Monday, October 29, 2012

Candidates for good usability

I'd like to thank everyone who responded to my plea, asking what programs have good usability. This question was repeated elsewhere on other blogs and on twitter, and I got quite a lot of feedback. Together, you suggested almost 100 candidates for good usability in open source software. I've collated the results, and I'd like to share my results.

I was looking for GUI programs, not command-line programs or programs that use text mode or "TUI" (i.e. full-screen text-mode programs you can run at a regular terminal). 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 a word processor, we might ask testers to type a few short paragraphs of text (provided for them), start a new tab, search and replace text, print, change the font, and other typical workflow tasks.

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.

Several folks suggested graphics suites such as Gimp or Inkscape. Both are fine graphics programs, and I personally agree that these seem to do a lot of things "right" in usability. However, I've decided to skip these types of programs, as they are intended for people in the graphics profession, and not the general user. Similarly, I decided to exclude disk image programs, PDF writers, operating system tools, and similar programs because they are too specific to one area, or too technical.

So, what programs did I decide to include as candidates?

Many folks listed Gedit as an open source program with good usability. At first, I assumed text editors would be too simple to include in a usability test. When I think of text editors, my mind jumps to trivial text editors such as Windows Notepad. However, Gedit is a great suggestion! It provides a powerful text editor with a simple interface. In fact, the simplicity of the interface belies the features contained in Gedit. To quote the website: Currently it features:


  • Full support for internationalized text (UTF-8)
  • Configurable syntax highlighting for various languages (C, C++, Java, HTML, XML, Python, Perl and many others)
  • Undo/Redo
  • Editing files from remote locations
  • File reverting
  • Print and print preview support
  • Clipboard support (cut/copy/paste)
  • Search and replace
  • Go to specific line
  • Auto indentation
  • Text wrapping
  • Line numbers
  • Right margin
  • Current line highlighting
  • Bracket matching
  • Backup files
  • Configurable fonts and colors
  • A complete online user manual


In other words, Gedit successfully addresses the advanced user (programmers, etc.) and the general user. For more, view the screenshots.

Ideally, I'd like to include more than one open source program in the usability test. Looking through the suggestions, possible program types include email clients, file managers, simple graphics ("paint") programs, music players, file viewers, and web browsers. There's a lot there. I am drawn to the web browsers (Chrome, Firefox) but I wonder if too many of our potential testers have used these same programs on other platforms (Windows, Mac) so will already be too familiar with them when they do the usability test. We won't really be testing the usability of these programs, but how well the user already navigates them on a different platform.

In the interests of expanding the candidate pool, I will add the Nautilus file manager to the list. File management is often overlooked because it is such a "basic" part of a desktop operating system. However, the usability of this essential feature is key. It is also a different kind of program than Gedit, so would yield different results. Together, the usability tests for Gedit and Nautilus would provide hints to successful usability in open source programs.

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