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open-source usability - Accretions — LiveJournal

Fata Morgana
2004-04-02 11:46
open-source usability
David pointed me to this essay, linked off Slashdot, about open-source usability. It's an interesting read. I disagree with his assertion that GUI design - or artistic design in general - is an "innate ability." What appears to many as innate ability is, I think, more about attitude and passion. I also disagree with his statement that GUI design is an "order of magnitude more work": in the average commercial software development project, about half of the time and half of the code go into the interface. What would take an order of magnitude more work is to change hackers' opinions about human-computer interaction.

Last week I was having a discussion with a CMU student about "HCI evangelism." He said he used to argue that human-computer interaction was part of computer science, but now believes it is and should be considered as a separate discipline. I think that it is different from traditional computer science, but I think it's too important to computer science to push it off in a separate department, so the "pure" computer scientists don't have to deal with it (and can continue thinking of it as inferior to "real" computer science). It should be present in all parts of computer science application-building. It's not enough to slap an interface on top of an application; good interfaces are built from the bottom up, giving the right handles to the next level, and that can only happen if developers at all levels know something about usability.

I also think those who say that HCI is "too young" to contribute anything yet are short-selling the discipline. Sure, human-computer interaction has only recognized itself as a discipline for 15-20 years (though over half of that time as "man-machine interaction"), but computer science has only recognized itself as a field for about 50 years! Concepts tested by both time and HCI professionals - such as prototyping, user testing, the human information processor, and the model-view-controller architecture - could help hackers and other code monkeys practice user-centered design. Of course, getting them to appreciate it in the first place is another problem entirely. Just make user-interface design a required course in computer science curricula! ...

In our discussion of all this, David slammed me for wanting to make interfaces so simple that they take away the power that computers have to manipulate information, perform repetitive tasks, etc. How can one have the power of the command-line in the graphical interface, so everyone can start using computers as the powerful tools that they are? This task is many orders of magnitude harder than just usability. It'd be great, but I sure don't know how to go about it. Some programs have taken shots at this, such as Photoshop's batch "Actions," spreadsheet programs, Office's macros, and some of XP's right-click menu options, but those still don't have the power of shell scripts. Still, just because I'm stupid about it doesn't mean that others are too.
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2004-04-02 21:20 (UTC)
(no subject)
I disagree with his assertion that GUI design - or artistic design in general - is an "innate ability." What appears to many as innate ability is, I think, more about attitude and passion.

I disagree with you here, at least as far as artisitic design is concerned. My slides for talks always look terrible. I don't know why, and I don't know how to fix them, but many other people manage to make things that are much more visually appealling. I often sit and think: "Why is this ugly?" and yet leave with no idea how to fix it.

But my main thought about the essay is that the guy who wrote it doesn't believe in open source. He makes a potentially valid point--that for user interface design, there has to be a coherent leadership so that the look is consistent. I could believe this point is true, and maybe this requires a development model that requires closed-source software.

But then he says repeatedly that "programmers need to be paid", which is not addressing the specific problem with user interfaces (the need for centralized control), but is refering to open source development in general.
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Kragen Sitaker
2004-04-02 21:44 (UTC)
finding a disproof isn't the same as not finding a proof
Clearly what you've tried --- sitting and thinking, "Why is this ugly?" --- hasn't improved your ability to make your slides look good. But that doesn't mean there's no way to improve your ability to make your slides look good. Maybe there are other things you could try: looking at beautiful things, creating imitations of beautiful things, taking art classes, comparing beautiful things to one another and discussing the ways in which each excels the other. Oh, and creating a lot of things you try to make beautiful. (I'm guessing that the total amount of time you have spent making slides over the last year is on the order of 40 hours, but if it were closer to 4000 hours, you might have different results.)
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2004-04-02 23:22 (UTC)
Re: finding a disproof isn't the same as not finding a proof
I agree. With training, I could become better. But my peers--with equally little training--do better already. (And I'm not comparing myself to the artistically-inclined ones.)
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Fata Morgana
2004-04-03 04:51 (UTC)
Re: finding a disproof isn't the same as not finding a proof
I haven't had much formal art training, but I've done a fair amount of art, and I have various family members and friends who are artistic - those informal experiences help me, and maybe your peers who can make spiffy slides are similar.
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