What Open Source Software has Good Usability?

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Are you interested in software usability and open source? If so, my friend Jim would like your help. He is doing a study of usability in Open Source software. I’ll post his entire request below along with a link to his blog. Also, he’ll probably be doing some other interent based interolocution about this; I’ll pass on to you whatever he passes on to me.

Here’s the thing. Jim has been involved in Open Source software for a long time, and is the creator of FreeDOS, and it doesn’t get much geekier than that. (I think the FreeDOS developers manual may be written in a dialect of Klingon.) What he’s looking for is a good example of Open Source software (any platform, does not have to be Linux) that has a medium amount of complexity that can be served up for analysis of positive and negative (but mainly positive) aspects of usability. I’m going to suggest the following list for consideration:

Open Office Writer
The Gimp
Shotwell or Digikam
an IM client

This list runs from way complex on the top to (probably) way simple at the bottom. I would think that a study needs to be of more than the simplest applications because there won’t be enough to work with. (These are mostly GUI based applications; not sure if Jim is looking for any cli applications. VLC is certainly both.)

Have a look at Jim’s criteria below and make a few suggestions. The list above is just to get the brain juices going.

Here’s Jim’s RFI:

What programs have good usability?

I want to ask for your help in my study.

For my study, I want to do a “deep dive” on usability in open source software. After speaking with several “thought leaders,” my thinking now is that it’s better to do a case study, a usability critical analysis on an open source software program that has good usability. The results will be a discussion about why that program has good usability, and what makes good usability, so that other open source programmers can mimic the good parts.

I’ll also discuss what features are not good usability examples, so programmers can avoid those mistakes. But the focus will be more on the good and less on the bad.

Picking the right open source program is a tricky thing. The ideal program should be not too big (for example, very complex menus can “lose” the audience in the details) but neither should it be too small (a trivial program will not provide as valuable of results). The program should be approachable by general users.

There’s no reason the program needs to be a Linux program. However, I prefer that the case study be of an open source program. Many open source programs also exist for Windows and MacOSX.

The original blog, which you should visit, is HERE.

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21 thoughts on “What Open Source Software has Good Usability?

  1. Does Chromium (open source bits of Google Chrome) count?
    Seashore (GIMP light, with easier UI)
    TaskCoach (an intuitive task manager)
    HandBrake (GPL-licensed, multiplatform, multithreaded video transcoder)

  2. What about the Unity desktop for Ubuntu? It’s _supposed_ to be designed for usability yet many people (me included) loathe it with a passion. I think it would be well worth studying in this context – Why do some people find it intuitive and others unfathomable?

  3. Kdenlive is quite high in features and has a very good usability level. Like most things it has a learning curve, but it’s quite well thought out and presented.

    Ignoring the boring and tedious (this is aimed at wobbly cardboard boy above) I’d also suggest Handbrake, a video encoding application, as suggested by Brian Crounse.

  4. Keep the suggestions coming!

    Regarding Greg’s comment/question: I am looking for GUI programs, not command-line programs or programs that use text mode or “TUI” (i.e. stuff you can run at a regular terminal).

    So programs like gedit and Shotwell or Chromium are along the lines that I am hoping for.

    In the usability test, we’ll ask participants to sit at a computer and run through several exercises that are typical for that program. For example, to test gedit, we might ask testers to type a few short paragraphs of text (provided), start a new tab, search & replace text, print, change the default font, etc.

  5. Only use opensource. Here are the ones I have been using for years without serious complaint:
    Cinnamon desktop environment
    Libreoffice (Writer, Calc, Draw. The database is terrible.)
    Linux Mint OS

  6. My computer would be useless without these easy-to-use applications:

    LibreOffice Writer/Calc

    Some indispensable command line programs (a but tedious to run, but once you know the options, no problem):


  7. There is an argument to be made that all OpenSoruce software that is reasonably well developed will have higher usability than commercial software, with a few exceptions.

  8. I’d have to go with Gedit as my idea of usable; I may be confusing ‘usable’ with ‘customizable’. – a distinction that isn’t one, perhaps.

  9. “Usable” means that the software can be used easily by a user. For example, can a general user with an “average” skill set perform typical activities in the program? If users experience difficulty in using the software to do those tasks, the software has poor usability.

    Usability is different from “Accessibility,” which supports users who have particular disabilities. Visual accessibility would support users who have limited vision or are blind.

    I agree that gedit is a good example of usability. I wonder if it’s too simple of a program to make a good usability test case? I’m not sure on that one. (I certainly wouldn’t include something so trivial as the Notepad in Windows, but gedit does way more than Notepad yet seems easy to use.)

  10. I’d disagree, though, with Greg’s assertion that all open source software (that is reasonably well developed) will have higher usability than commercial software. I’ve met with a lot of “thought leaders” in usability (Ginny Redish, etc.) and open source software (Eric Raymond, etc.) as part of this effort, and all agree that software in general suffers from poor usability. Open source software usability is no different than proprietary, closed source software.

    At best, open source software has the same usability problems as closed source stuff. At worst, open source software has worse usability in general because most open source developers (myself included, BTW) tend to focus on the functionality and the features, and don’t give much though to the user interface – and many high-profile commercial programs go through a formal usability process as part of the product development lifecycle.

  11. Jim, I’m sure you’re right in general, but I can think of one powerful counter example. The basic word processor. This might be just me, but with a few tweaks here and there the old system of having a set of menus with functions divided into basic categories of file, edit, format, etc. emerged and stabilized years ago. That was good functionality. I could be wrong, but the total change away from that paradigm around Windows 7, which has gone even farther in recent versions of Microsoft Office, seems to me to be marketing driven and not following the philophy of merely tweaking and mostly preserving stuff that basically works. So, today, Libra Office Writer is usable by anyone, MS Word is only usable by people who get re-trained to use it.

    To put a finer point on it, my hypothesis is that MS Office in particular is market-design driven and not usability driven.

    Of course, a good procedure might be to develop litmus tests for your subjects. Show every one Gnome 2.0 and Unity and divide them, thusly, into two fundementally different kinds of test subject. I’ll bet the latter like the new MS Office and the former like Libra Office.

    There is also a potential tradeoff between function and usability. I was trying to rotate some text in a spreadsheet I was developing for Apple’s Numbers the other day, could not figure out how. At first I attributed this to living in a different usability paradigm from Apple, but eventually found out that that basic function of all spreadsheets (i would say virtually indispensable) hadn’t been implemented yet in that software. Otherwise it’s very “usable” though.

  12. Although it is a windows program, Notepad++ deserves to get a mention IMO. It does a pretty good job of being very powerful yet still simple for simple stuff.

    Personally, I’m a VI person though;) In fact, I find myself ‘of a previous generation’ when it comes to what sort of UIs I favor. It is important to try account for this effect when evaluating what is a good UI vs a poor UI.

    It seems a lot of the larger good programs are really only good because they mimic a fairly familiar interface. OpenOffice and Gimp pop to mind.

    The Ubuntu installer (and perhaps other distros which I haven’t tried recently) would go on my list of good UI, mainly because most everyone else does it wrong IMO.

    Chromium is pretty great IMO. Simple yet it offers more power and introspection than other big browsers. Firefox requires plugins to match it.

    “Simple for simple stuff” really is a key. I think that statement is actually from some code library’s documentation.

    Another key is the ability to fairly easily see what option/features/powers are available.

    IMO, Ubuntu’s Unity is missing this by default due to it’s lack of a traditional menu.

    Yes, it is important to hide them to some degree to avoid overload confusion, but they have to be visible without digging too deeply so that you know they are there (and UI designers should never rely on RTFM with respect to users figuring out *what* a program can do… RTFM is ok, to a degree, for *how* to do rare or complex things). Doesn’t everyone click on the “Advanced” tab at least once to see what’s there;)

    Overall, the open-source community has a problem with UI standards (as in rules). IMO, this is largely a function of how annoying it is to write code for a GUI, and programming tools like GLADE could be a powerful way to encourage standardization if an effort was put into that.

    BTW: Apple is downright draconian about GUI standards, perhaps too much since fitting some tasks into their scheme ends up being unintuitive.

  13. I like to add

    Recoll desktop search

    Look at the software center`s ratings for more 😉

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