% of photo’s to be about people absorbed in their smartphone or logo’s and concepts from Social Media platforms. WTF? Is that “social” nowadays? It is a sad thing, really.

While Social Media involves complex sociology, it has just little to do with what common people would understand to be “social” with one another. Social Media are just like interactive broadcasting channels, that are optimized for engaging people, whatever the emotion that engagement involves. And it becomes increasingly obvious that they have huge detrimental effects on society. I am facilitator of Humane Tech Community and in 2019 had an exchange with Tristan Harris, ex-Google ethicist and co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology (and known from “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix) who told me in all seriousness that social media “will lead to a complete unraveling of the social fabric of society and wars”.

In recent years I’ve become deeply involved with the Fediverse. You might say Fediverse is about “open standards based and decentralized alternative social media”. But that’s overly technical-sounding and uses “Social Media” as terminology, which I find should be at all cost avoided. I rather speak of “social networking” because that is something we humans do naturally and for thousands of years. We are just extending it online, which gives new possibilities. Fediverse, totally grassroots and without monetary incentives and ads, can be said to be a “humane technology playground”. An experimental place where we can reimagine social networking on the internet.

Yet the Fediverse has big challenges to overcome. First of all its technology is complex and Free Software developers building apps get mired in it. There’s a high barrier of entry for new app types to be created for it. This technical focus creates a gap between developers and ‘fedizens’. And at the same time the notion of what “Social Media” are, is limiting the imagination. Most Fediverse apps are like Free Software derivatives of corporate social media platforms. And importantly they are “apps”, which in practice are like silo’s… cargo containers for a load of features.

This is where I want to re-introduce Social Experience Design. Where the starting question of software development is not “what app shall we build?” but “what social needs do we address, and how do we integrate it best with the ‘social fabric’ that already exists?”. This is part of a Social Coding Movement that I am initiating. Because above all coding / software development itself is a social endeavour, not the deeply technical exercise most people perceive it to be.

And in addition there’s another term I’d love to see imbibed with meaning, and that is the Peopleverse. What I mean here is a common vision of how the social fabric that the Fediverse spans up is able to tie our offline and online social networks seamlessly into one another, and in support of our daily lives.

(Note that there’s zero association with The Metaverse, which is a ‘cold, hard business concept’, and nothing more than a product vision that is slung out in front of us, for it to be consumed and monetized)