It’s all about UX

Microsoft announced the new Windows 8 interface yesterday and, although it’s not without its flaws, it seems to be simpler, more intuitive, and easier to use than any of the current touch-based and perhaps even mouse-based interfaces right now, except maybe Chrome OS. It’s gotten me a bit worried, because now interfaces for Linux-based operating systems will have to catch up again (and I doubt that the newly-created GNOME Shell and Unity interfaces will want to reform so soon). On the other hand, if I know the open-source community, I’m sure someone will cook up a copy of the new Windows UI soon enough. It won’t be as good as the original and applications might not fit in as well (although the new Windows 8 applications should apparently be based on HTML and JavaScript), but it’ll be fine for normal use.

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.

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