Open Source Usability Success

Since there has been a some recent notoriety around the notion that usability is somehow particularly difficult in FOSS projects, I thought it might be nice to share a recent success story.
For the Jaunty development cycle Kubuntu is working to transition all the applications shipped on the installation CD from KDE3 to KDE4 versions. One hard spot was an IRC client. Konversation, our long time default client still just has a KDE3 release and a KDE4 version is not expected in time for Jaunty. A number of Kubuntu developers had tried Quassel and suggested it be considered. We surveyed the landscape and concluded it was our most likely candidate for a KDE4 IRC client for Jaunty. Quassel is a very young project and one problem is that much of their user interface was oriented toward expert IRC users. We needed something more accessible for new users since IRC is one of our primary support mechanisms for new users.
Fortunately for Kubuntu, Celeste Lyn Paul (seele) of the KDE Usability Project is active with the Kubuntu team and volunteered to do a expert usability review to give the developers some ideas about what most needed doing to make it suitable as our default IRC client.
How this process looked as it was happening from the developer’s perspective is captured in the blog of Manuel “Sputnick” Nickschas (Sput on IRC). Three months later, Quassel is the default IRC client for Kubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope)l. One active member of the Kubuntu team, claydoh has done a great how-to for Quassel where you can see the results.
Today I pinged the main Quassel developers on IRC (of course) and asked them how they felt about the process and the usability review. Marcus “EgS” Eggenberger (edited slightly for flow) said:

When we started with quassel we never imagined to have a real userbase and … one of those big things was seele’s review for us. I was really speachless as seele told me how much time she put into this and it was really great since it was the first time we had some clear defined requirements to the UI which we never had before. Sput and I love to code but designing UI stuff is just not our thing…. also it made us focus on things we kept procrastinating.

Sput added:

I fully agree with Egs on that. [In addition to what I blogged] we also had several discussions with seele afterwards where she provided us with feedback and ideas. … and in addition: I think it’s a great idea to talk about the spirit and benefits of opensource!

So there you have it. FOSS usability at work making the things better for all of us.


9 Responses to “Open Source Usability Success”

  1. 1 Jef Spaleta March 5, 2009 at 20:30

    I also think this is a great example of how integration work at the the distribution level can impact upstream project development by making use of timely and proactive communication between upstream and downstream.
    Hats off to the downstream kubuntu community and the upstream quassel developers as well as seele and the rest of the KDE Usability Project members.

  2. 2 Vadim P. March 5, 2009 at 21:25

    It would have been way better if the designers have had an HIG to go by right from the start – then all apps would have been better aligned, and not each one would need to be personally reviewed.

  3. 3 claydoh March 5, 2009 at 21:30

    This reminds me I need to update the how-to, as it is even easier to use (in jaunty at least)

  4. 4 Scott Kitterman March 5, 2009 at 23:47

    @Jef: I agree completely (which is why I blogged about it). I did some of the packaging and testing work, but that’s everyday stuff, the usability engineering part of this was pretty special.
    @Vadim: Documention is always nice, but in my experience it’s rarely an adequate substitue for good engineering judgement. I’ll take work like this any day over thick texts no one will read.
    @claydog: Yes, please. What you’ve done so far is great. I should probably have mentioned the same version of Quassel is in intrepid-backports.

  5. 5 Lure March 6, 2009 at 02:15

    Scott, very good write up and really, thanks to everybody for great collaboration.
    As you are a very humble man, I have to mention it: all this would not be that successful, if we would not have ScottK, which was doing up-to-date packages for both Jaunty and Intrepid, allowing everybody (and seele in particular) to get early access to all the improvements that Sput and Egs did. This have shorten the loop substantially and allowed to to have it in really short time for Jaunty.

  6. 6 shermann March 6, 2009 at 06:19

    @Vadim: The problem is not a HIG Documentation. There are documents describing HIG of KDE and GNOME.
    But coders are no UI designers.

  7. 7 Vadim P. March 6, 2009 at 08:20

    @shermann: there are documents describing HIG of GNOME, there are no complete documents describing HIG of KDE.
    Coders are not UI designers, and UI designers, with no HIG, are free to be on their own will then. How would you feel if an app followed Gnome’s HIG of having Cancel | OK instead of Window’s OK | Cancel as KDE prefers?

  8. 8 Fabian Rodriguez March 6, 2009 at 08:30

    To me what’s most amazing is the impact an individual can have in a free, open source software project.

  9. 9 Scott Kitterman March 6, 2009 at 09:43

    @Vadim: This isn’t the first time you’ve whined about the lack of a KDE HIG on my blog. I think we understand how you feel about it. Please desist from further comments about it here.

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