Wednesday, September 19, 2012

GNOME, OpenOffice.org, NetBeans

I've been reviewing other studies of open source usability. Benson, Müller-Prove, and Mzourek shared a study entitled "Professional Usability in Open Source Projects: GNOME, OpenOffice.org, NetBeans." CHI EA '04 CHI '04 extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems. pp 1083-1084. ACM New York, NY, USA. 2004.

They acknowledge that open source applications tend to "have poor user interfaces." This is because most open source programs "are created by engineers for engineers. The feedback cycle with real users does not exist because there are few usability experts participating in open source development processes." I've used a similar phrase: written by developers for other developers. I agree with their conclusion that the community feedback rarely includes useful usability information. In my experience, the UI experts are either not contributing, or developers discount UI expertise.

Benson, Müller-Prove, and Mzourek don't provide a deep analysis. They quickly summarize (in two pages) the state of three high-visibility open source projects: GNOME (a desktop environment, similar to the desktop on MacOSX or Microsoft Windows), OpenOffice.org (an office suite, including "workalikes" for Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint), and NetBeans (an integrated development environment for the Java programming language).

Here is a summary of their study:

GNOME - challenges:
  • Communication: Dedicated usability mailing lists and IRC channels do exist but they host few useful discussions and, along with the complex bug database, can be intimidating to non-technical contributors.
  • Early input: The GUP acts less as a usability “consultancy” for developers and more as a group of individuals who comment on usability bugs. Although the open source philosophy of contributing code early and often should lend itself well to rapid iterative prototyping, usability assistance is usually only sought after interfaces have been “designed”.
  • User profiles: There is no shared or documented vision of GNOME’S target audience.
  • Process: No obvious usability methodology is employed. Many developers contribute in their spare time for fun, so are understandably reluctant to follow heavyweight processes.
  • Attitude: Some developers feel that “Sun will fix that, so we don’t need to bother”.

OpenOffice.org - information:
  • OpenOffice.org was open sourced in 2000, after Sun Microsystems purchased StarOffice, a commercial office suite.
  • The StarOffice User Experience Team is involved in the development of OpenOffice.org, and includes professionals from all fields of HCI , including GUI and interaction design, usability engineering, linguistic expertise, accessibility, and globalization.

NetBeans - challenges:
  • Communication: Discussion is fragmented between the mailing list and bug reports. These channels need a clearer charter and decision-making system.
  • User profiles: Are mailing list participants really our target audience? If not, who should we optimize for?
  • Responsibility: Who owns the functionality? The developer, who writes and owns the code, or the designer, who writes the specification? A clearer notion of shared ownership is required.

It is interesting to capture their findings, but otherwise I view it as a very general reference.

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