On the UI in the Open Source


16 settembre 2012 di bakaburg1

An extract from a discussion about Open Source in MD Geeks, a facebook group of technology enthusiast medical students from IFMSA – International Federation of Medical Students Associations.

Don’t fight kids!! I agree that open source should be pushed at every cost. I get so angry when in my NMO (National Member Organization, a national medical students’ association member of IFMSA, Ed.) i see those awful .doc files flying around in emails, where a good ol’ .rtf or .pdf would be totally appropriate.

Said that, is also true that open source programs often miss one thing: User Friendliness!!! Maybe because I was grown on macs, but for me the most important thing in a program is to be dead simple to use (and if it is possible, also beautiful). You can implement the most wonderful and powerful functions in your program, but if the users has to spend a day to understand how to use them, trust me they will never use them.

Most of the people usually use a very small percentage of the capabilities of a certain software, and the more the functionalities the app have the less will be the people using them.

First you have to design your app for the idiot user, then give the pro the tools to do the pro stuff. Mac OS X is really well designed from this point of view. There are at least three level of user access. The easy one that the average people love, the stuff in the utility and library folders for the geek user, the unix terminal for the bone breaker. If you don’t have the right level of expertise, you would probably not even heard about the pro stuff

I try always to use this paradigm when I develop my apps or websites.

I noticed that the most the advanced and geek is the developer, the less user friendly is the product. For example, some application that I used when I was doing my neuroscience thesis work were surely powerfull, but i could undoubtedly label them as “user enemy“!

Often Open Source stuff do have the same problem! Written “by definition” by geeks there is almost no or zero effort in user interface, while in the commercial side of the sky big money is invested in this aspect. For example I have big problems with GIMP… it just don’t work as i expect it to do! Or Inkscape for mac: the idea is brilliant but it really have problems to setup a sufficient User Experience. And it not being Cocoa strikes you very hard when you have to use it often.

Another weakness of Open Source programs is that most of them are written in a, as I say, “desktop agnostic way in the wrong way“. They work everywhere, but in their own way, totally differently from the guidelines of the operative system the user is used to (I HATE TO USE CONTROL INSTEAD OF COMMAND!!). It would be sufficient to allow user to chose their default input system and possibly to have the option to imitate the de facto standard in the industry (“illustrator like keystrokes” option in Inkscape could save my mental sanity).

And the windowing system usually linux ported programs use on the mac, X11 is at most crappy and buggy (fault of apple for not upgrading it, and fault of developer for not using more modern solution). So I’m left with a build of Inkscape that is a pain to use, crash always and doesn’t support system events like drag and drop, native file browser, etc. A non expert user, seeing this, would trash the app and end up cracking open Illustrator at the end of the day (I’m still with Inkskape btw, because i’m stubborn, but really certain days…)

So, in conclusion, if Open Source wants to rise, geeks developers have to understand the importance of interfaces design and study, study, study design theory!!! (or hire someone that does it for them)

Fortunately, in the last years people is starting to better understand this! Maybe thanks in part to apple spreading (when people shfted from windows xp to Os X they suddenly realized that a computer doesn’t have to be ugly. Microsoft and Linux Distros publishers are finally understanding this), thanks in part to the web 2.0 renaissance (html5 and CSS3 are all about user experience, this is the real personal computing era!), the importance of design is finally making its way into the developers mind, especially in young, self made, web developers like me, with their creativity not destroyed by dictatorship-like languages like C++ and (god no!) Pascal, informatics schools use to teach about!!!

You can see this renaissance everywhere on the web (if you don’t use Internet Explorer, of course), and also many Open Source projects have understood this (see the big improvements of the UI in the last versions of Joomla and WordPress). Clean, responsive, asynchronous interface… aaaah so nice!

The consequence of this is that i spent most of my time developing the UI (really far the biggest part of my developing time!!) of my stuff and surfing sites like smashingmagazine and css-tricks and following people leading the way in these fields on twitter (Bakaburg1 for who wants to follow me). And you know what, when i looked at what I made, i feel satisfied, like a painter watching his creation!

So that is what the developer should be for me: a renaissance artist! the mix of creativity and technical skills!

So, what di you think about it?
(I wonder if anyone of you knows where the post picture comes from…)


2 thoughts on “On the UI in the Open Source

  1. Helpful info. Lucky me I discovered your web site accidentally, and I am surprised why
    this accident didn’t came about earlier! I bookmarked it.


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Hi there! I'm Angelo D'Ambrosio and "this is about what I think is worth sharing".

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