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(See also The Luxury of Ignorance: Part Deux.)

This essay/rant by ESR is a perfect demonstration of quite a few of the things I’ve long said about usability and UX problems in Linux, and offers some excellent guidelines for developers looking to up their game. There isn’t much point in excerpting this; it’s a quick and entertaining read. What follows is my reaction to this piece (aside “yeah this is all true”, of course).


ESR talks about how terrible the usability and UX aspects of this should-be-extremely-trivial task is, on Linux; and it’s all true. And then the practical takeaway of the article—the call to action, if you will—is: “as a developer, do x y z, to ensure your thing has good usability”; follow these heuristics, etc.

Now, they’re good heuristics! But what is missing from this whole analysis is two critical points:

  1. Heuristics are great, but what is really necessary is to do user testing, i.e. go out into the real world and actually check whether your thing is actually usable by actual people (Which, by the way, is, in a lot of ways, easier than heuristics—but less fun! You have to find non-technical users (ew) and interact with them (double ew); it’s so much more fun to sit at your computer and code.)
  2. Find some experts, and ask them. Again, yes it’s great for developers to also become versed in the basics of usability engineering and UX design, this is wonderful, I encourage it, but there are also people whose specialty this is; and it’s just maybe possible that they have some input into the matter!

P.S. As, apparently, a partial consequence of this essay/rant of ESR’s—“There is now a site for projects looking for usability advice and interaction designers who want to help. It is openusability.org.” On that site is a manifesto, which, if you read it, is entirely correct, again—in the “if everyone did this then the world would be amazing” sense.

Of course, unsurprisingly, predictably, no one did it, and the initiative failed. (The twitter hashtag is now used for random nonsense, and nothing else remains of it.) Why? Because despite the wonderfulness of this manifesto, nowhere was there any provision for how to actually cause it to happen, i.e. to induce anyone to do any of this.

The reason things are as they are, is the existing incentive structures; which are not changed by someone posting a manifesto to a website. So nothing came of it and Linux usability is still terrible and nothing has changed.

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    It seems, however, that I underestimated ESR (and am glad to have been proven to have been too pessimistic). In the second part (linked in my post), he does, in fact, address all three of my points:

    1. ESR talks about user testing:

    It also doesn’t matter a damn whether the shoddy and unhelpful design of the printer-configuration tool came out of a CUPS brainpan or a Fedora brainpan. What matters is that whoever was responsible never audited the interface for usability with a real user.

    1. ESR suggests seeking out expert guidance, links to Bruce Tognazzini’s Ask Tog site.

    2. On incentives, he says:

    One respondent to my earlier essay observed, perceptively, that I seemed to be trying to raise the reputation value of being good at UI design. That’s quite right; I think we should make a conscious effort to raise the standards of quality we demand from each other, so that blunders like the CUPS configuration mess become deeply embarrassing to all involved and are less and less often permitted to persist.

    Which has certainly been a part of my own motivations for talking about this so often, so I salute this effort.

    … unfortunately, it’s not enough. Something much more fundamental / systemic has to change—as we have seen by the overall lack of progress in the decade-plus since this essay was written. Sadly, I don’t know what that “something” is. I remain pessimistic.

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