Usability: Can open source software catch up?

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Last week I attended a talk given at the Vancouver User Experience Group (VanUE). The speaker was Greg Bell and he was talking about how in order for really good software to be developed, everyone in the development process needs to have a good understanding of usability. It was a decent talk, although the 3rd year UBC human-computer interaction course had already taught me most of what Greg was trying to get across.

Installing Windows 7
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This lecture coincided with me installing Windows 7 on both of my computers and really loving it. Now, Windows 7 is not much different to Vista, except that it is faster and addresses quite a few usability problems. I enjoy it so much in fact, that I will not go back to using the current release of Ubuntu. ¬†Of course, this realization has upsets as it hits home the realization that as Apple and Microsoft (and indeed any big tech company) are starting to see the great importance of usability and putting it at the forefront of their design process, open source solutions (which have just started to catch up to the big boys) might be left in the dust once again. This Article from the University of ¬†Waikato highlights a few of the challenges faced by open source projects when it comes to usability, including (and in my opinion the most important) “Design for usability really ought to take place in advance of any coding”. This leads us back to Greg’s talk at VanUE. I feel that if usability and the importance of design is pushed more heavily in the introductory parts of Computer Science then open source projects can benefit from that usability knowledge being pooled. Until then though, I think that many open source projects are going to start falling even further behind their proprietary counterparts.

This however, does not apply to all open source projects. Those with enough corporate backing (like WordPress with Automattic and Ubuntu with Canonical) are able to forcibly steer their developers towards more usable interfaces. This kind of work has already payed off for WordPress, however, we will have to await another Ubuntu release or two to see whether their efforts to change the way that a much larger (and more traditionally minded) community of open source programmers will actually pay off.

UbuntuTux
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