Matthew Paul Thomas writes about the issues open source projects encounter when it comes to usability (via waffle), and points out solutions to these problems.
Seeing the poor usability of many open source applications is particularly painful because open source projects are in a unique position to create innovative user interfaces. The Mac and Windows boxes you buy today use the exact same user interface paradigms as a Lisa box bought in 1983.1 Mac and Windows users are so used to these paradigms that it becomes almost impossible for Apple or Microsoft to fundamentally improve upon them.2
Open source projects don’t have this problem. They are free to experiment with their interfaces, and sometimes, they do. KDE 4, for example, introduces a totally new desktop.
Truly usable software requires an interface-centric design process. The UI is designed before code is written, and UI designers have the power to make unilateral decisions concerning the user interface. Most open source projects, however, are code-centric. The people who write the code define the user interface; they are the ones who have the power to force changes. Even if they get useful feedback about the user interface, they don’t have to act on it. By «scratching their own itch», these programmers end up writing applications which can only be used by other programmers.3
Addendum: John Gruber writes:
If you have to ask for better design, you will lose. You need to be in a position to demand it.
Incidentally, when Jeff Atwood donated 5000$ to an open source project, they did not know what to do with the money. I would suggest running a professional usability test :-)
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