Tuesday, October 23, 2012

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.

So, what open source program would you suggest for the case study? Leave your suggestions in the comments:


  1. I use LaTeX a lot for making notes and obviously writing articles etc. For that I use vim, along with vim-latex. I use it because of the convenience and the ease of usage. It may take some time to learn vim and the features in vim-latex, but once you do that it is terrific. I don't like to take my hands off the keyboard and all the other programs force me to use the mouse, except for this one. Regarding LaTeX, I use it over the office applications like libreoffice or Microsoft office because of the quality of the output. When it comes to mathematics, there are few competitors to LaTeX.

  2. For Windows software I would nominate

    It is GPL'd, and has a couple of dialogues that come up during the process, some of which are less obvious than others (for example, to print in .png instead of .pdf you choose a file type right at the end of the process. But there is an 'options' button on an earlier screen which includes some stuff about .png output (resolution setting etc.)) Once you are used to it the menuse are easy to use, but some of the advanced facilities (like merging files into one PDF) are a bit of a study. It combines ease of use with what some might think rough edges - although it is pretty polished, and the nooks and crannies of awkwardness are no worse than most commercial programmes.

    The programme is rock solid, and I use it all the time. It has been through many versions, and now checks automatically for updates, giving you the chance to update or not.

    1. +1 for pdfcreator

  3. For cross-platform I would nominate Audacity:

    This is an exceptionally good programme, both in the functions it offers and the methods of accessing them.

  4. If you want another cross-platform suggeston with a rather different set of problems to solve, then I would nominate the Hugin panorama stitcher:

  5. If you want something /very/ simple, try

  6. Usability is a pretty broad target. Does Apache have good usability? I'd say so (except for mod_rewrite) but it has almost no UI. Firefox would be an example of a big, user-facing open source project with pretty good usability. gimp? (Probably not if you want good usability).

  7. A couple of projects I am involved in: win32diskimager and openrpgmaker (both can be found on sourceforge).

    Win32 Disk Imager (aka Win32 Image Writer) is a simple program for writing disk images to raw devices. It has become hugely popular for people rooting their androids, or developing on Arm based platforms. The UI is dead simple.

    OpenRPG Maker is a program for designing your own RPG type of 2D game (along the lines of Zelda and Final Fantasy series). It tries to simplify game creation by making all possible scenarios that would normally be done in scripting code available through the user interface. It is still in beta (few more features to be added, game engine still to be developed), but the editor is quite complete.

  8. Hi, everyone! Keep the suggestions coming!

    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 to Tom's comment, Apache (as a server) doesn't have a UI, so that's not something that would give good results.

    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 for them), start a new tab, search and replace text, print, change the default font, etc.

  9. I really do appreciate your idea, since most people seem to have rather odd definitions of usability. For me, usability is to make a tedious task simple and enjoyable, instead of offering the most versatile/broad solution. Postfix is a great mailserver, but not simple to set up. Gimp is a powerful image manipulator, but not really the thing I would give to a ten year old for drawing fun. Latex/Emacs users especially fall into this trap of confusing usability with complexity. So my first candidate for nomination would be Lyx (http://lyx.org):

    As a student of philosophy one of my main tasks is to write long, conclusive and well readable texts. I also want them to be aesthetically pleasing in order to assist readability and therefore to increase the chance that the reader gets what I intend to say. Another important thing to me is that I need to stay focussed on the content. Most wordprocessors are basically typewriter emulators on a computer and they do this in a very bad way. (La)Tex started out to "solve" this problem, but I need to concentrate on content, not yet another computer language. So Lyx brings together the best aspects of writing a text which is also beautiful when printed: focussing on plain content, using good visual representations of text parts in order to create a table of content, a bibliography, footnotes, etc. Of course if you are a vim power user, it restricts your freedom to type in whatever latex has to offer, but my girlfriend understood Lyx rather fast without any knowledge of the underlying latex. Teaching her to use vim and latex would have probably frightened her.
    It is avaiable on Linux, Macs and Windows.

    Next, a multipurpose text tool: Geany. (http://www.geany.org/) A little bit more than simply a text editor like gedit, it offers syntax highlighting and some features commonly found in IDEs. Again, for the not ubarpowered user it is a nice tool. (First steps in Java, HTML, etc.)

    Another favourite software of mine is Citadel (http://citadel.org), but I am biased since I am a developer: It is a mailserver (MTA and MDA), a groupware (collaboration, calendar, contacts, etc.), a bbs/forum, a blog, a wiki, etc. What I like about it is its "old school" approach to the forum idea: Instead of subforums and threads you have floors and rooms. Its current webinterface is free of features most people do not need, most of the stuff is right in place. The poweruser will beg to differ. You probably wont find a mailserver with attached groupware that is easier to install and maintain, but that is (sadly) on the TUI side. So for a webmailer/forum that can be used crossplatform, this would be a good candidate to test. (And would give me some ideas on how I can improve the webinterface ;)

    Anyway, since this has gotten far too long already:
    VUE: (http://vue.tufts.edu/) Visual Understanding Environment, looks overcomplex at first, but can be used as an easy mindmapping tool (since most people I know want to create "concept maps" instead of "mind maps", this tool helped them out of their troubles)
    YAGF: (http://symmetrica.net/cuneiform-linux/yagf-en.html) The best OCR software I have used so far, simple but with outstanding results.
    Kino: (http://www.kinodv.org/) DV capturing from a video cam, simple editing, etc.
    Audacious: What everyone else said. Almost everyone I introduced to this tool was able to use it instantly.

    Sorry for the length and good luck! Looking forward to the results.

  10. Well, that's pretty easy.

    A good example of a usable program is vi.

    A good example of an unusable program is emacs.

    1. There is always one, isn't there!

  11. I recommend you look at Gnumeric. Compared to other spreadsheet programs I've used over the years, it's particularly easy to run, yet has nearly all the functionality of Excel (except pivot tables).

    1. +1 for Gnumeric

  12. I like and use Digikam.

  13. If you want your testing to move into areas the users are unfamiliar with, I would suggest:

  14. I have recently started to use inkscape for simple sketches and other drawing things. In terms of usability, I found it amazing.

    The documentation is really good (implemented as a graphics file, so that you can directly try out to rescale objects etc.), and the GUI interface is very neat, down to small things that you can open many dialogs by Control-Shift-Key, i.e., using only one hand.

    1. -1 for inkscape in terms of usability. It is an awesome tool, but the user interface is very unintuitive for me. I always find myself googling in order to figure out how to do simple things.

  15. I do like Focus a lot (easily found in the ubuntu software center). Lovely for a writer (fiction or non-fiction), offering a distraction free environment that is highly adapteble and very easy to operate.

  16. I find web frontends to be more userfriendly these days eg. gmail. But for desktop apps:
    Ubuntu software center and Calibre: 1)Big discoverable/intuitive buttons, icons and graphics 2)Search right there in the tool 3)Background processes are done right.