Monday, March 27, 2017

Testing LibreOffice 5.3 Notebookbar

I teach an online CSCI class about usability. The course is "The Usability of Open Source Software" and provides a background on free software and open source software, and uses that as a basis to teach usability. The rest of the class is a pretty standard CSCI usability class. We explore a few interesting cases in open source software as part of our discussion. And using open source software makes it really easy for the students to pick a program to study for their usability test final project.

I structured the class so that we learn about usability in the first half of the semester, then we practice usability in the second half. And now we are just past the halfway point.

Last week, my students worked on a usability test "mini-project." This is a usability test with one tester. By itself, that's not very useful. But the intention is for the students to experience what it's like to moderate their own usability test before they work on their usability test final project. In this way, the one-person usability test is intended to be a "dry run."

For the one-person usability test, every student moderates the same usability test on the same program. We are using LibreOffice 5.3 in Notebookbar View in Contextual Groups mode. (And LibreOffice released version 5.3.1 just before we started the usability test, but fortunately the user interface didn't change, at least in Notebookbar-Contextual Groups.) Students worked together to write scenario tasks for the usability test, and I selected eight of those scenario tasks.

By using the same scenario tasks on the same program, with one tester each, we can combine results to build an overall picture of LibreOffice's usability with the new user interface. Because the test was run by different moderators, this isn't statistically useful if you are writing an academic paper, and it's of questionable value as a qualitative measure. But I thought it would be interesting to share the results.

First, let's look at the scenario tasks. We started with one persona: an undergraduate student at a liberal arts university. Each student in my class contributed two use scenarios for LibreOffice 5.3, and three scenario tasks for each scenario. That gave a wide field of scenario tasks. There was quite a bit of overlap. And there was some variation on quality, with some great scenario tasks and some not-so-great scenario tasks.

I grouped the scenario tasks into themes, and selected eight scenario tasks that suited a "story" of a student working on a paper: a simple lab write-up for an Introduction to Physics class. I did minimal editing of the scenario tasks; I tried to leave them as-is. Most of the scenario tasks were of high quality. I included a few not-great scenario tasks so students could see how the quality of the scenario task can impact the quality of your results. So keep that in mind.

These are the scenario tasks we used. In addition to these tasks, students provided a sample lab report (every tester started with the same document) and a sample image. Every test was run in LibreOffice 5.3 or 5.3.1, which was already set to use Notebookbar View in Contextual Groups mode:
1. You’re writing a lab report for your Introduction to Physics class, but you need to change it to meet your professors formatting requirements. Change your text to use Times New Roman 12 pt. and center your title

2. There is a requirement of double spaced lines in MLA. The paper defaults to single spaced and needs to be adjusted. Change paper to double spaced.

3. After going through the paragraphs, you would like to add your drawn image at the top of your paper. Add the image stored at velocitydiagram.jpg to the top of the paper.

4. Proper header in the Document. Name, class, and date are needed to receive a grade for the week.

5. You've just finished a physics lab and have all of your data written out in a table in your notebook. The data measures the final velocity of a car going down a 1 meter ramp at 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 degrees. Your professor wants your lab report to consist of a table of this data rather than hand-written notes. There’s a note in the document that says where to add the table.

[task also provided a 2×5 table of sample lab data]

6. You are reviewing your paper one last time before turning it into your professor. You notice some spelling errors which should not be in a professional paper. Correct the multiple spelling errors.

7. You want to save your notes so that you can look back on them when studying for the upcoming test. Save the document.

8. The report is all done! It is time to turn it in. However, the professor won’t accept Word documents and requires a PDF. Export the document as a PDF.
If those don't seem very groundbreaking, remember the point of the usability test "mini-project" was for the students to experience moderating their own usability test. I'd rather they make mistakes here, so they can learn from them before their final project.

Since each usability test was run with one tester, and we all used the same scenario tasks on the same version of LibreOffice, we can collate the results. I prefer to use a heat map to display the results of a usability test. The heat map doesn't replace the prose description of the usability test (what worked v what were the challenges) but the heat map does provide a quick overview that allows focused discussion of the results.

In a heat map, each scenario task is on a separate row, and each tester is in a separate column. At each cell, if the tester was able to complete the task with little or no difficulty, you add a green block. Use yellow for some difficulty, and orange for greater difficulty. If the tester really struggled to complete the task, use a red block. Use black if the task was so difficult the tester was unable to complete the task.

Here's our heat map, based on fourteen students each moderating a one-person usability test (a "dry run" test) using the same scenario tasks for LibreOffice 5.3 or 5.3.1:

A few things about this heat map:

Hot rows show you where to focus

Since scenario tasks are on rows, and testers are on columns, you read a heat map by looking across each row and looking for lots of "hot" items. Look for lots of black, red, or orange. Those are your "hot" rows. And rows that have a lot of green and maybe a little yellow are "cool" rows.

In this heat map, I'm seeing the most "hot" items in setting double space (#2), adding a table (#5) and checking spelling (#6). Maybe there's something in adding a header (#4) but this scenario task wasn't worded very well, so the problems here might be because of the scenario task.

So if I were a LibreOffice developer, and I did this usability test to examine the usability of MUFFIN, I would probably put most of my focus to make it easier to set double space, add tables, and check spelling. I wouldn't worry too much about adding an image, since that's mostly green. Same for saving, and saving as PDF.

The heat map doesn't replace prose description of themes

What's behind the "hot" rows? What were the testers trying to do, when they were working on these tasks? The heat map doesn't tell you that. The heat map isn't a replacement for prose text. Most usability results need to include a section about "What worked well" and "What needs improvement." The heat map doesn't replace that prose section. But it does help you to identify the areas that worked well vs the areas that need further refinement.

That discussion of themes is where you would identify that task 4 (Add a header) wasn't really a "hot" row. It looks interesting on the heat map, but this wasn't a problem area for LibreOffice. Instead, testers had problems understanding the scenario task. "Did the task want me to just put the text at the start of the document, or at the top of each page?" So results were inconsistent here. (That was expected, as this "dry run" test was a learning experience for my students. I intentionally included some scenario tasks that weren't great, so they would see for themselves how the quality of their scenario tasks can influence their test.)

Different versions are grouped together

LibreOffice released version 5.3.1 right before we started our usability test. Some students had already downloaded 5.3, and some ended up with 5.3.1. I didn't notice any user interface changes for the UI paths exercised by our scenario tasks, but did the new version have an impact?

I've sorted the results based on 5.3.1 off to the right. See the headers to see which columns represent LibreOffice 5.3 and which are 5.3.1. I don't see any substantial difference between them. The "hot" rows from 5.3 are still "hot" in 5.3.1, and the "cool" rows are still "cool."

You might use a similar method to compare different iterations of a user interface. As your program progresses from 1.0 to 1.1 to 1.2, etc, you can compare the same scenario tasks by organizing your data in this way.

You could also group different testers together

The heat map also lets you discuss testers. What happened with tester #7? There's a lot of orange and yellow in that column, even for tasks (rows) that fared well with other testers. In this case, the interview revealed that tester was having a bad day, and came into the test feeling "grumpy" and likely was impatient about any problems encountered in the test.

You can use these columns to your advantage. In this test, all testers were drawn from the same demographic: a university student around 18-22 years old, who had some to "moderate" experience with Word or Google Docs, but not LibreOffice.

But if your usability test intentionally included a variety of experience levels (a group of "beginner" users, "moderate" users, and "experienced" users) you might group these columns appropriately in the heat map. So rather than grouping by version (as above) you could have one set of columns for "beginner" testers, another set of columns for "moderate" testers and a third group for "experienced" testers.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

LibreOffice 5.3.1 is out

Last week, LibreOffice released version 5.3.1. This seems to be an incremental release over 5.3 and doesn't seem to change the new user interface in any noticeable way.

This is both good and bad news for me. As you know, I have been experimenting with LibreOffice 5.3 since LibreOffice updated the user interface. Version 5.3 introduced the "MUFFIN" interface. MUFFIN stands for My User Friendly Flexible INterface. Because someone clearly wanted that acronym to spell "MUFFIN." The new interface is still experimental, so you'll need to activate it through Settings→Advanced. When you restart LibreOffice, you can use the View menu to change modes.

So on the one hand, I'm very excited for the new release!

But on the other hand, the timing is not great. Next week would have been better. Clearly, LibreOffice did not have my interests in mind when they made this release.

You see, I teach an online CSCI class about the Usability of Open Source Software. Really, it's just a standard CSCI usability class. The topic is open source software because there are some interesting usability cases there that bear discussion. And it allows students to pick their own favorite open source software project that they use in a real usability test for their final project.

This week, we are doing a usability test "mini-project." This is a "dry run" for the students to do their own usability test for the first time. Each student is doing the test with one participant each, but using the same program. We're testing the new user interface in LibreOffice 5.3, using Notebookbar in Contexttual Groups mode.

So we did all this work to prep for the usability test "mini-project" using LibreOffice 5.3, only for the project to release version 5.3.1 right before we do the test. So that's great timing, there.

But I kid. And the new version 5.3.1 seems to have the same user interface path in Notebookbar-Contextual Groups. So our test should bear the same results in 5.3 or 5.3.1.

This is an undergraduate class project, and will not generate statistically significant results like a formal usability test in academic research. But the results of our test may be useful, nonetheless. I'll share an overview of our results next week.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Will miss GUADEC 2017

Registration is now open for GUADEC 2017! This year, the GNOME Users And Developers European Conference (GUADEC) will be hosted in beautiful Manchester, UK between 28th July and 2nd August.

Unfortunately, I can't make it.

I work in local government, and just like last year, GUADEC falls during our budget time at the county. Our county budget is on a biennium. That means during an "on" year, we make our budget proposals for the next two years. In the "off" year, we share a budget status.

I missed GUADEC last year because I was giving a budget status in our "off" year. And guess what? This year, department budget presentations again happen during GUADEC.

During GUADEC, I'll be making our budget proposal for IT. This is our one opportunity to share with the Board our budget priorities for the next two years, and to defend any budget adjustment. I can't miss this meeting.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Learn Linux

Recently, a student asked me about career options after graduation. This person was interested in options that involved open source software, other than a "developer" position. Because this blog is about open source software, I thought you might be interested in an excerpt of my recommendation:
These days, if you want to get a job as a systems administrator, I recommend learning Linux. Linux administrators are in high demand in pretty much any metro area. In the Twin Cities metro area, it's hard not to have a job if you know Linux.

Red Hat is the most popular Linux distribution for the enterprise. So if you learn one Linux system, learn Red Hat Linux. While it's okay to use GUI tools to manage Linux, you should know how to maintain Red Hat Linux without a GUI. Because when you're running a server, you won't have a GUI.

A good way to learn this is to install Linux (Red Hat Linux, but Fedora can be "close enough") and run it in runlevel 3. Set up a cheap PC in your house and use it as an NFS and CIFS file server. Install a web server on it. Set up DNS on it. Learn how to edit config files at the command line. How to partition, format, and mount a disk (even a USB flash drive) from the command line. How to install packages from the command line. Learn how to write Bash scripts to automate things.

If you want a book, try Linux Systems Administration by O'Reilly Press. For formal training, I recommend Red Hat Sys Admin I and Red Hat Sys Admin II.
My advice mirrors my own background. My undergraduate degree was in physics, with a major in mathematics, yet I managed a successful career in IT. For me, it was about following my interests, and doing what I enjoyed doing. There's nothing like getting paid to do something you wanted to do anyway.

When I got my first job, I was a Unix systems administrator for a small geographics company. We used a very old Unix system called Apollo AEGIS/DomainOS, but had a few HP-UX and SunOS systems. I introduced a few Linux systems to do back-office work like DNS, YP, LPD, etc. My second job was a working manager for a document management company, and while we were mostly AIX, HP-UX and Novell, I installed Linux to run our core "backoffice" services (DNS, file, web, etc). At my third job (working manager at a Big-Ten University) we ran a mix of systems, including AIX and Solaris, but I replaced some of our "Big Iron" AIX systems with Linux to save our web registration system.

From there, was promoted into larger roles and greater responsibility, so left my systems administration roots behind. At least, professionally. I still run Linux at home, and I maintain my own Linux server to run a few personal websites.

But I still remember my start as a Unix and Linux systems administrator. I was fortunate that my first boss took a chance on me, and let me learn on the job. That first boss was a supportive mentor, and helped me understand the importance of learning the ropes, of understanding how to do something at the command line before you can use the "shortcut" of a GUI tool. So I encourage others to do the same. Yes, modern Linux has lots of GUI tools to make things easy. But it's better to know how to do it "the old fashioned way" as well.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Open source branding

I recently discovered this 2016 article from about branding in open source software. The article encourages projects to kill off extra brand names to help your project get recognized.

The article describes the issue in more detail, but here's a summary:
Let's say you are the maintainer for an open source software project, which I'll make up. Let's call it the Wibbler Framework.

Maybe this is a website builder. Developers can use Wibbler to create awesome, dynamic websites really easily. Wibbler is based around different modules that you can load on your website to do different things.

One day, you get a great idea for a new chart display component. So you spend the weekend writing a module that provides a super simple way for websites to display data in different formats.

You think the new module is pretty cool, so you give it a name: ChartZen.
Pretty realistic scenario, right?

But the problem is this: you've added an extra "brand" to your project. When new users find your project, they are confused. Is it Wibbler, or is it ChartZen? How does ChartZen connect to Wibbler? Do I need to get Wibbler if I just want to use ChartZen? Do I need to run two different servers, one to run Wibbler and another for ChartZen?

By adding the second name, you've confused the original project.

It gets worse if you continue to add new "branding" to every new module. If you continue to add new names for every new module, you end you with a confusing forest of competing "brands": Wibbler, ChartZen, AwesomeEdit, FontForce, FormsNirvana, DBConnSupreme, and Pagepaint.

It's better to just name each component after the main Wibbler project. Keep the Wibbler brand intact. ChartZen becomes "Wibbler Charts," which is easier to remember anyway. And it's immediately clear what "Wibbler Charts" does: it's a component for Wibbler that makes charts. Similarly, you also have "Wibbler Editor," "Wibbler Font Picker," "Wibbler Forms," "Wibbler Database Connector," and "Wibbler Page Designer."

How do you manage your open source software project's "brand"? Do you have different names for different components? Or do you maintain one core "brand" that everything connects to?

Sunday, February 26, 2017

How to get started in open source software

A friend pointed me to the Open Source Guides website, a collection of resources for individuals, communities, and companies who want to learn how to run and contribute to an open source project. I thought it was very interesting for new contributors, so I thought I'd share it here.

The website provides lots of information about starting or joining an open source project. There's lots to read, but I hope that doesn't seem like too much for people interested in getting started in open source software. Open Source Guides has several sections for new developers:
  1. How to Contribute to Open Source
  2. Starting an Open Source Pro ject
  3. Finding Users For Your Project
  4. Building Welcoming Communities
  5. Best Practices for Maintainers
  6. Leadership and Governance
  7. Getting Paid for Open Source Work
  8. Your Code of Conduct
  9. Open Source Metrics
  10. The Legal Side of Open Source
I'm not connected with Open Source Guides, but I think it's a great idea!

Of course, there are other ways to learn about open source software, how to get involved and how to start your own project. Eric Raymond's essay series The Cathedral and the Bazaar are the typical go-to examples about open source software. Along similar lines, has a very brief primer on open source contributor guidelines. And there are countless other articles and books I could mention here, including a few articles written by me.

But I'm interested in the open source software community, and anything that helps new folks get started in open source software will help the community grow. So if you're interested in getting involved in open source software, I encourage you to read the Open Source Guides.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Top open source projects

TechRadar recently posted an article about "The best open source software 2017" where they list a few of their favorite open source software projects. It's really hard for an open source software project to become popular if it has poor usability—so I thought I'd add a few quick comments of my own about each.

Here you go:

The best open source office software: LibreOffice

LibreOffice hasn't changed its user interface very substantially for a very long time. In the recent LibreOffice 5.3 release, they introduced a new interface option, which they call the MUFFIN (My User Friendly Flexible INterface).

The new interface has several modes, including Single Toolbar, Sidebar, and Notebookbar. The last mode, Notebookbar, is interesting. This is very similar in concept to the Microsoft Office Ribbon. People who come from an Office background and are used to how Ribbon behaves, and how it changes based on what you are working on, should like the Notebookbar setting.

To comment on the new interface: I think this is an interesting and welcome direction for LibreOffice. I don't think the current user interface is bad, but I think the proposed changes are a positive step forward. The new MUFFIN interface is flexible and supports users they way they want to use LibreOffice. I think it will appeal to current and new users, and "lower the bar" for users to come to LibreOffice from Microsoft Office.

The best open source photo editor: GIMP

I use GIMP at home for a lot of projects. Most often, I use GIMP to create and edit images for my websites, including the FreeDOS Project website. Although we've recently turned to SVG where possible on the FreeDOS website, for years all our graphics were made in the GIMP.

A few years ago, I asked readers to suggest programs that have good usability (I also solicited feedback through colleagues via their blogs and their readers). Many people talked about GIMP, the open source graphics program (very similar to Photoshop). There were some strong statements on either side: About half said it had good usability, and about half said it had bad usability.

In following up, it seemed that two types of users thought GIMP had poor usability: Those who used Photoshop a lot, such as professional graphics editors or photographers. Those who never used Photoshop, and only tried GIMP because they needed a graphics program.

So GIMP is an interesting case. It's an example of mimicking another program perhaps too well, but (necessarily) not perfectly. GIMP has good usability if you have used Photoshop occasionally, but not if you are an expert in Photoshop, and not if you are a complete Photoshop novice.

The best open source media player: VLC

I haven't used VLC, part of the VideoLAN project, in a few years. I just don't watch movies on my computer. But looking at the screenshots I see today, I can see VLC has made major strides in ease of use.

The menus seem obvious, and the buttons are plain and simple. There isn't much decoration to the application (it doesn't need it) yet it seems polished. Good job!

The best open source video editor: Shotcut

This is a new project for me. I have recorded a few YouTube videos for my private channel, but they're all very simple: just me doing a demo of something (usually related to FreeDOS, such as how to install FreeDOS.) Because my videos aren't very complicated, I just use the YouTube editor to "trim" the start and end of my videos.

Shotcut seems quite complicated to me, at first glance. Even TechRadar seems to agree, commenting "It might look a little stark at first, but add some of the optional toolbars and you'll soon have its most powerful and useful features your your fingertips."

I'm probably not the right audience for Shotcut. Video is just not my interest area. And it's okay for a project to target a particular audience, if they are well suited to that audience.

The best open source audio editor: Audacity

I used Audacity many years ago, probably when it was still a young project. But even then, I remember Audacity as being fairly straightforward to use. For someone (like me) who occasionally wanted to edit a sound file, Audacity was easy to learn on my own. And the next time I used Audacity, perhaps weeks later, I quickly remembered the path to the features I needed.

Those two features (Learnability and Memorability) are two important features of good usability. We learn about this topic when I teach my online class about usability. The five key characteristics of Usability are: Learnability, Efficiency, Memorability, Error Rates, and Satisfaction. Although that last one is getting close to "User eXperience" ("UX") which is not the same as Usability.

The best open source web browser: Firefox

Firefox is an old web browser, but still feels fresh. I use Firefox on an almost daily basis (when I don't use Firefox, I'm usually in Google Chrome.)

I did usability testing on Firefox a few years ago, and found it does well in several areas:

Familiarity: Firefox tries to blend well with other applications on the same operating system. If you're using Linux, Firefox looks like other Linux applications. When you're on a Mac, Firefox looks like a Mac application. This is important, because UI lessons that you learn in one application will carry over to Firefox on the same platform.

Consistency: Features within Firefox are accessed in a similar way and perform in a similar way, so you aren't left feeling like the program is a mash of different coders.

Obviousness: When an action produces an obvious result, or clearly indicated success, users feel comfortable because they understand what the program is doing. They can see the result of their actions.

The best open source email client: Thunderbird

Maybe I shouldn't say this, but I haven't used a desktop email client in several years. I now use Gmail exclusively.

However, the last desktop email client I used was definitely Thunderbird. And I remember it being very nice. Sometimes I explored other desktop email programs like GNOME Evolution or Balsa, but I always came back to Thunderbird.

Like Firefox, Thunderbird integrated well into whatever system you use. Its features are self-consistent, and actions produce obvious results. This shouldn't be surprising, though. Thunderbird is originally a Mozilla project.

The best open source password manager: KeePass

Passwords are the keys to our digital lives. So much of what we do today is done online, via a multitude of accounts. With all those accounts, it can be tempting to re-use passwords across websites, but that's really bad for security; if a hacker gets your password on one website, they can use it to get your private information from other websites. To practice good security, you should use a different password on every website you use. And for that, you need a way to store and manage those passwords.

KeePass is an outstanding password manager. There are several password managers to choose from, but KeePass has been around a long time and is really solid. With KeePass, it's really easy to create new entries in the database, group similar entries together (email, shopping, social, etc.) and assign icons to them. And a key feature is generating random passwords. KeePass lets you create passwords of different lengths and complexity, and provides a helpful visual color guide (red, yellow, green) to suggest how "secure" your password is likely to be.