I wish I could convert the Linux box that sits in my old bedroom in Ohio into a "workstation" for my parents. Right now they share my Dad's Gateway notebook from work. It runs Windows 98. It came with Windows 2000 but my Dad installed Windows 98 over it. And he hates Windows.

So when I read this story of jwz's Mom always misplacing her documents, I thought of my Mom. She doesn't know how computers work and doesn't care. Like most of the computer using world, she does e-mail (Eudora) and occasionally uses a browser or an Office application. That's it.

I'm sure that jwz's mother has more computer smarts than mine. And the funny thing is that most mothers aren't terribly adept at using computers. Why? Not because computers need to be difficult, but nobody designs software for them. Why is the way we save documents different than the way we locate them later? It makes little sense.

This got me thinking about that old Linux box again. Why can't I at least get my Dad off Windows and make him happy? He'd be lost. Most of the Open Source software is no better than, say Windows, and worse yet it's never been subjected to a usability study.

Usability studies are rare in the Open Source world. But they needn't be. Instead of simply cloning the difficult interfaces that commercial organizations have been producing, Open Source developers have a chance to create something that's actually easy to use and powerful.

If you're involved with an Open Source project that produces a GUI app that's supposed to be used by "normal people," try putting some normal people in front of it. Get your Mom to try it out. Don't explain how it works (that's cheating). Just ask her to perform basic tasks with it--just like normal people in the real world do.

It's that easy. Don't stop until you parents and their friends can use it effortlessly. You'll have a killer application on your hands. Don't believe me? Try reading any of Jakob Nielsen's books or articles. He's proved time and again the the vast majority of user interface problems are uncovered with just a few brief tests. You don't need to pay thousands of dollars to usability consultants to get almost all the way there.

Some people think that usability is very costly and complex and that user tests should be reserved for the rare web design project with a huge budget and a lavish time schedule. Not true. Elaborate usability tests are a waste of resources. The best results come from testing no more than 5 users and running as many small tests as you can afford.

I wish I knew why so few people in the Open Source world seem to care.

Of course, the most common response to suggestions like this is that by making it easy for Mom to use, you're somehow dumbing down the software. People need to get smarter in order to use these complex machines. I really don't understand where anyone got the idea that easy to use things are for dumb people. My Mom isn't dumb. She just doesn't care about the difference between the "desktop" and the "explorer." Why should she. All she wants to do is send me e-mail to let me know that Dad has finally started to clean the basement.

My biggest fear is that the Open Source Ego Problem will suck up more time and effort than trying to build good, stable, fast, usable software that's better than what we have today--not simply a free clone (for whatever version of "free" you happen to like most).

Posted by jzawodn at December 31, 2002 02:21 PM

Reader Comments
# Me said:

It's true, usability is critical. But don't get down on open source devs. Even Microsoft doesn't do much usability testing and they're the ones who claim they do it the most. As a former Microsoft software designer on an Office app (that could use some serious usablity testing), the usability labs at MS are ghost towns. Sometimes they are used seriously, but in general, getting someone at MS to even give a head-fake to usability is a big win. And then getting the designers to react to the data from them is even harder. Just like any software developer thinks, "anyone who can't use their software has no business using a computer in the first place". Software developers are still an elitist bunch, open or closed source. Sad, but true. We need competition.

on December 31, 2002 05:57 PM
# Michael said:

It's called a Mac. Been around since the 1980s. My 68-year-old Mom - who had never touched a computer outside of a library one and half years ago - is now an emailing and web-surfing fool. And I never, ever have to tell her how to do stuff.

on January 5, 2003 10:46 PM
# rchoppin said:

The author seems to be unaware of the kde usability work that has been going on for some time. All of his issues are addressed by this group that deals with ALL of the KDE oriented utilities and programs released with the KDE desktop.

on January 6, 2003 11:46 AM
# Martin said:

I recently installed Suse 8.1 pro on a PC and created a log-in for my 8 and 9 year old children. And they love it. I just showed them once how to log-in and how to log-off and shut down. All the rest is extremely easy for them.
By the way: I am using KDE.

on January 8, 2003 04:08 AM
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