Over the past several years, there have been a lot of discussions around the OpenOffice.org/LibreOffice user interface, and most of them seem to lead to “Give us all the various UI options: toolbars, ribbons, sidebars, etc.”. It’s nice to have a flexible core and it’s always good to be able to change the UI if you don’t like it, but when a UI tries to give the user as many options as possible, it tends to end up a mess.
As I see it, the best option is to develop an interface in which customization is intuitive and simple. A good example of this is the Windows Phone tiles UI. (Despite all my antipathy towards Microsoft, I do have to acknowledge that their “Metro” UI is brilliant.) A user can add tiles (shortcuts, similar to icons) from various areas of the phone (applications, contacts, websites, …), adding tiles is simple (just push a button), tiles are aligned to a grid, they look neat, uniform, are easy to organize and browse through, and, overall, working with the home screen is a very fluid and coherent experience. Compare that with Android’s UI, which sloppily combines icons and gadgets, which you can only add to your home screen through a special home screen customization dialog. Android gadgets come in various shapes and sizes and varying levels of integration with the software. You can flip through some gadgets, scroll through others, some you can input text into, and some are just read-only. It can be pretty messy, and customizing it is a pain.
I want the LibreOffice UI to be as seamless and simple as the WP Tiles UI is. I want a single way of organizing commands (currently, commands in menus, toolbars, and “customization” dialog are all categorized differently). I want a single place that houses all commands (the menu bar seems ideal for that). I also want simple customization — being able to drag and drop commands from menus onto the toolbar, or from the “ellipsis menu” (below) onto the toolbar or vice versa.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t have ribbons or sidebars or toolbars to house commands, just that we shouldn’t overwhelm the user with options or weigh down the suite with a ton of optional half-baked UI choices. Let’s shoot for quality, simplicity, and intuitiveness, and leave the alternatives for extensions.
Note: I’d really like a Lotus Symphony-like sidebar as another option for housing commands, either built-in or as a featured extension. I’m not sure, though, how exactly to organize it so that it works the same way as the context bar and fizz (where you can add and remove commands to your liking), but doesn’t look messy or disorganized. If I come up with something, I’ll post a mock-up. (Feel free to take the Citrus UI svg and mock something up too…)
That bothers me, though. When it comes to open-source projects, user experience is rarely a priority if it’s considered at all. Most developers usually copy the leading competitor or provide an exhausting amount of options that lets the user fine-tune the interface instead of actually trying to come up with the best interface for the user.
That’s too bad because the user experience is the most important part of software. It’s the reason why the iPad was such a success while Microsoft’s Tablet PCs weren’t. It’s the reason why people generally prefer Photoshop to GIMP, or even MS Office over LibreOffice.
So what’s the point of this post? Basically, I’d just like open-source projects to really focus on usability — to stop before adding another feature and ponder how to best incorporate it, to do more user testing and to listen to user input, to be focused and organized and provide a list of topics currently “on the table”.
With LibreOffice, it seems like a mixed bag. On the one hand, the design team is very friendly and open to any suggestion. On the other hand, it seems to function quite separately from the developer group, and thus it’s never clear whether ideas brought up on the design list will ever make it into LibreOffice and things that aren’t very user friendly, like more Options categories or the confusing Title Page dialog. To be fair, though, LibreOffice is a new project and its design team is just kicking off, so… we’ll see how LibO fares in the long run. UX in open-source projects is still in its infancy, and the landscape is about to get a whole lot more interesting.