The sorry state of usability

Tuesday, Jan 11, 2005, 17:27 (updated)

So I’m very late to the party over at John Gruber’s, wherein he completely dismantles Eric S. Raymond’s usability rant that I railed on some time ago, smashes the parts to bits, and puts them back together to a completely different shape. And I’m thoroughly enjoying the read even now, all this time later. If you haven’t seen the writeup yet, make sure you don’t miss it.

If there’s a glib, nutshell synopsis for why Linux desktop software tends to suck, it’s this: Raymond and his ilk have no respect for anyone but themselves.

They have no respect for the fact that UI design is a special talent.

They have no respect for the fact the good UI design requires a tremendous amount of time and effort.

Boy does he ever speak my heart. That I’m not switching to Mac, as he alleges that all Unix nerds who care about usability do, is because I don’t care about the current state of graphical interfaces.

In his reaction to the article, Matthew Thomas nails the bullseye on the square:

Camino and Firefox [as examples of good design] are as well-designed as they are because […] they have few primary developers, and those primary developers have become fairly good at design as well as programming.

Most people don’t make good interface designers because they have no empathy. They don’t even know what they want or need themselves. Just listen to the next radio show where listeners can call in with questions to a show guest, and pay attention to how often the moderator has to rephrase their own questions for them. Such perceptiveness is a talent. It’s a talent that you need to build a good interface.

And not only is such talent rare, but it is also rare to find people who understand this fact. That is where I get frustrated with libre software efforts trying to build graphical applications. Doing that as a team effort just doesn’t work, regardless of how effective the incremental “everyone lends a hand” style of application barnraising may otherwise be. Again Matthew does the bullseye thing in his writeup Why Free Software usability tends to suck.

That writeup also prompted Havoc Pennington to write a very to the point editorial about user interfaces and free software, explaining why he doesn’t see things nearly as bleakly. It’s a very interesting rebuttal; if anything, though, it simply confirms that we’re quite a way from ideal conditions.