Do we need A Centralized, State-of-the-Art Open Source Usability Lab? Or: Myths about Usability in Open Source…

Usability is not achieved by doing some tests. The spirit of the development has to foster the continuous improvement. An answer to thesis from Sam Dean and Matt Asay.

Today I found an article by Sam Dean who asks for a Centralized, State-of-the-Art Open Source Usability Lab. He refers to a cnet article by Matt Asay in which he postulates what Open Source can learn from Apple. Both articles point out that there is need for a shifting view in Open Source. Open Source needs to be more user-driven and less developer-centric – in other words there is a need for usability in Open Source work.

Well, there are good and bad news for both of them:
It is not as easy as they think but we have already come much further than they think!

To explain this I would like to clarify some myths on Open Source Usability:

Usability plays no role in Open Source development.

The OpenUsability.org initiative has provided Usability guidance to hundreds of Open Source projects for more than 5 years. We have worked with various  projects from big ones like Wikipedia or KDE to very small ones. Many projects have developed their own Usability-Community like the OpenOffice Renaissance or the KDE Usability project. Celeste Paul – one of the members of OpenUsability and KDE Usability – has just recently been elected into the KDE e.V. board.

So there is a community willing to assist Open Source projects on the user front and their work is been widely accepted.

Additionally our company provides professional usability support to commercial Open-Source projects and traditional usability companys have detected Open-Source as a market by now.

Commercial Software always has a better Usability than Open Source Software.

First of all: the quality in commercial software varies as much as in open source. There are products with excellent usability around and there is just the opposite. In both cases the bad products die sooner or later.

So what we need to think about is: “What is possible for Usability in Open Source development?”

There are numerous Open Source projects around that provide excellent usability. Firefox challenges the Microsoft Internet Explorer. Think of projects like gallery, KDE4 or Tine 2.0. All have undergone rewrites in order to enhance their usability and all have proven to be successful in relation to the age of the project.

So there is prove that Open Source projects are capable of a really good user experience.

Open-source software ends up being written for other developers.

This argument used to be true. Back in those good old days Open Source was successful, because developers could directly influence and change the software. If the software did not match their needs, they simply took the code and changed whatever they did not like. Projects split up, died, new ones were started – they evoluted. And by this they also evoluted a perfect usability – perfect for software developers which happened to be the main target group. In other words: those products evoluted perfect usability.

Nowadays that the user-base shifts, the goals in development differentiate. Projects that need to be used by average Joes and Janes build up user-feedback channels, integrate usability experts into the development and do regular user testing. They get designed for the average Joes and Janes.

Usability is a matter of a centralized lab.

This is actually not a special Open Source myth, but it is nevertheless wrong. Good usability can only be reached through a user-centric development process. A lab can be very handy during this process, but it is not the backbone. Usability experts need to be tightly integrated into the processes – from the definition of requirements, the evaluation of user goal, setting the information architecture to actually testing the products.

This is possible even in those distributed  and self-motivated development-teams you usually find in Open-Source projects. By tying it all into a single, centralized lab, as Sam Dean suggests, you would loose the strengths of this distributed development – just think of the requirements arising from different cultural needs.

Even more: Open-Source software is much more capable to integrate their users then a single lab would allow. Our experience is that Open-Source user are very willing to give feedback to the developers. While customers of commercial projects often ask: “What do I get, when I contribute?”, Open-Source users feel it is a good chance to say “Thank you” to the developers for providing a great piece of software.

By collaborating via the Internet it is not only a dream to activate this potential – it is reality. For example, we have just started an Icon Usability-Test for the new Oxygen k3b-Icons and we got more then 2000 participants within just 2 days.

Summing it up

The evolutionary process that stands behind Open Source development has already adopted to the idea of user centric development. Just as it will adopt to any other upcoming need in software development. And Usability on the other hand has started to understand the needs and the potentials of the Open Source idea, and makes great advances in activating them for the good of the projects.

For sure we are just at the beginning of a long journey. But we are already on the road. Articles like the ones from Sam and Matt show the increasing public demand for more usable Open Source products. I am sure the community notices these signals and will just speed up. The foundations are being laid…