Matthew Paul Thomas: Why Free Software has poor usability, and how to improve it

by Todd Ogasawara

I have no idea who Matthew Paul Thomas is even after Google-ing (um, that should be using Google to search for more information) his name and learning he lives in New Zealand and has written some very interesting blog entires. However, I followed a link from Slashdot to his blog entry titled...

Why Free Software has poor usability, and how to improve it

...and found a lot to agree with written there. Here's his key points (be sure to head to his blog to read the text that follows each point).

  1. Weak incentives for usability.
  2. Few good designers.
  3. Design suggestions often aren’t invited or welcomed.
  4. Usability is hard to measure.
  5. Coding before design.
  6. Too many cooks.
  7. Chasing tail-lights.
  8. Scratching their own itch.
  9. Leaving little things broken.
  10. Placating people with options.
  11. Fifteen pixels of fame.
  12. Design is high-bandwidth, the Net is low-bandwidth.
  13. Release early, release often, get stuck.
  14. Mediocrity through modularity.
  15. Gated development communities.

Of course, usability issues are evident in proprietary for-fee software too! Windows Vista's UAC (User Access Control) billions of clicks when I just want to copy my family photos from a hard drive to an external USB hard drive comes to mind. Corel's Paint Shop Pro Photo X11 completely changed color balancing from earlier version leaving me dazed and confused when I wanted to fix the white balance of an outdoor photo taken with the wide balance set to a fluorescent light white balance setting is another one. And, then there's the Apple's application design standard that says the menu structure should be at the top of the primary screen. This is fine when you have one display. But, if you have two displays and have the application on the second display, you are forced to move the mouse to the primary display everything time you need to use a menu item (unless there is a keyboard shortcut and you know what it is).

I think freeware, Open Source, and proprietary software developers all have a lot to learn from each other's design practices. And, Mr. Thomas' list is a good starting point for everyone to take a look at and think about.

Microsoft Port 25 blog items tagged with 'usability'


2008-08-04 06:31:13
"Too many cooks." THATS for me a mainreason, because there are sometimes so many programming-styles in the code of a project, which makes it impossible for a "normal" coder to understand the hole thing for maybe fixing something. mostly only the real geeks or people which are involved in a project from the beginning are able to make it better without to "putting to many salt in the soup". good post, i hope that will give many people something to think about. Dan
Aristotle Pagaltzis
2008-08-05 05:38:15
He did a lot of usability work for Mozilla until a few years ago, where he quit because it was an unending uphill battle. Now he works for Canonical (of Ubuntu fame). In-between he contributed UI design work to WordPress.
2008-08-05 05:46:01
There are many different kinds of offerings in FOSS and I think Mr Thomas puts them all together and hits them with the same heavy mallet. There is some extremely GOOD software out there. And of course, it's good to know about usability too [grinz] - for instance is a classic example of a usability metric that CAN give the data Mr Thomas requires simply and cheaply.