the making of: GIMP UI brainstorm

22 September 2007, 20:02

It all started with Esteban’s message on the GIMP developer mailing list, asking where he could ‘upload a mock‑up of UI changes.’ That destination didn’t exist, yet. In my reply, the words visual brainstorming pop up and the idea was born.

That was the eve of my summer holiday, during which I spent some time thinking about how to make this work. The more I fine‐tuned the rules for a UI brainstorm, the more I felt it would be worthwhile to roll out.

trigger happy

A UI brainstorm is a great way to let everybody, regardless their experience in the field, contribute to a interaction design project. The whole idea is that one idea intuitively triggers the next and that in the context of the brainstorm anything is possible.

No matter how boring, impossible or just plain whacky the idea, it is a valuable contribution. Either it triggers a reaction from other participants in the opposite direction, or it invites to meander for a minute along that train of thought (‘imagine there really is no menu bar…’). Both are a step in the right direction.

get off

Participating in a brainstorm is a gratifying experience because ones ideas become officially part of the project. For us who organise the brainstorm, the contributions are valuable because we again get triggered by them. The result of that goes into our design process.

happy, clappy

If there is something that destroys the creative process above, it is negative thought. Any kind of naysaying or discussion of merit of an idea destroys the atmosphere where anyone can come forward and contribute.

For this reason I said ‘no polemic, please’ from the start. No written contributions, images only. And quite topical, to ask participants to express themselves graphically.

Looking at the kind of heated comments that usually accompany a GIMP news item, I knew comments would hijack and sink a brainstorm forum in no time. So in line with the positive vibe: no comments.

tech crunch

‘It is going to take ages to build an automated forum for this’ I thought, while still on holiday. Then I realised that all it takes is a mailbox, a blog and some manual labour in between. Ready to roll, that is if the use of google services was not objectionable.

I ran the idea past Sven and although not enthusiastic about the google angle, he also saw the point of getting things running. So a couple of weeks later I put the whole thing together on a Saturday afternoon.

…two weeks later

Although only announced on the same GIMP developer mailing list, the news spread fast across the internet. Sixty thousand visits from 145 countries, 334 sites reporting on the brainstorm and sending visitors.

Seventy contributions up to now. More came in, some people thought they could game the system: send in text‐only images or plain screenshots of other applications where obviously they did not invent any pixel themselves. Those did not make it. Good thing that moderation is built into the manual publishing of the blog.

sifting through

Kamila and I went through all of the published contributions during our team meeting yesterday. We analysed the issues the contributions address and got triggered by several contributions, giving us valuable ideas that one time or another will come in handy.

I think that quite a few people are enjoying the GIMP UI brainstorm. We look forward to see it develop in the coming months.

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whistling in the dark

19 September 2007, 23:24

Recently I worked on a project about which I can tell you—typical for my industry—nothing more than that it involves a hand‐held touch screen device. Exiting stuff, no?

Anyway. More interesting was that on our multi‐disciplinary team we had a dedicated sound designer: Aaron Day from Receive‐Transmit.


First of all his scope is not just sound, but the whole user experience. That made working with Aaron one of those rare occasions where I am able to communicate at native level and work together at amazing speed.

Not having to explain all the time how user interaction actually ticks really helps. This usually only happens when working with usability folks.


Now I must admit that for the last ten years, I had always thought of sound as something that users turn off. Working with Aaron changed all that.

He promotes the concept of ‘sound that is more felt than heard.’ This involves precisely controlling the vibrator in a hand‐held device, using it like an infrasonic synthesiser.

Then combine that with a bit of audible sound on top for some sharpness. Forget about the boring buzz from your current mobile phone. Instead, think of the click you feel when pressing a key on your mobile.


When Aaron asked me to select from a list of ‘sound opportunities’ the ones that really mattered, I said: ‘in those places where we lost the keys.’

By returning in this way the tactile feedback back to touch screen controls, you are able then to really enjoy the benefits: complete freedom to optimise the controls and their layout for every situation.

Another great concept promoted by Aaron is three overall sound levels:

  1. hearing and feeling sounds: say today’s key tones;
  2. ‘silent’ but you can still feel it: audible sound is still played, but soft enough to be drowned out by ambient noise;
  3. really turned off: and now you miss the tactile feedback from level two.

Instead of the usual « I am really funny, listen to me » approach to sound, this set‑up will ensure that sound will really be a useful part of the user experience.

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