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How To Fix the Poor Usability of Free Software

kdawson posted more than 5 years ago | from the design-early-and-often dept.

GUI 690

flosofl writes "Matthew Paul Thomas has an entry on his blog called Why Free Software Has Poor Usability, And How To Improve It. While this advice is helpful and may indeed lead to improvements in many open source programs, the guidelines may be much more difficult for smaller projects. From the entry, 'Free Software has a long and healthy tradition of "show me the code." But when someone points out a usability issue, this tradition turns into "patches welcome," which is unhelpful since most designers aren't programmers. And it's not obvious how else usability specialists should help out.'" Thomas has been developing the ideas in this essay for years. The critique is comprehensive, listing 15 challenges in the way software projects, and in particular free software projects, are structured, with suggestions for improving each one.

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690 comments

Free Software is Communism (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458205)

Communism is like free software - great in theory put in unusable in practice.

Re:Free Software is Communism (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458223)

Kind of like your grammar?

Re:Free Software is Communism (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458289)

Kind of like your whore of a mother.

Re:Free Software is Communism (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458379)

Ha Ha. Did he hurt your feelings? Loser.

Re:Free Software is Communism (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458409)

Have you been trolled?

Usability is a matter of opinion (1, Troll)

clang_jangle (975789) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458215)

Okay, I know these are unpopular things to say, but I feel they need saying. These are just my opinions.
(1) "Usability" is in the mind of the user. If you learned how to use some other system first and now expect that any other way of doing things isn't "usable" enough, that's just plain old resistance to change. It says more about you than it does about the usability of the software in question.
(2) "Designers" who can't code have absolutely no business "working" in software. If you think you really know how an interface should work and look, then learn to code it. Otherwise, you're just a critic of the kind that the NYT doesn't hire.

Personally, I find FBSD, Debian, Slackware, and the majority of GNU software to be quite usable. Of course, I don't expect everything to be zero effort, either. Anything worth doing takes a bit of effort. Speaking of which, tried Windows lately? Now to me, that's really hard to use! But then, I don't want to learn the "Windows way" of doing everything, as I fail to see the pay off in it.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (5, Insightful)

the_humeister (922869) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458317)

(2) "Designers" who can't code have absolutely no business "working" in software. If you think you really know how an interface should work and look, then learn to code it. Otherwise, you're just a critic of the kind that the NYT doesn't hire.

I'm going to take issue with this. Basically you're saying if you can't do X, then your critique is useless. Just because you can't sing doesn't mean you can't critique other people's singing. Just because you don't know how to make a car doesn't mean you can't critique that horrible dashboard layout.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (4, Interesting)

Firehed (942385) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458469)

Mod parent up. The whole source of this problem is that most programmers can't design (or follow UI guidelines), but they think they can. On the flip side, I've seen a lot of designers who can sort of code makes some really god-awful programs that look great that are less optimized than doing it by hand.

I can't design and I know it. But I still know when someone else's design either works or fails utterly, and I'll give the designer props/shit accordingly. Typically, coders are very poor designers and designers are very poor coders. There are the rare exceptions of course, but they're off making too much money to devote time to free software (the single exception that I know of being the designer+developer of Quicksilver).

Widely-used Free software occasionally picks up enough steam to get some people who can really design on board (read: Firefox), but by and large, Free software tends to be developer-centric, menu-driven apps that work very well if you can figure out how to use them. As a developer I often can, but I still tend to suggest people use the paid equivalent if they ask simply so they don't come back to me every hour asking how to do that next thing.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (2, Interesting)

Mateo_LeFou (859634) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458709)

"But I still know when someone else's design either works or fails utterly"

No, I don't think you do. Not fersure, at least:

Tell me: which design works better for *me, Quicken or GnuCash?

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (4, Interesting)

Poromenos1 (830658) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458553)

The issue is more general than that. The usability experts who can't code *can* improve usability, by telling the developers what to do.

It's more of an issue of *just* criticising, instead of offering constructive opinions. If all you can do is say "this sucks" but not say why or how it can be improved, then I agree, you have no business in software. If, on the other hand, you can find a way to improve it, I'm sure many people will welcome your advice and implement it.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (3, Informative)

John Allsup (987) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458739)

Agreed. Understanding usability is a totally different discipline to coding. One can easily do either without being able to do the other. The problem is that proper solutions to usability problems need proper foundations laid. Complaints about the foundations of usability tend to fall on deaf ears in the Free Software community -- certainly those who care are in the minority.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (1)

cheroke (1309711) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458321)

+1 The idea of free software itself contradicts our wishes to have it user friendly and error-free. You notice bug - then you fix it, not satisfied with the usability - code new interface.. etc.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (5, Insightful)

jps25 (1286898) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458323)

Okay, I know these are unpopular things to say, but I feel they need saying. These are just my opinions.

(1) "Usability" is in the mind of the user. If you learned how to use some other system first and now expect that any other way of doing
things isn't "usable" enough, that's just plain old resistance to change. It says more about you than it does about the usability of the software in question.

It seems you've never used emacs, little one.
And no, it doesn't say more about me than the software if I find that almost all GUIs in Linux are shit and that the command line is more usable.

(2) "Designers" who can't code have absolutely no business "working" in software. If you think you really know how an interface should work and look, then learn to code it. Otherwise, you're just a critic of the kind that the NYT doesn't hire.

"Right."
And neither have "coders" who can't "design" something the "average" "user" "thinks" is "usable" .

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (4, Insightful)

schnikies79 (788746) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458325)

Bull crap. An architect doesn't build the building, the carpenter does. An electrical engineer working for the power company doesn't hang the lines, but they layout and design them.

The same thing can go for almost any profession, software included. I don't code and no desire to code (I'm a chemist and have no interest in that part of computing), but I can tell you when the interface sucks and what could be better.

My opinion is, people who won't accept criticism from others because "you don't code," or "you don't know what you're talking about" are nothing but elitist.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (2, Insightful)

El_Muerte_TDS (592157) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458479)

How did the architect respond to your suggestions for improvements?

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (4, Insightful)

jrothwell97 (968062) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458525)

I assume he was forced to respond to them, because otherwise he wouldn't have been paid.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (1)

El_Muerte_TDS (592157) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458659)

Forced to respond to suggestions made by some end user? I'm pretty sure architects are gone when they "release" their project.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (3, Insightful)

choongiri (840652) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458633)

Your analogy doesn't follow. Better would be:

"How did the carpenter building his own home respond to the (voluntary) suggestions of a professional architect?"

...but that doesn't have the air of such a witty retort, does it.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (3, Insightful)

javelinco (652113) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458577)

No, you can tell us that you don't like an interface, and make suggestions on what you think might make it better for you. Reality? The interface may suck - but that doesn't mean you have any idea as to why it sucks. Add to that? You're suggestions are not likely to be all that good for fixing the design problems. A non-chemist can tell you that the floor cleaning solution doesn't work for them - and that may mean the solution sucks - and they can say "It should be able to do this" - but they can't tell you the way to solve the problem, they may be wrong as to what the problem is, and they may just be, period - wrong. Is that elitist?

Dang (2, Interesting)

Mateo_LeFou (859634) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458775)

I already posted in this thread or I would give you all my mod points.

The most usable of all possible interface is probably the command line. There's no uncertainty about what icons mean, instructions are usually a keystroke or two away (and don't take eleven minutes to get online and load), etc.

Pace Microsoft Bob, if you cannot be bothered to learn the language (phonetic or ideogrammatic) that an interface is "written" in, don't blame *it.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (4, Interesting)

Yvan256 (722131) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458343)

Usability isn't supposed to be tied to the way you're used to do things, but to how intuitive it is.

Let's take an old tired "cliché", if you will. Having to click on a button labeled "Start" to then choose "Shutdown" isn't obvious and must be learned.

An old version of Quicktime had the volume control as a rotary dial. Yeah, that went well once translated into mouse control. That's why it was gone by the next version or so.

Make clean interfaces with well-organized controls (keep it to a minimum, to what's required for the current task), label things properly if needed (not everyone knows how to use your programs) and don't overload the users with choices (have a "normal mode" and "expert mode", if needed).

Other than that, use the OS's own widgets and don't force your "pretty graphics" onto your users. Slashdot's own form buttons come do mind (the Preview, Quote Parent, Options and Cancel buttons really seem out of place with the Aqua form widgets and probably with all the other OS widgets as well).

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (5, Insightful)

Plug (14127) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458353)

(2) "Designers" who can't code have absolutely no business "working" in software. If you think you really know how an interface should work and look, then learn to code it. Otherwise, you're just a critic of the kind that the NYT doesn't hire.

Why should software be different from any other industry? Just because the barrier to entry is, in your opinion, lower? The people who design houses don't build them. Sure, they need a solid foundation in what can and can't be done, but architects and interior designers work to a mutually beneficial end with builders, carpenters and plumbers, etc.

Nitpick... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458685)

The people who design houses don't build them. Sure, they need a solid foundation in what can and can't be done ...

In many of the top tier Architectural programs (Yale for one), the students go out and build a house or at least some of it. The reasoning is to for the reasons you've stated.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458367)

(1) "Usability" is in the mind of the user. If you learned how to use some other system first and now expect that any other way of doing
things isn't "usable" enough, that's just plain old resistance to change. It says more about you than it does about the usability of the
software in question.

You are a good example of the "works for me" mentality in the open source software community. "If it works for me, then it must work for anybody else, and if it doesn't, it's their fault".

(2) "Designers" who can't code have absolutely no business "working" in software. If you think you really know how an interface should
work and look, then learn to code it. Otherwise, you're just a critic of the kind that the NYT doesn't hire.

I'm sorry, what? Did you just say that if designers can't code, they shouldn't contribute? I thought this open source stuff was about the fact everybody could contribute to the program if they wanted, but apparently I thought wrong. Apparently only uber-geeks with a masterful command programming knowledge can work to improve open source software.

Design is important. Not everybody wants to learn the idiosyncrasies of software; they want it to "just work". The moment everybody thinks that way is the moment open source software gets better.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (5, Insightful)

clang_jangle (975789) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458743)

I thought this open source stuff was about the fact everybody could contribute to the program if they wanted, but apparently I thought wrong. Apparently only uber-geeks with a masterful command programming knowledge can work to improve open source software.

Your high horse is showing. :) If you don't like my GPL'd interface, you are free to design one of your own and hire someone else to code it for you, if necessary. FOSS does not mean, "anything you want, gratis!". It means if you don't like something you have the freedom to change it. I have little respect for those who use the word "free" as an excuse to try to hold up developers with their limitless opinion-based suggestions. Some projects are very open to user suggestions, others are very tied to following a well-defined vision. Neither model is "incorrect". No-one is forcing anyone to use any GPL software "as-is", that's the whole point. It's not so you can get your way while contributing nothing but opinions. Though occasionally you may get lucky like that. :)

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (5, Insightful)

lolocaust (871165) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458413)

(2) People who can't cook have no business eating food and complaining when it makes them puke.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (4, Insightful)

chinakow (83588) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458419)

You seem to confuse usable with usability. Just because something can be used, doesn't mean it is the best option. By your logic we would all be using rocks to pound nails because, "It works, you just have to think a little bit." Being intuitive means that people want to use it that is the point. Unless of course you don't want people to use your product and if that is the case, why are you publishing it publicly?

Your second point is rather funny to me. I wonder if you would say, "If someone doesn't know how to design an engine they have no business designing the rest of the car(oblig. car reference)?" People have specialities, that is how society works now.

Finally a red herring [wikipedia.org] is irrelevant, we are talking about Linux not windows. I don't really like windows either but that is another discussion.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (4, Insightful)

wild_quinine (998562) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458429)

1) "Usability" is in the mind of the user.

There's some degree of truth in that, but since most people have essentially similar minds it makes sense to assume that certain types of operation make sense to the vast majority of people. Past experience can lock people into a certain conceptual mindset, there's no denying it. But the holy grail of usability is that which most closely reflects the way in which we have evolved to think.

All computers are essentially tools to enable us to do things we otherwise would not be capable of, or would take much longer without. The best computer systems are the ones which interface as organically as possible with that which we are capable of. It's common sense.

(2) "Designers" who can't code have absolutely no business "working" in software.

That's ridiculous. If it weren't so absurd it would be offensive. Look at the credits for any major software release from the commercial realm. Let's take games, for example - in the entertainment industry, where if something is not 'usable' it is not fun, coders are outnumbered somthing like 20 to 1 by other types of developer, be they writers, artists, testers, etc. Hell, let's take the credits from GTA IV, the video game. They take HALF AN HOUR to scroll, when you complete the game. What percentage of those HUNDREDS of people do you think can code? Even to a reasonable level? Five to fifteen percent at the outside.

When you need a job doing, you hire the person with the skills to do that job. You DON'T hire someone with the skills to do that job AND the skills to code. Sometimes that's not even desirable, and at best it's overkill.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458463)

No, it isn't, and it's obvious you didn't RTFA.

There is no valid "opinion," none, which holds that windows should appear with low-contrast text and UI elements, or that they should appear hidden behind things (the Dock, for example), or that they should default to a size too small to show their contents.

Regardless of whether you'd like to admit it, a great deal of usability concerns are objective, and a lot of "organic" software violates a number of ground rules.

No it isn't (5, Insightful)

Sycraft-fu (314770) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458511)

Humans have overall tendencies in what they find easier and harder to use. For example most people find it much harder to memorize lines of commands than to look through a set of icons, hence one of the reasons why GUIs are popular. There's real empirical research that has been done on this, some by psychologists, some by companies like Apple. While you may fall outside the norms for various reasons, that doesn't mean they don't exist.

You also need to be careful in thinking that because you've taken the time to learn something, that means that it is easy. For example I drive a manual transmission vehicle. I have no problems doing so, it is second nature to me, no more problematic than an automatic. However, I am not going to say it is as easy. I remember a rather frustrating learning period when I was getting used to the feel of a clutch and how to shift. It is easy now, but only because I have a lot of experience. It is NOT an easier way of doing things.

I find this kind of thing fairly prevalent in the OSS world. You'll need to do something and someone will say "It's easy!" and then give a couple commands to run. To them, it does seem easy, because they've trained themselves on it, however that isn't. To a new user that's very hard and uninviting.

Ignoring this issue doesn't help free software. Telling people "It is just as easy you just have to learn it," when it isn't doesn't help, they'll just ignore you. The author is trying to say that OSS people need to stop with this attitude that it is just as usable, or that usability doesn't matter to popularity. If you want OSS to start to become the dominant way of doing software, you have to make it as easy to use for the non-technical masses as possible.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (3, Insightful)

gilgongo (57446) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458523)

(1) "Usability" is in the mind of the user. If you learned how to use some other system first and now expect that any other way of doing things isn't "usable" enough, that's just plain old resistance to change. It says more about you than it does about the usability of the software in question.

That is of course true if you are talking about design by the decree of an individual, but that is not "design" in the way most practitioners define it. The currently accepted approach is User Centred Design [wikipedia.org], which basically means that the cumulative indications of many target users are derived through various research techniques. The outcome of this research is modulated by the designer in coming up with the design, but fundamentally, the designer's own opinions are irrelevant.

The upshot of this is that (for example) if a CLUI is found to be the way to go, then a CLUI is shall be. If it's voice-control the users need, then that's cool too. Notice I said "need" there, not "want." Here by dragons.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (1)

st0rmshad0w (412661) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458583)

(2) "Designers" who can't code have absolutely no business "working" in software. If you think you really know how an interface should work and look, then learn to code it. Otherwise, you're just a critic of the kind that the NYT doesn't hire.

Oh? I should like to counter that with coders who have piss-poor worthless design skills have no business developing apps for user interaction. By all means continue to develop with no thought to your user base, but you won't get many fans. Stick to writing stuff the users don't need to interact with.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (4, Insightful)

dgatwood (11270) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458599)

(1) "Usability" is in the mind of the user. If you learned how to use some other system first and now expect that any other way of doing things isn't "usable" enough, that's just plain old resistance to change. It says more about you than it does about the usability of the software in question.

In my experience, most of the people who complain about these sorts of things do so because the new app lacks some key feature that makes their workflow better. Dismissing someone's opinion simply because they have actually used similar commercial software is stupidity, as it means you are unable to gain wisdom from the study of designs that have come before yours. In fact, it is precisely this mindset that causes user interfaces in free software to almost invariably suck---the whole "this is the way we do things, and you'll just have to get used to it" mentality does not lend itself to learning. I'll probably get modded down for saying it, but it's worth burning the karma if it gets people's attention.

(2) "Designers" who can't code have absolutely no business "working" in software. If you think you really know how an interface should work and look, then learn to code it. Otherwise, you're just a critic of the kind that the NYT doesn't hire.

Couldn't disagree more. I would argue that most UI designers have no business coding any more than most coders have any business designing user interfaces. The two skill sets are very different, with very little overlap either in knowledge or in the mental structures used in performing the two tasks. Good UI design is more closely related to software architecture, not coding. You have to figure out how best to lay out a user interface based on careful study of what the user is likely to want to do, careful thought about what things a user is likely to group together as similar operations (menu layout), and careful study of actual users to watch their workflow followed by probing interviews to find out what worked well and what didn't. It is basically scientific in nature. Software architecture is the same way. You're looking ahead to what the coders might want to add, what features the users might want, etc. and designing the overall architecture to accommodate those future needs.

Coding is a different skill set entirely. It focuses on knowledge of what types of methodical steps you have to achieve to reach a goal. Software architects and UI designers are the architects where coders are the construction workers. Expecting UI designers to code is no less silly than expecting your architect to be proficient at hammering nails into boards to build a wall.

Further, a strong case for the separation of those elements is the Mac design model. You have a separate Interface Builder application (well, it's part of Xcode now, IIRC) that gives people the ability to design the UI without writing a single line of code. Then, coders can come in and hook that functionality up to the underlying code. By doing that, it not only allows people to focus on the things that they do best, but also makes it much easier to modify the UI because you can create it visually instead of messing around with programmatic drawing that constantly puts UI elements in the wrong place. I get the impression that some Linux developers do the same sort of thing with Glade, but I've never used it, so I can't draw any real comparisons.

Trust me, getting UI designers to write code is the last thing you want to do....

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (1)

Mateo_LeFou (859634) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458675)

"(1) "Usability" is in the mind of the user. If you learned how to use some other system first and now expect that any other way of doing things isn't "usable" enough, that's just plain old resistance to change"

I can dig. Being a longtime GNU/Linux user, I recently got a MacBook Pro and find it nigh unusable. As a student of human nature, I'm aware that this is largely due to my own conditioning. So I don't trot around saying the problems are cause by its being a Mac, or an Apple, or Proprietary.

Ah, but when free software is under discussion, all of a sudden the *business or development model is to blame for the drawbacks?

Amarok is 8 X more usable than any other media player I've seen. More responsive, too. Also links you up with scads of free culture if you want it to.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (2, Insightful)

John Allsup (987) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458721)

I wonder how many 'designers' who 'can't code' are employed by Apple to 'design' their user interface without 'coding' it. We'll never know exactly, but I suspect it's quite a few, and the Apple is the one to look to as an example of how it's done properly. (Sure there are many places where it can be improved, but there is less room for improvement in the Mac OS than on either Linux or Windows.)

Personally, I was driven to Linux by frustration with Windows, and to the Mac by frustration with Linux. I've experienced all three, still run Linux a bit, but when it comes to getting things done, I use the Mac. Linux must catch up if it wants to be competitive.

Re:Usability is a matter of opinion (1)

gparent (1242548) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458769)

You're forgetting something here. While somebody who CAN code is much more useful since they can both critique and improve the software by themselves, that doesn't mean somebody who CANNOT causes his critic to be void.

Really a matter of taste... (3, Insightful)

dturk (1267098) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458227)

Usability is mostly a function of what the user is used to (no puns intended). I find working from a command line to be the most efficient way to get things done, which is in opposition to most of the world. I don't really think it's possible to quantify "usability" when to most people it's best rendered as "similarity to Microsoft products."

Re:Really a matter of taste... (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458449)

What?
An Apple is more usable than Windows or Linux.
BeOS was superior to Windows and Linux.
AmigaOS was superior to Windows and Linux, as well.
Stop with the fucking "MS" comparison.
Almost all Linux programs try to copy the "MS" way and they even fail to do that properly and that's why people think they have poor usability.
Make the GUI simple to navigate so a 3 year old can handle it and powerful enough so a geek can enjoy it.
And quit whining when someone criticizes free software.

Re:Really a matter of taste... (4, Insightful)

TeknoHog (164938) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458497)

What? An Apple is more usable than Windows or Linux. BeOS was superior to Windows and Linux. AmigaOS was superior to Windows and Linux, as well.

That's your opinion. I personally find Mac OS harder to use than either Windows or Linux, simply because of what I'm used to. Which is exactly the point of the grandparent post.

Make the GUI simple to navigate so a 3 year old can handle it and powerful enough so a geek can enjoy it.

Good luck with that. It often happens that if something is easy for beginners, it's not so convenient in the long run for experienced users. For example training wheels in bicycles. A good UI lets you remove the extra wheels and tinker under the hood, though.

Re:Really a matter of taste... (1)

TeknoHog (164938) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458551)

Agreed. I also find that most people don't really know what they want. It's usually after a fairly long period of using something, when people start to understand what's specifically wrong with the application. By that time they're used to its idiosyncracies, and it won't help them to make the application easier for beginners.

Re:Really a matter of taste... (4, Insightful)

grahamd0 (1129971) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458725)

I also find that most people don't really know what they want. It's usually after a fairly long period of using something, when people start to understand what's specifically wrong with the application. By that time they're used to its idiosyncracies, and it won't help them to make the application easier for beginners.

Have you heard of usability testing?

Believe it or not, there are people who make a living figuring out that kind of thing. Obviously people can disagree about what's best, but you and the parent post seem be saying that usability is a lost cause so there's no reason to even try.

This is a case where the perception is the reality. If the audience for your app has a hard time figuring out how to use your it, it has poor usability, whether you accept it or not.

Re:Really a matter of taste... (4, Interesting)

gilgongo (57446) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458575)

I don't really think it's possible to quantify "usability" when to most people it's best rendered as "similarity to Microsoft products."

We designers have a mantra for that, usually attributed to Henry Ford:

"If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse."

You may like to ponder that in the light of that statement you made.

Re:Really a matter of taste... (2, Funny)

st0rmshad0w (412661) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458715)

We designers have a mantra for that, usually attributed to Henry Ford:

"If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse."

You may like to ponder that in the light of that statement you made.

Didn't Henry Ford also say: "They can have any color they want as long as its black"?

Re:Really a matter of taste... (2, Interesting)

grahamd0 (1129971) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458625)

I don't really think it's possible to quantify "usability" ...

Which is one of the reasons we're discussing an article about the poor usability of OSS right now.

You've obviously never worked with a good UI designer. Just because you don't understand something doesn't mean it isn't real.

Re:Really a matter of taste... (4, Insightful)

asc99c (938635) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458707)

I'm not sure I agree with this, but there is a definite confusion in most people's minds between easy to use and easy to learn.

Vim is incredibly difficult to learn, but is actually very easy to use if you can learn it. A lot of programmers using an editor for extended amounts of time have found this to be the case.

The problem with Microsoft stuff is that it's pretty easy to pick up and use. But once you've learnt how to do it, you often want command line tools to start scripting and batching work. Generally with MS, and to a lesser extent Apple, you find you can't do that.

Excel is the only Microsoft software I've used where I found it did everything I wanted as a power user. I think it's one of the very few examples of something both easy to learn and easy to use.

Poor Usability starts with too many choices (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458229)

Like it or not, the fact that there is so many choices for the GUI/Desktop, the packaging system, etc is the main problem for Linux.

Re:Poor Usability starts with too many choices (1)

jps25 (1286898) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458471)

No, it's not, but I'd like to hear more about your shrewd point of view.
There are thousands of cars the world can pick from and I don't see the average person having a nervous breakdown over the decision which to buy.

Throttle and brake vs. OK and Cancel (1)

tepples (727027) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458605)

There are thousands of cars the world can pick from and I don't see the average person having a nervous breakdown over the decision which to buy.

Cars have throttle on the right and brake on the left. Period. GNOME and KDE, on the other hand, can't agree where to put OK and Cancel.

Probably the only good "scope creep" (4, Interesting)

EggyToast (858951) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458239)

The kind of additional functionality added for usability reasons are usually looked down on because they can fall into scope creep, but I think they're quite the opposite. I think most coders look down on these kinds of suggestions because they don't affect how they use the program. And, truly, most people who work on open source code do so because they themselves want the functionality they're coding for.

To them, if it does the job, great. And I think many of them have a similar response to usability problems as those asking for ports to different operating systems, or even a binary: "Not my problem, it works for me and that's enough."

Not to mention that, in many cases, what increases usability to a larger audience is reducing efficiency to the programmer who designed it to suit how they work.

Re:Probably the only good "scope creep" (2, Interesting)

Dan Ost (415913) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458565)

I think you've got the development community all wrong. By the time a project has moved from the "useful to me" phase to the "useful to the community" phase, the developer has already acknowledged that the opinions of the users are valuable.

As long as the requests from the community don't directly contradict something that the developer requires the project to have, the developer will usually attempt to make the community happy. The problem is the community doesn't often speak with one voice and so it's difficult for the developer to know which side of contradicting requests he should accept. Often, the only position the developer can take is to wait for the community to reach a consensus before he does anything.

Don't blame the developers for this, they're just part of the equation.

The main problem is, I think, unsolvable- (4, Interesting)

FlyingSquidStudios (1031284) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458241)

Mainly that people who are interested in coding free software and people who have a great understanding of ergonomics and aesthetics in software are usually just not the same people. I've known plenty of coders whose idea of usability is to configure it for their personal preferences and that's it, but on the other hand, I am sure most people who really understand what is needed for usability couldn't code "Hello World!" in BASIC.

Re:The main problem is, I think, unsolvable- (1)

SirShmoopie (1333857) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458377)

Mainly that people who are interested in coding free software and people who have a great understanding of ergonomics and aesthetics in software are usually just not the same people.

Wow, you've got me pegged. I'm happy to spend days wrangling over a neural network, or some other interesting algorithmic 'shiny device', but I can't design a decent user interface or web site. I've been told this many, many times by my friends.

Could be fixed (3, Insightful)

Sycraft-fu (314770) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458579)

People just need to become willing to pay for free software. The problem is right now, most people, even the OSS heads on Slashdot, aren't as interested in free as in speech but more interested in free as in can I crash on your couch. There is this real resistance to paying for open source code. I don't mean things like enterprise support contracts, I mean paying for a copy of software as is done in the commercial software world. Even when it has been tried, it doesn't go well. Look at Sveasoft, for example. They wanted to modify the Linux based Linksys routers, and sell their modified software. However they didn't sell much, because people bought it, recompiled it, and then distributed it for free. This is all perfectly legal per the GPL, of course, but you can see how an attitude like that makes it very hard to sell free software.

Well, if that attitude changed, I think perhaps more groups would be willing to work on it. You could hire designers, artists, etc to work on a project because it is something you could use to generate money. You'd still include the code so people could modify it to their heart's content, however you'd understand that most people were going to pay you if they used it.

Unfortunately, I see a lot of resistance to that. It seems that most OSS people think software shouldn't cost anything every. Well, with an attitude like that, it is going to be more of a hobbyist pursuit.

A matter of time? (5, Interesting)

The Ancients (626689) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458265)

Perhaps this article signifies the movement that has occurred with open source software. Whilst I'm sure it's been around a long while, there has been a huge increase in what's available in the last few years. Open Source software is maturing as most things do when they get older.

I'm happy with the 'get it working first - then make it pretty' approach taken by most.

usability != "make it pretty" (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458519)

Just because you've made it pretty doesn't mean it's usable. You can't build a bug-free product and then just slap on "usability" at the end--it doesn't work that way. You have to iterate through designs and test your product with users along the way while you're designing the entire system. Good software design is more than just making a UI that people like, but it's designing the entire product in a way that's intuitive for beginners and enabling for advanced users.

Re:A matter of time? (1)

LighterShadeOfBlack (1011407) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458563)

I'm happy with the 'get it working first - then make it pretty' approach taken by most.

Unfortunately that often turns into either:
Get it working first, then get bored and move onto something new.
or
Get it working first, then start again from the ground up making it better (from the programmer's POV).

Somehow those final layers of polish just never seem to happen on too many open source projects.

Not true anymore (2, Interesting)

blind biker (1066130) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458273)

I am a 100% satisfied user of free software, after years of negativism and complaining (I admit, my past sins...). I use: Xandros and SLAX distros, OpenOffice (EXCELLENT usability!), Firefox, the WLAN choosers that come with the aforementioned distros and a handful of console apps. I don't even know the name of the movie player that starts up when I doubleclick on a media file. What's not to like, what's not to be able to use?

Re:Not true anymore (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458521)

I find it interesting that you cite OpenOffice as being very usable, when as far as I could tell the interface is ripped almost directly from Microsoft...

RE: Usability of Free Software (2, Insightful)

Zw4nzig (1337975) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458277)

Obviously, free software has teh same problems as socialism: If it is free, what is the incentive for enhancement and bettering? Why go through the trouble after your initial effort, if there is no advantage? A lot of free software comes about because of the need, or the personal interest. But once both of those are satisfied, there is no reason to enhance the program. And if it meets the usability requirements of a select few for whom the program was designed, what is the purpose of making it more usable by the general populace?

Re: Usability of Free Software (1)

Warll (1211492) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458647)

Then someone else comes along, picks up the source and adds what they want. Rinse and repeat.

Re: Usability of Free Software (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458691)

I fail to see what any of this has to do with socialism. What you described constantly occurs in the free market. It is called "commoditization".

Re: Usability of Free Software (1)

AceofSpades19 (1107875) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458737)

I think that would only apply to one or two man projects at best. eg. the firefox dev team won't just stop improving firefox, or the linux kernel devs won't just stop writing the linux kernel

You need to fix yourself first (2, Insightful)

unity100 (970058) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458283)

if you think free software has usability, you have problems identifying and finding good software. you need to fix yourself.

i use a lot of free software that has very good usability. there is nothing different in selecting free software than selecting paid software - buyer beware.

Nothing to see here... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458285)

Just had a look at TFA. The author doesn't even care to say what useability is and why it is so poor in FOSS.

Next try, please...

WHORE! (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458291)

whore.

Style over substance? (1)

Sfing_ter (99478) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458301)

I have been using free and open source software for over 10 years now, and i would rather have a square block that does what i want it to do when i want it done than have a nice 3D cube with bevelled edges and drop shadows that breaks because of reason x not allowing me to complete my desired task. Just like in any engineering job when the tool you need is not made then you make the tool yourself, once the tool is being used by many people then some corp decides to chrome it and mass produce it. Isn't that what DeadRat and Apple are for?

Re:Style over substance? (1)

chuckymonkey (1059244) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458623)

That's the difference between people like us and people like a large portion of the rest of the general populace. I use function over form all the time, hence I love the command line. I also have an engineering bent so I'm a little more interested in getting things done than having oooo...pretty all over the place. That being said there is something to having a composited desktop such as compiz. Some of the window and trailfocus features really do enhance function as well as form, some of the other things make it a little bit easier on the eyes as well. Anyway if we want FOSS to have a larger user base and hence better support from device makers then we have to make it appeal to the rest of the populace that does choose form over function. Also I'm not trying to troll about all the other people, hell my wife is one of the people that likes the oooo...pretty features, it's just that people have to recognize that most people are not like most of those of us on Slashdot.

It is the thought process (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458303)

UNIX programmers (the majority of FOSS developers) design software the way that they would want it to be used. It makes sense to other programmers and it is actually probably the simplest way to operate if you have the base knowledge. Users, on the other hand, focus less on the architecture of the software they are using than on the front end. Windows and Mac OS X systems and applications are easy to use because the front end has been designed to meet all usual purposes, even if it cuts back on the functionality. Linux and most UNIX systems and applications are harder to use because they are built with the architecture of the code in mind. A good UNIX program can easily work with other UNIX programs, and a good UNIX program is made as general as possible to maximize speed and reduce bloat as the program advances. A 'good' Windows program is made for only one cycle, not the entire development lifetime. Firefox is a good example of a program that meets both the UNIX and the Windows definitions of a good program. But Firefox is very rare, and there have been multiple revolts over de-generalizing the code for a single release.

I think application programmers should keep the Firefox success in mind when they develop code, even though it will be much more expensive and time consuming than the UNIX mentality since they will have to keep stopping what they are doing to release and polish versions for users (essentially dead forking every couple of months).

maybe I speak only for myself but.. (0, Troll)

SirShmoopie (1333857) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458309)

My open source product is mine, to make whatever design decisions I want.

I tend towards the opinion that if someone wants to dictate usability terms to me, they better be prepared either to submit code, pay me, or to be blunt, get lost.

Personally, I like coding console apps. As far as usability goes, this is stone age stuff, but it works for me.

Quite a few people have talked about improving my application suite with 'pure virtual interfaces', or just packing it into a GUI app, but none have actually contributed functional code.

I much prefer to spend my time working deep in the algorithms of my software, because coding those is a pleasure for me. Anything else just doesn't hold my interest.

Re:maybe I speak only for myself but.. (1)

Mistshadow2k4 (748958) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458487)

I tend towards the opinion that if someone wants to dictate usability terms to me, they better be prepared either to submit code, pay me, or to be blunt, get lost

And this attitude is why you won't get paid for it. The free software you code is a resume, whether you submit it or not. If your attitude is "it works good enough for me, fuck you", your prospective employer will hire someone who listens to the users of their software. They wil think you're just going to do it good enough to get your money and won't care about making it usable enough for them -- and, given your attitude, they'd probably be right.

Re:maybe I speak only for myself but.. (1)

SirShmoopie (1333857) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458619)

If your attitude is "it works good enough for me, fuck you", your prospective employer will hire someone who listens to the users of their software. They wil think you're just going to do it good enough to get your money and won't care about making it usable enough for them -- and, given your attitude, they'd probably be right.

Actually, my open source program has got me jobs, even though that's not why I maintain it, and is fairly widely used.

What does that do to your theory?

Re:maybe I speak only for myself but.. (1)

pdusen (1146399) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458539)

And that's all perfectly fine if you don't intend for lots of people in the general public to use your program, for example, if you have some sort of niche program. This article seems to specifically apply to programs that are meant to gain widespread use in the population.

Anybody else see the humour in this? (0)

Gordonjcp (186804) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458319)

Leaving little things broken. Many of the small details that improve a program's interface are not exciting or satisfying to work on. Details like setting a window's most appropriate size
... on a site where the text is displayed on a huge blank white page in a column 2" wide.

Aye, right, we're *really* interested to hear what *you* have to say about usability.

Re:Anybody else see the humour in this? (1)

Andyvan (824761) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458529)

I understand the point you're making, but are you aware that really wide columns are harder to read?

Just saying, it may not be as ironic as you think.

-- Andyvan

First steps (4, Interesting)

CBravo (35450) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458341)

My suggestions: start a Usability Level Group where one can see which level of usability the application has ( for platform X).

Things to consider (remember: using starts with considering installation):
-does it compile cleanly?
-is it pre-packaged?
-is it in the standard repositories?
-is there a manual and man page
-are there examples which can be followed
-(if relevant) are there screenshots
-are all options of the application available in the GUI
-let people vote about the quality of the above

First you have to obtain a means to measure usability (by the users is best, I guess).

Read Gruber's post too (4, Insightful)

Twid (67847) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458347)

At the bottom the article links to John Gruber's "Ronco Spray-on Usability" [daringfireball.net] article, which also provides a lot of background on the challenges of good interface design.

In the original article, I think the most important point is number 8 - "Scratching their own itch." I can see how programmers interested in, for example, having a stable and scalable web server would work on Apache. I don't see the same passion coming from a human interface designer to fix, for example, the horrible user interface for joining wireless networks on desktop linux.

In my opinion the only way the user interface will get fixed is if Ubuntu or another distro pays for expert user interface folks to fix UI issues. I don't see the volunteer community being up to the task.

Fsck off Thomas (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458363)

Don't like it? Send in patches, or fork it! Too useless to code? Piss off and buy it off the shelf to tight cunt. Weenies like you probably complain about females not interested in your wussiness, so you try and touch up boys. Admit it, you're a fag!

Who is it useful to? (1)

Scotman (1126481) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458387)

A product is of on value until it is placed in the hands of someone that can use it. Open source will never best companies like Microsoft and Apple because most of the world can't use it's unfriendly products. Taking the care to ensure that the software is usable by an end user is what gives it a finishing touch that customers will respond to. Case in point is the Apple corporation. I don't know that they have a shred of technical innovation in them, yet the simple act of making technology both sexy and friendly has turned them into a giant.

Few Good Designers (4, Insightful)

Leading Stoker (1338003) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458403)

That article hit it on the head. There's 1001 programmers in the world, who are excellent coders and whip through the strings like a first chair, but there's very few project designers in freeware. They concentrate so much of function (which, yes, is critical!), but forget about ergonomics and userability (especially *how* end users can and will use their product, and ways to cut out excessive keystrokes or right clicks). The end users winds up getting a proggie that can function well, but such a chore to operate (or even painful, if it not ergonomically friendly). As we more and more get "connected" to computing, it's no longer just being on a keyboard or using a mouse an hour or two a day. Now it's more like 8+ hrs. Programmers need to consider the impact of their software, and beyond how it functions itself, but the whole project. That's where product design is so crucial, and something not just best left up to management to figure.

New design paradigm required (5, Interesting)

gilgongo (57446) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458423)

I am a UI designer by trade, and many is the time I have thought about wading in to a F/LOSS project in order to improve the usability of the interface (last one I considered was IPCop). While I agree with most of TFA, it doesn't seem to emphasise the real point for me, which is that UI design for free software requires radically different skills *from the designer* to that which are necessary in the commercial world.

Because people are so tolerant of awful UI, good UI designers are all about persuasion, charm, leadership and inclusiveness without losing focus. To achieve this commercially is not easy, but at least somebody has hired you in an expectation that you will do this work. Grabbing a bunch of elite coders and trying to persuade them to change their stuff is a massive challenge, even if you have VoIP, virtual whiteboards, etc. I would not expect maintainers to understand, appreciate or tolerate my intervention, mainly down to the reasons the article cites, and I'm not sure I'd be able to persuade them otherwise. Usability is not obvious and often requires a leap of faith, an abandonment of the wrong kind of complexity, and very often a lot of pain.

Still, the more we have these discussions, the better, and I hope the article gets read by a lot of Slashdotters for that reason.

Re:New design paradigm required (1)

FooBarWidget (556006) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458615)

But which open source projects have you tried to join? Obviously, if the developers are hardcore Unix gurus who are still using commandline email clients, then they're not likely to listen to you.

But you have you tried joining GNOME, KDE or even Firefox? They're devoting a lot of effort into usability. They're constantly trying to improve it. They're the kind of people who *want* professional user interface designers to contribute. You should try it.

In a nutshell... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458747)

they don't respect you because you're "not technical" and you can't code. Basically, the programmers have no respect for anyone who can't code.

Oh dear. (1)

delphi125 (544730) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458427)

The reason that free software has poor usability is that free software is a subset of software, which is noted for poor usability.

The vast majority of software is written by and used by a single person, and would probably be hard to use for anybody else. Sometimes these projects get to be free.

Most of the remainder have a limited target, whether it is an in-house project or free. Some of these are easily usable, but the majority of companies will prefer more features to usability.

The tiny fraction of "big software" which has serious market penetration comes in three main categories: operating systems, utilities with a free version, and games. Operating systems typically have incredibly poor usability; really successful games almost all have decent usability.

The only real difference between free and commercial software is that the makers of the latter have a better chance of making a living off it.

awesome! (1)

timothy (36799) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458465)

Now that this problem has been addressed, what about a quick essay on how to fix the poor usability of non-Free software?

timothy

Usability expert with a (little) bit of free time (2, Interesting)

MadFarmAnimalz (460972) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458475)

Just for the sake of being proactive (and on-topic, oh horror!), a colleague is a usability expert and has acquired a fascination with free software. I thought that jumping in and rolling up his sleeves would be a good induction, so here's asking: anyone sitting on an interesting project with a need for (and willingness to listen to) such a one?

Poor usability? (4, Interesting)

FooBarWidget (556006) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458485)

Poor usability? Is there really anybody who thinks that Internet Explorer 7's user interface is better than Firefox 3's?

I'm getting tired of hearing this over and over again. For example, in the past 7 years, GNOME has invested an insane amount of effort in usability. Go read about all those professional GNOME usability studies that Sun has funded. Also, go read Ubuntu and "desktop environments" [mpt.net.nz], written by the same author who wrote TFA. In that article, he criticizes people for wanting to include a configuration option in Ubuntu's installer which asks the user whether he wants GNOME, KDE or XCFE. He argues that such a choice is simply too confusing to most non-technical people. And indeed, people like my dad and mom don't know, or want to know, what GNOME is.

In the past 7 years, GNOME has done its best to address exactly that kind of criticism. Almost every single feature is scrutinized with usability in mind. GNOME has been removing more and more configuration options from the user interface in order to make things easier for the average user. In fact, they've done so much their best that the technical audiance, i.e. Slashdot/OSNews/Reddit, is constantly flaming them for removing config options. Yet this same audience is flaming them for not being usable.

KDE, too, has invested a lot of effort in usability. But what's the community doing? Instead of offering helpful feedback, perhaps mockups or even professional usability studies, they're flaming the developers. By flaming, instead of offering useful feedback, they're discouraging the very people who made the software from improving it. And you're wondering why they're having a hard time?

Go figure.

Re:Poor usability? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458621)

KDE, too, has invested a lot of effort in usability. But what's the community doing? Instead of offering helpful feedback, perhaps mockups or even professional usability studies, they're flaming the developers. By flaming, instead of offering useful feedback, they're discouraging the very people who made the software from improving it. And you're wondering why they're having a hard time?

Sure. Blame the users when it was the developers who released a barely-alpha project into the wild without clearly informing users of its unfinished state (the KDE official release page said nothing about it not being ready for everyday use). The KDE4 debacle was caused by poor marketing and communication; the KDE developers should have expected (and deserved) the resultant harsh criticism.

Too many developers around... (1)

Timosch (1212482) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458493)

The problem, in my honest opinion, is that free software is quite often used by computer enthusiasts - programmers, that is.
We - and that goes not only for programmers, but for nearly all people visiting ./ - do not see a great problem in using a command line and fixing things using /bin/sh. Free software is often extremely powerful, and that almost automatically means that it gets complicated. For that reason, many average users - and I'm talking about the guy who does some writing and sometimes plays a game on his Windows box - are to some extend "frightened" of FOSS, thus not using it, which again results in mostly developers using FOSS. And now we have a vicious circle...

Why is "patches welcome" a bad thing? (5, Insightful)

FooBarWidget (556006) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458571)

But when someone points out a usability issue, this tradition turns into "patches welcome," which is unhelpful since most designers aren't programmers. And it's not obvious how else usability specialists should help out.'"

There seems to be a whole movement who's against the "patches welcome" statement. I fail to understand this.

I'm an open source developer. Look at it from my point of view. I've written software that people find useful. It's not perfect, but it's useful. Then, one day, someone criticizes my software:

Person X: [...] this and this sucks [...]
Me: patches are welcome
Person X: what? what an unhelpful response! no wonder open source sucks, and you suck too!

Now, tell me. I have a job. I maintain this software in my free time. Why should I devote that time to you, for free, instead of, say, hanging out with friends or seeing a movie? You're not paying me for this software. You probably would go away if I ask you to hire me. What exactly do I owe you? I already made the source code available. Why do you criticize me for not working for you for free? Why don't you do it yourself, or hire someone to do it for you? If you can't do either of those, why don't you contribute documentation, mockups, or something else that's not technical but is still useful? Do you expect a baker to give bread to you for free when you criticize his breads for not being tasty enough?

The usability still sucks (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458759)

Perhaps you're right. No one can force you, or should be able to. Still, it does not make the usability better. With that attitude it stays as bad.

Re:Why is "patches welcome" a bad thing? (1)

Duradin (1261418) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458767)

Perhaps instead of the "patches are welcome" you just say that you don't have time to work on it, don't want to work on it, or that it is very low on your priority list.

Why do you expect people to help you with YOUR project when you won't even give them a useful response? You just told them that their concern was beneath you and that they should bugger off. You really think that's going to motivate someone to help you?

Who decides how the code works? (2, Insightful)

John Allsup (987) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458649)

I'll point out an example from the world of software synthesisers. Take a look at Rob Papen's Blue, Albino or Predator. They are excellent synthesisers. The point is, Papen is the sound designer and the synthesisers are designed so as to facilitate his designing of the vast collection of factory patches for them (based on what's possible of course.)

In the world of Free Software, things are very different -- those who can design the user interface are not strongly listened to when designing how the user interface libraries should work. Basically, a programmer writes what he/she thinks is good enough, other programmers join in, but when the designer's requirements run contrary to the original direction of the code, resistance is met. This is a major problem, since those most capable of designing effective user interfaces don't get to do so, and those more suited to the coding side of things have to do make-shift user interface designing according to their ideas of how a user interface should work or what is easy to code.

Free software companies should take time to stand back from the process, ask the question: what are we trying to do? and what is the most effective way to accomplish those goals? The problem is that it is effectively beyond the power of an individual person in the free software world to influence things unless they have sufficient time and expertise to code examples of what they want.

Cart before the horse - a designer's perspective (1)

bushelpeck (1090329) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458653)

Want to make usable software? Start from the human user perspective. Ask what the person does, not what the software does. Adapt the software to the (generalized) user/person. Sounds simple but it is so rarely done especially with non-commercial, custom proprietary and open source software. Usually it's done exactly backwards with software function first and usability bolted or cobbled on at the end, if at all.

Ask the kinds of questions about software that most developers dismiss as "stupid:" What is it? Who uses it and how? Why?

I have been quite surprised to find that these questions had never been previously asked and answered for a lot of the (paid) projects I've been involved with. "It's obvious" isn't an answer - obvious to you is not enough. If I could get one usability concept through developers' heads, it would be that the software you're writing is not about you.

Unfortunately, such suggestions are often met with the reaction that designers are idiots and nobody cares what some Photoshop moron thinks anyway. Hence the reluctance of designers to get involved in the first place, especially with volunteer projects. I would love to contribute to certain open source projects if I thought my contributions would be welcomed.

WDFLFT (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#24458655)

Otherwise known as "We Don't Feel Like Fixing That."

I've long noticed this syndrome on the part of medium and small commercial developers including those consisting entirely of a single coder (and **especially** when the application has little or no competition); it tends to occur as a project gets older and the coders start feeling the pinch of corners they maight have coded themselves into... or they just get stubborn in the face of constant user complaints about particular issues. Eventually the issues become "bug non grata"; if you want your issue X dealt with, don't be bringing up that old problem Y, or X and Y will stick around for a few more versions than was necessary.

A big part of this attitude is simply that the coders would rather work on the fun and glamorous parts of the code (like say the renderer in a 3D graphics package) instead of the dull and boring housekeeping parts, such as memory handling and UI code, where a lot of issues arise.

Eventually the userbase starts trickling away, and bug reports start falling off, because the remaining users are pessimistic about them ever getting fixed.

And all of this happens on commercial projects, where at least there is the profit motive to get developers to smarten up... what is there in open source to deal with this kind of issue?

Agree But Not Limited to Open Source (2, Insightful)

Comatose51 (687974) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458661)

Agree with this point: "Coding before design".

As an UI developer (at least part of the time) at a major software company, I see this pitfall even in my own work. A lot of us are more concerned about coding up the UI to expose the new features but that's where we stop. OK new features is exposed, on to the next one! Then the UI designers come in and suggests all these changes and we end up undoing a lot of the work we did before. It's such a waste of time. This is a mistake we've learned and look to correct in our next version's development cycle. Sometimes it makes sense to develop software from UI on down because at the end of the day, it's the user's experience that matters, not necessarily how clever or elegant the inner workings of our software is (this does matter in the long run -- a good foundation allows us to make changes and add things quickly).

Another pet-peeve of mine is explaining to the UI designer that we can't do something because of engineering problems when what the designer is suggesting is simple. A rule of thumb of mine is that if the suggested UI interaction/function is simple then the amount of effort to make it happen should also be simple. If it is not, then something is wrong with the UI framework.

Good UI is in some ways a lot harder than what people might expect. It's really a multi-discipline field that takes more than just a good engineer. It requires a good psychologist (one of our UI designers was a cognitive science major) and a good writer. We learned so much about our UI design from filming people using our product and watching their frustration. This was an expensive process in both time and money. I can see a company being able to do this but it's considerably harder for an open source project, especially a small one without a lot of resources. Bad UI design happens everywhere but it seems only software companies and major open source projects have the dedicated resources to fix it. Like the article said, it's a high bandwidth process; people need to be together at the same place to discuss these things and it takes hours as you can tell from my own submission to Ask Slashdot [slashdot.org].

Even if you fixed the usability . . (1)

walterbyrd (182728) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458677)

There are still the issues of acceptance, and support.

Consider Quickbooks for example, even if there were a f/oss equivalent that was just as good, or better:

* No significant cost advantage: QuickBooks simple start is free:
http://quickbooks.intuit.com/product/accounting-software/free-accounting-software.jhtml [intuit.com]
Or I can buy the full version of QuickBooks Pro 2008 in only $145:
http://www.amazon.com/Intuit-403697-QuickBooks-Pro-2008/dp/B000V4PLWM/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=software&qid=1217794735&sr=8-1 [amazon.com]
Seems to me that any cost advantage of using a foss alternative is negligible..

* Wide acceptance: I think most businesses are much more comfortable using products that are accepted standards.

* Wealth of available add-ons: Intuit has a very active community of 3rd party developers. You can buy practically any kind of an add-on you can imagine. These add-ons cost money, but at least they are available.

* Major company: I think a lot of businesses are not comfortable with a product unless there is a major company behind that product. I have to admit, even I am not comfortable with software products that are essentially one man operations.

* Support: I can always hire somebody who knows quickbooks, or find a "ProAdvisor" consultant, or I can get support from the company, and there are hundreds - if not thousands - of developers who specialize in developing for quickbooks. I can not see where that is true for any project.

* Training availability and costs. I can hire people who already know quickbooks. If I hire somebody to work on some foss alternative, then there will be a significant training expense. Of course, there is also the issue of training availability.

* Documentation: If I had to pick one thing that kills the usefulness of more foss projects than anything else, this would win in a slam-dunk. Of course, this varies among projects, some foss projects have great documentation. But, I can always find plenty of books, or other documentation for popular proprietary financial apps.

* Many accountants, maybe as many as 200,000, use QB and recommend it to their clients. Some accountants will charge much more for files that are not in QB format.

* QB has much better 3rd party integration. For example, ecommerce packages like oscommerce, and magento, work with quickbooks, not foss alternatives. Msft accounting works with ebay. I can not find that sort of integration with foss software.

The OLPC XO laptop would be a good case study (2, Interesting)

dpbsmith (263124) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458771)

This software for the XO laptop is an open source project that is intended to be used by elementary school kids.

Usability by its target audience is absolutely of the essence. It is not a project in which the developers can get away with saying "it works for me," nor can they tell their eight-year-old audience "if you don't like it, patch it."

The XO laptop is thus an example of a situation where there are strong "incentives for usability." In fact, the entire enterprise fails if the device is not highly usable by elementary school kids in third world countries with no previous computer experience.

Time will show us how usable the XO software is. It will either be a data point that demonstrates that, indeed, the open source process produces highly usable software provided only that there is an incentive for usability... or that it really has a systemic problem that incentives cannot overcome.

Does it do what it claims to do? (1)

splorp! (527131) | more than 5 years ago | (#24458773)

Irfanview [irfanview.com]

Notepad++ [sourceforge.net]

CDex [sourceforge.net]

FileZilla [sourceforge.net]

Free or open source software that I use frequently have no usability issues. I know there are some horrific free and open source software choices out there. I just don't use the ones that don't lend themselves to ease of use. I stick with the stuff I know works.
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