Open Source Usability Issues, or not?

January 9, 2007

Topics: Usability.

Following an article by Larry Constantine, I began a thread at Cre8asite Forums discussing the usability of open source software. The subject of the original article is the advantages (and disadvantages) of open source software – one of the chief weaknesses cited by Constantine is poor usability.

Now, I don’t have the kind of knowledge of open source software to be able to make that kind of judgement. Some open source software I know is quite difficult to use, but some is very easy. Some closed source software is very difficult, some is not. I’m not capable of drawing that line. Regardless of the reality, the impression that open source software is more difficult to use than its closed source counterparts is rampant.

I’m inclined to believe that people involved in the open source usability movement are those who are knowledgeable about the problems in open source projects. After all, it’s probably quite true that most open source projects are developed by engineers and code geeks – not usability experts. Some of these engineers are undoubtedly thinking about usability: but certainly not all. Establishing a movement to improve usability can hardly be a bad thing!

But is this usability challenge an illusion?

Ruud, at Cre8asite, states:

My guess is that poor usability isn’t always recognized as such in closed source though. The difficulty a company has to use that $75,000 CMS is expected: of course such an expensive system is “complex”…

But the strange clickthrough path in a freebie open source project? Bad usability, cloaked functionality…

To what degree do our expectations cloud our judgement? Is open source more difficult to use, or is it just that training and thorough documentation is less available? After all, the thousand hours of training required to install, administer, and use some complex software packages is simply not available for an open source equivalent: there isn’t necessarily a company established behind the product to provide these services.

On the other hand, Rashmi Sinha states:

Open source software projects are often feature driven. People join a project, they want to contribute. How can they contribute – by adding a feature. The user experience becomes more and more complex over time, as more and more features get added.

So open source projects are subject to feature bloat. Well…I’d argue this is equally true of many closed source projects. Many, many software packages add features in order to be able to ship a new version: in order to sell again, they need to offer something more. Perhaps this is less a division between open source and closed source and more a division between good project planning and oversight and bad.