Tuesday, December 15, 2015

LibreOffice user interface changes

This semester, I have been teaching an online class on the usability of open source software (CSCI 4609 Processes, Programming, and Languages: Usability of Open Source Software). I'll write a reflection on this soon.

In our class, I asked students to do their own usability test as a final project, from capturing the Personas, documenting the use Scenarios, defining the Scenario Tasks, and moderating a usability test on their favorite open source software project. To get them ready for the final project, I had students moderate a "mini-project." I selected the topic for the mini-project, based on what open source software everyone claimed some level of familiarity with.

We did our usability test "mini-project" using LibreOffice. This was interesting for me to observe as the instructor, because I am a user of LibreOffice on Linux, and have followed (somewhat) the user interface changes the project has made to improve usability.

I'd like to take a moment to share these three snapshots in LibreOffice's usability: from 4.3 to 4.4 to 4.0.

Please ignore the different user interface font in the screenshot. I have been experimenting with Droid Sans as my GNOME user interface font, in researching another blog post about GNOME.
(That blog post is coming up in the next few weeks.)

What I find interesting is the toolbar becomes increasingly complex, filled with more tools. A few changes that interest me:
  • LibreOffice provides more options to save your document in later versions, adding a "Save As" icon (floppy disk with a pencil) but dropping the "Send" option (envelope).
  • Relative position of the "Spell check" icon ("Abc" with a green checkmark) changes from version to version.
  • Character formatting options expand in later versions. From 4.3 to 4.4, you can now add strikeout, superscript, and subscript. from 4.4 to 5.0, you can also do outlining.
  • Relative position of text color and highlight changes.
  • Placement of indent (and "out-dent") and bullet/numbered lists icons changes from version to version, including relative position.
  • Overall, the user interface (including Properties menu, icons, etc) seems more complex in later versions than in earlier versions.
The usability test mini-project from my class didn't exercise most of these new tools on the toolbar. But ours was a very straightforward test. Our sample Persona was an 18-year-old university student (liberal arts major) using LibreOffice for the first time. Our Scenario Tasks (the tasks that form the usability test) exercised only basic functionality. This was not a "deep dive" into Microsoft Word fidelity or exercising "power user" menus; these tasks were about a college student working on a class paper.
This is a heat map of the usability test results. In a heat map, you code the difficulty experienced by the tester during each task. If the tester was able to do the task smoothly, without difficulty, then it's green. Some difficulty is coded in yellow, but not too bad. Increasing difficulty is represented in orange and red. If the tester was unable to complete the task at all, we code in black. (White shows a task that was skipped during the usability test.)

Each row in the heat map shows a scenario task, summarized here in a few words. Each column represents a different tester.

Comparing these test results to the user interface changes in LibreOffice, most of the toolbar icons aren't used. So these results don't speak to the UI changes there. This usability test mini-project did exercise "Save," "Save As," "Save As PDF," "New Document" and "Center text" functionality. However, we found that most testers skipped the toolbar, and went right to menus. Interesting.

These usability test results highlight the difficulty a student has in setting a page number in the header of a document. Note that many testers experienced some frustration in this task, and some were not able to do it at all (black).

I hope to see more usability testing of LibreOffice in the future. I haven't found a project on usability testing at the LibreOffice website, but LibreOffice doesn't seem to do usability testing anyway. I hope this changes. User interface changes should be driven by users. As LibreOffice adds more complexity to the toolbar, I hope they will stop to consider how real people use the software (users are busy people who are trying to accomplish real tasks) and how they access its functionality (usability).
image: LibreOffice


  1. Yes, usability testing is taken seriously: https://blog.documentfoundation.org/blog/2015/12/16/tender-to-develop-and-incorporate-usability-metrics-collection-for-libreoffice-201512-02/

  2. Beluga, this is excellent news! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Jim, we'd love a chat about www.Libre3D.com on your blog. It's an Open Source 3D model repository with its renderer on Github. Recently an "open source classroom" at Michigan Tech University used the platform to upload their 3D model ideas to be view-able and retrievable for the world. If you have contacts to assist in the project for new ideas or getting the word out it would be appreciated :)

  4. Hi Andrew. I looked at your Libre3D website, looks like a great project! I don't have a 3D printer, however. But I used to work in higher ed (U of MN) until last month, and a colleague there was interested in setting up a 3D printing lab for student projects. I'll share your URL with him.

  5. Jim, would it be Dr. Joshua Pierce from MTU? We happily collaborate already if it's him :)

  6. I don't recognize "MTU." No. I don't want to give out this person's name on my blog, but I have emailed him.