Free software usability

Matthew Paul Thomas has a piece which tries to get to grips with the causes of poor usability in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). He doesn’t dodge the problems and their origin in FOSS development methods and the rewards for participating in FOSS. He also has proposals for tackling the problems.

Free software usability

Back in 2004 John Gruber wrote an influential piece called Ronco spray-on usability. Here’s an extract:

“UI development is the hard part. And it’s not the last step, it’s the first step. In my estimation, the difference between:

  • software that performs function X; and
  • software that performs function X, with an intuitive well-designed user interface

isn’t just a little bit of extra work. It’s not even twice the work. It’s an entire order of magnitude more work. Developing software with a good UI requires both aptitude and a lot of hard work.”


“ … the undeniable truth is this: successful open source software projects tend to be at the developer-level, not the end-user level. E.g., successful open source projects have programming interfaces, not user interfaces. Apache, Perl, Python, gcc, PHP, the various SQL databases. The list of fantastic open source developer software is long.

The list of fantastic open source GUI software is short. This is not a function of chance.

The open source revolution has done nothing to change the fact that the best-designed, most-intuitive user interfaces are found in closed-source commercial software.”

Ronco spray-on usability

For a longer paper on this issue, try

The Usability of Open Source Software Nichols & Twidale 2003


3 thoughts on “Free software usability”

  1. KUDOS!!!!

    After reading numerous comments on this subject, I MUST agree with DragonMaster that most OSS is “good software” !!!! But as a Business User who believes the published UBUNTU philosophy, I could not resist creating a blog for my comments and those of Many friends who use UBUNTU – about the state of OSS from the Business User point of view… Not as in the view of “Aunt Tilly”…

    “Why Free Software has poor usability, and how to improve it” by Matthew Paul Thomas and “The Usability of Open Source Software” by David M. Nichols and Michael B. Twidale are seen by us as the sun breaking thought the clouds… Please gentlemen, maintain this type of direct, clear and open discussion not – as in Other forums – religious confrontations.

  2. Pace ‘open-source software is not as good as commercial’. The piece is about the *usability* of FOSS vs commercial software. Which is ‘best’ will depend on the user and their purpose. Developers often regard the GUI as superfluous, but end users need good usability to get things done.
    Thanks as always for your comment and the tip about dotProject. The site has an impressive endorsement from a large project which is installing network, LAN, wireless … in 60 schools. It highlights one of the strengths of FOSS, which is that you can get your data out:
    “We can transfer the entire dotProject site with files and databases intact to the client’s web server to meet the mandated document retention requirements for the project.”

  3. I would have to disagree that open-source software is not as good as commercial, Open Office is a good example of good software, however, it is developed by a huge community. I have found a fantastic piece of free on-line software (well it actually runs on your own server) which is for project management – – I am now using it to manage my work load, and to handle my personal projects as DragonMaster. It also has an adon (which I haven’t tried yet) to import / export to MS Project. The website is not the best I have seen in User Interface Design, but there is a demo you can try. Don’t worry, the actual interface is much better than the website… 😉

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