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