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Open Source Software Weak In Usability?


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#1 Guest_joedolson_*

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 09:34 PM

Larry Constantine writes at Technology Review on the subject of open source software's advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage he cites is poor usability:

As the code slowly grows in complexity as well as capability, usability suffers, not only because new functions add to the user interface but because such additions are ad hoc and implemented case by case.


I can see that ad hoc development can be quite detrimental to long term usability - but I'm not certain I've actually seen this in practice for open source software. To cite a couple of well-known web packages, I've found WordPress to be far easier than Movable Type and MySQL with PHPMyAdmin to be much simpler than attempting to use Microsoft Access...

What kinds of examples can you cite where a commercial (non-open source) example is clearly better or worse in regards to usability than a comparable open source product? I don't have any kind of mental inventory of these kinds of things, so I'm curious about what others may have noticed!

#2 A.N.Onym

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 10:01 PM

Drupal is clearly an open source stuff and it has a whole division and direction of website usability. Granted, it is not only one of the best CMSs out there, but it is also very easy to use and configure.

It simply depends on who leads the project and whether there are people, who know usability. It can happen both in large companies and in open source. Now, how many samples do you have to compare? 100? 1000? 100k?

#3 Guest_joedolson_*

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 10:55 PM

I think there's no question that the team leading the project has a huge impact - and that this applies to both open source and in-house projects. After all, when Microsoft AdCenter first launched it was notably not accessible to anybody but IE6 users: that's certainly not an open source project.

Personally, I'm uncertain that it's possible to really qualify a statement like that - can anybody really provide a sufficient quantity of examples to demonstrate that open source means harder to use?

Linux is famously more difficult to install and use than, for example, Windows. An operating system, however, is not necessarily a good example - the scope of programming required for such a system is so great that a non-business model can be extremely difficult to sustain and manage!

#4 projectphp

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 11:19 PM

Linux install is harder becuase chip makers are reticent to make drivers available, or at least specs so linux devs can write 'em themselves.

Wordpress is the best example: not only is the install painless an easy, but they even give you a lettle to email your host to get the right details.

Talk about easy to use!

#5 vangogh

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Posted 09 January 2007 - 02:29 AM

I think in some cases it depends on who the intended audience is. With something like Linux it's often been power users developing for other power users. When everyone developing and using the OS prefers to use the command line over a GUI then you're not going to have as much go into the GUI.

I think now that more people are or at least are wanting to adopt Linux it is becoming much more user friendly.

I think the WordPress example is a good one. I've performed my share of installations and it has to be the easiest and most painless install I've ever encountered. They also provide some good and comprehensive documentation in the codex.

In the case of WordPress the end user isn't a power user and so more work goes into usability.

I don't think Linux suffers from a lack of usability. I would think it's core group of users finds it far more usable than Windows.

#6 Ruud

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Posted 09 January 2007 - 09:26 AM

I've experienced poor usability in both open and closed source.

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...

Blanket statements, if you want my opinion. As logical as "open source software is more/less secure" ;)

#7 Guest_joedolson_*

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Posted 09 January 2007 - 11:36 AM

Glad to see that other's opinions are generally lining up with mine...his statement struck me as over generalizing.

Perhaps, 5 years ago, in the infancy of the open source movement, the statement could have been provable (not necessarily true: just something that could be demonstrated and proved in one way or another), but today I think that the sheer quantity of open source software - much of which is designed by professional software programmers in their off hours - just makes for a vast variety of resources.

I think your point is very good, Ruud, that the perception of "usability" has to do somewhat with cost...those programs which require 1000 hours of expensive training programs to use MUST be written with usability in mind, right? ;)

#8 DCrx

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Posted 09 January 2007 - 11:42 AM

OpenUsability seems to be a response to concerns about open source usability.

Season of Usability 2006/2007 is part of a series of sponsored student projects to encourage students of usability, user-interface design, and interaction design to get involved with Freee/Libre/Open-Source Software (FLOSS) projects.

FLOSS offers an excellent way to gain experience in the interdisciplinary and collaborative development of user interface solutions in international software projects. During a three-month cooperation, you will closely work together with experienced professionals and get insights in to their way of work.
-- Season of Usability 2006/2007


I think it has been acknowledged that Linux on the desktop efforts depend on breaking out of the programmers making things for other programmers mode.

GUI tools and voluminous manuals are not enough. You have to think about what the actual user experiences when he or she sits down to do actual stuff, and you have to think about it from the user's point of view. The CUPS people, despite good intentions, have utterly failed at this.
-- The Luxury of Ignorance: An Open-Source Horror Story


Open Source Usability: The birth of a movement outlines the recognition for change, clearly sensitive to usability issues. Given these efforts, I think the movement deserves some recognition and even a degree of encouragement.

Edited by DCrx, 09 January 2007 - 11:44 AM.


#9 whitemark

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Posted 11 January 2007 - 11:24 AM

I completely agree - most open source application interface suck big time. Perhaps a big reason could be that there aren't (m)any professional designers contributing to the movement - afterall, 'open source' has largely been associated with programming and coding and freebies ...

#10 AbleReach

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Posted 11 January 2007 - 01:04 PM

To start with, I think open source is more likely to hit public use when it is still beta enough to be unfinished. The same is true for other non-commercial licenses.

Using non-commercial software is a bit like exploring the buffet at a potluck picnic. Some contributors forget to bring a serving implement. Some of the food will be just plain odd or it will behave in unexpected ways.

As for open source stuff I use every day, I've been perfectly happy with Firefox, as well as Open Office's word processor. ;-)

#11 jules2006

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Posted 12 January 2007 - 10:19 AM

I have thought about this issue recently actually whilst looking for some ecommerce software for a client. Usability IS going to be an issue simply because we're going to be judged on conversions, not just delivering traffic. Now, wilst taking the usability issue apart piece by piece and looking at the more recent reports, it begs the question as to whether or not the developers of these open source packages pay a huge amount of attention to whats happening in the usability niche? The have a hard enough time with being SEO friendly and making sure all the plugins work etc etc....I'm not convinced to be honest, and any solution which serves as a base then added onto is going to have restrictions......I can see why many 'top' brands build their ecommerce solutions from the ground up

#12 ogletree

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Posted 12 January 2007 - 11:18 AM

I agree I have seen poor usability in both. Wordpress is probably the best open source software out there. It is so easy to use. It is also very blind friendly.

#13 Guest_joedolson_*

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Posted 12 January 2007 - 11:24 AM

Actually, the usability of applications which have a base that you add plugins into has great potential. In my experience so far, the open source solutions can be harder to work with for a developer, but have a greater potential for both good usability and bad, because they're more flexible.

But if we're going to talk about the usability of open source software, we really have to talk about the default administrative setup: how easy is it to install, configure, etc. In the case of most web solutions (ecommerce, blogging, etc.), the user base being referenced in this context is actually the developer - not the end user.

Most web packages can be configured VERY extensively on the front end, so that usability isn't directly part of the usability of the software. The developer's end is more relevant - since that part is rarely reconfigured. On the other hand, there are limits to the software - and if you are unable to accomplish certain task which would make the inteface easier to use, that's a problem.

The customization inherent in web package implementations makes it very difficult to judge the inherent usability of one package versus another - if it's customizable, then two installations are not comparable. One developer may have created a monster with a great software package, the other may have done the best work they possibly could with a crappy one - and neither version could end up being particularly usable.

It's a tough call!

#14 jscroft

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Posted 23 March 2007 - 06:29 PM

This is an interesting thread.

Here's a question... does it make sense to talk about the usability of what is effectively a development platform? I'm thinking WordPress and the like.

Of course the answer is YES, but I could observe that there's a distinction to be made between the usability of the platform and that of applications created on top of it.

DotNetNuke is a great case in point. (For the uninitiated, DNN is an ASP.NET-based open cource CMS.) I wrestled for months to learn the system and get it properly configured, and the learning curve was very steep. Now that I've licked it, though, my portal network contains a growing list of beautifully usable sites... The Dead Hand and Profit Rank are good examples.

I think what we're up against is the reality of complexity, as somebody pointed out a little bit up the page. Development platforms are by definition more or less infinitely configurable. Because they can do so much, it can be a bit of a challenge to get them to do anything.

Of course, the reverse also holds true: the more constrained a system is, the less complex it isóread, the more usableóbut the price is that you can do less with it.

Food for thought, anyway.

#15 bwelford

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Posted 23 March 2007 - 06:51 PM

Welcome to the Forums, jscroft. :wave:

We look forward to your contributions. Enjoy yourself. :D

#16 Guest_joedolson_*

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Posted 23 March 2007 - 07:00 PM

Of course, the reverse also holds true: the more constrained a system is, the less complex it isóread, the more usableóbut the price is that you can do less with it.


To some degree, it relates to the question of function versus features: by adding more features, you cause a product to become useful in more ways, but you make it more difficult to learn those uses.

Welcome to Cre8asite, Jason!



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