December 06, 2002

Usability and Open Source Software

A paper from the University of Waikato, New Zealand does a great job of discussing at length some of the causes of poor usability of Open Source Software (OSS). I got this link from a developer-type cohort. He keeps trying to convince me to help bring usability to the OSS community. The paper does a good job of explaining why that just doesn't sound like fun to me.

One of the core problems:
"The OSS approach fails for end user usability because there are 'the wrong kind of eyeballs' looking at, but failing to see, usability issues. In some ways the relatively new problem with OSS usability reflects the earlier problem with commercial systems development: initially the bulk of applications were designed by computing experts for other computing experts, but over time an increasing proportion of systems development was aimed at non-experts and usability problems became more prominent. The transition to non-expert applications in OSS products is following a similar trajectory, just a few years later."

I question whether OSS will eventually follow the same trajectory - after all, the market drove commercial software to take that trajectory. The "market" for OSS is rather different. The author talks about OSS developers being incented to "scratch a personal itch" -- that and recognition are how they get "paid" to a large extent.

"The 'personal itch' motivation creates a significant difference between open source and commercial software development. Commercial systems development is usually about solving the needs of another group of users. The incentive is to make money by selling software to customers, often customers who are prepared to pay precisely because they do not have the development skills themselves."

Finally, how many usability folks would want to dive into this for the "public good"?
"Open source draws its origins and strength from a hacker culture (O'Reilly, 1999). This culture can be extremely welcoming to other hackers, comfortably spanning nations, organisations and time zones via the Internet. However it may be less welcoming to non-hackers. Good usability design draws from a variety of different intellectual cultures including but not limited to psychology, sociology, graphic design and even theatre studies. Multidisciplinary design teams can be very effective, but require particular skills to initiate and sustain. As a result, existing OSS teams may just lack the skills to solve usability problems and even the skills to bring in 'outsiders' to help. The stereotypes of low hacker social skills are not to be taken as gospel, but the sustaining of distributed multidisciplinary design teams is not trivial."

Working on a project with no clear leadership, ill-defined roles, consensus-based decision making, and a bunch of developers who have no desire to listen to a "usability expert" -- yikes, I'd rather swim with a bunch of I mean sharks...Okay, same thing.

Related posts:
- Confessions of a Mozillian
- Linux needs focus not whiners
- Open Letter to a Power User / Developer

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