The User Experience of OSS
August 4, 2005 at 8:23 PM
Over a year ago Jay Fineberg wrote a post entitled The cathedral and the bazaar of user interface design. The post covers the topic of the state of UI design in Open Source Software (OSS). Just the other day I had a short discussion with Bob Goodman on the UXnet local ambassadors mailing list about this very topic. The discussion stated when I started seeing reference to Open Source Usability, and Open Source Information Architecture. Why is it that we can't just call it what it is: usability and IA? That aside, it's good to see that OSS is starting to realize that to gain greater adoption they will need to deliver products that are not only functional, but usable and offer a good user experience. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments for this post.
OSS needs the following: - better user interface designers (though they've been improving on that a lot) - better IA so that they can draw in people that aren't highly experiences computer users - better marketing techniques Problem with the latter is of course money. Marketing costs money and OSS tends to be free and have no money. The few financially backed OSS products (and OS's) do some decent marketing, but they're still miles away from being appealing to the generic average pc user. Then again, when most software still seems to be way too complex for the average user, it won't make a difference if one piece of software has great design, IA and marketing. Upside: they're all improving. Slowly.
Regarding the better marketing of the previous comment.. I wonder if there is or could be a open source marketing program of some sort? I'm being very vague.. But maybe with open source websites there can be some sort of open source ad repository... You could then direct users to other exciting OO projects.
I think you need to clarify what you mean my open-source software. If you mean Web sites that use Apache, MySQL, PHP and so forth, the user interface has very little to do with the underlying technology. If you're referring to open-source applications, then look not further than Firefox. The precursor to the browser was the Mozilla Suite, which was aimed directly at so-called "geeks," it had no real marketing behind it, and was pretty complicated to use. Firefox on the other hand targets users of any level of expertise (I have converted many non-technical people to using it and they love it -- call it the "grandmother factor" if you want), it has a huge, if grassroots, following and marketing support. Now look at the numbers, Mozilla never reached above 2% market share, yet Firefox is already at 10% and even higher in Europe. In my mind, this proves you can challenge the dominance of a company like Microsoft with a superior product, even if you don't have a bottomless coffer of funds at your disposal to market the product.
One example of software that will benefit if it had been easier to use is the PHP/MySQL based CMS
There is still much to do with tons of applications but some larger projects have done work to improve usability. Several Open Source desktop enviroments have their own sets of Human Interface Guidelines and particularly GNOME HIG has helped to improve many applications. There is also KDE HIG but it looks like they still have much work to do with that guide.
Open Source is not just about software and applications,code and computers. It is also part of a much larger movement. That means that it is a cause as well. David G.'s comments are in the right direction. It comes down to Social Marketing. It should be a given that the application is kick ass (or whatever), it has to sell to a different crowd now. There is a lot of activity right now in the corporate sector as businesses start to catch on that times are changing. Look at the recent article in Business Week. (June 20th "Mass Collaboration on the Internet is shaking up business") If Business Week quoting saying things like: "We are seeing the emergence of an economy of the people, by the people, for the people..." then what more can I say? Commercial Marketing is going social, the exact reverse of what happened in the developing years of Social Marketing (they used commercial marketing techniques to sell ideas)...very interesting post!
"Hits self on head with ball peen hammer" I got to thinking about my comments earlier on this thread, and I realized I completely forgot about such things as packaged CMS applications and the like." Yeah, I have to say I'm agreement with the general opinion about open-source and interfaces. phpMyAdmin, for instance, is a very popular and very powerful application for syadmins and programmers working with MySQL databases. Powerful, yes, but the UI is terrible.
Ok, so I am not losing my mind. Thanks Douglas, hehe.
Nick, IMO - Since OPen Source offers a different way of building software, it is possible that there will different ways in which usability will fit into the process. While the usability and IA needs might be similar, the way that developers and UX professionals will work together might need some changes. That said, its been an exciting field recently. This post describing some recent developments in Open SOurce usability might be of interest.