Open Source Usability Rant

By Deane Barker on September 19, 2005

A convoluted Mambo: Why open source software needs usability Nazis: A good rant over at TeleRead about the state of usability in open-source software — Mambo, in this case.

I also wonder if the Geek Snobbery Factor may have been at work. So often, leadership within open source efforts is based too much on programming ability and not enough on the ability to empathize with the end users. The uber geeks may care more about the number of minor features, and so on, than about general ease of installation or use. In awarding influence among collegues, open source teams should place more emphasis than now on software ergonomics.

This was a major topic in Spolsky’s essay “Biculturalism”.

I’m in a middle of a project now with a commercial content management system, and it’s interesting to see the differences between that and the open-source stuff I’m used to. There’s less emphasis on conceptual elegance and more emphasis on giving the users what they want.

Menus, for instance — in the open source world, the concept of a “menu” would be distilled down to its data model and implemented elegantly along with everything else, because — after all — a menus are just another type of data, and why should we make an exception and treat them differently?

That’s the geek talking. The end user just wants a link called “Menus” where they can go administrate them. And that’s what this system gives them. The software architect in me shudders, but I can’t argue with the simplicity of it.

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  1. I had some experience in a totally-custom CMS and in some commercial ones, and I can’t argue with the simplicity either. However, now I side with the software architect in you: if you start conceding “Menus” today, tomorrow you will have “Buttons” and “Boxes” and who knows what else… and your system becomes unmanageable, a collection of special cases nobody is able to understand anymore.

  2. […] your system becomes unmanageable, a collection of special cases nobody is able to understand anymore.

    And this is exactly my fear. However, there’s a balance somewhere, I think. You have to know when something should become a special case for the sake of usability.

    But there’s another scenario —

    Present something as a special case to the user, but have it slot “correctly” into the architecture in the background. Sure, they have a nice interface for their menus, but the menus themselves are handled the same as any other data objects in the underlying system.

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