Open Source Usability

As an open source fan I invite people to try out open source software and know its benefits. I try to emphasize that open source is not only about money, it is also about quality, choice and participation. However, I feel we need to add Usability to this list, which I think is lacking in the open source applications. Or at the least, usability of open source applications, even if existent, is not very popular.

A car’s core component is the engine. But comfortable seats can improve driving and the experience. Usability is like comfortable seats, that can better usage of the software and provide higher benefit. Open source softwares have been so focused on the functionality that usability has been not given priority.

Usability At Roots

The open source initiation was from technical people, if not programmers and hackers. It early open source software found its users in the technical domain. Not only did it prove productive, but also quite effective for quality management. Usability was not given a preference as the usability could be compensated by the technical knowledge of users.

This resulted in lack of usability understanding and the common man was ignored as a user resulting in ingoring usability. Incorporating usability requires its consideration right from inception of an idea or a product, it cuts across all aspects of software usage. It cannot be built-in halfway down the line.

Developers Are Not Users

The central point is that developers are not users. The development of a software should be for users, usually a non-developer approach is required for user-centric design. Usability and Open Source Software is an excellent paper addressing the issues and provides approaches in usability.

“If this [desktop and application design] were primarily a technical problem, the outcome would hardly be in doubt. But it isn’t; it’s a problem in ergonomic design and interface psychology, and hackers have historically been poor at it. That is, while hackers can be very good at designing interfaces for other hackers, they tend to be poor at modeling the thought processes of the other 95% of the population well enough to write interfaces that J. Random End-User and his Aunt Tillie will pay to buy.” (Raymond, 1999)

“Traditionally the users of OSS have been experts, early adopters, and nearly synonymous with the development pool. As OSS enters the commercial mainstream, a new emphasis is being placed on usability and interface design, with Caldera and Corel explicitly targeting the general desktop with their Linux distributions. Non-expert users are unlikely to be attracted by the available source code and more likely to choose OSS products on the basis of cost, quality, brand and support.” (Feller and Fitzgerald, 2000)


Why technical users aren’t using FOSS is a good indication of the general attitude towards open source. Technical writers, who are close to the technical domain, probably might be working close with developers, are reluctant and hesitant in accepting open source applications. Even after improving open source applications on multiple fronts, it is not well known. Older perceptions of lack of usability in open source software are still strong and have fueled misconceptions. Like the article says:

… few experienced technical writers would expect to learn FrameMaker overnight, but, when they have trouble finding a feature in Writer, they jump to the conclusion that it isn’t there — although it almost always is, unless it’s online collaboration tools.

While this did not hurt earlier, it has been causing concerns recently. Open source is entering the every day life of the common man. What is worse than not being used is a half-hearted and biased attempt. Lot of times alpha and beta versions are tried, which typically do not have good documentation and leads to rejection. The user should be better informed about the usage.

Recent Efforts

Recently, projects like Mozilla Firefox have incorporated usability and have addressed concerns of the common man. OpenUsability is an effort to bring open source developers and usability experts together. There have been multiple open source products like WordPress and eZ publish which are completely flexible and allow developers to design and implement usability.

But an explicit effort for usability and explicit involvement by usability professionals is warranted to make open source software popular.

Documentation Availability

In my opinion, documentation should also be more easily available so that users can find guides to usage. The irony with documentation is that, it should not be necessary for usage, but should be available whenever required. Too much documentation and effort for must-read documentation can discourage a user. Currently open source community help is available through forums and is distributed. This documentation should be converged at a single location and made easily available.

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Copyright Abhijit Nadgouda.


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