Needed: A Centralized, State-of-the-Art Open Source Usability Lab

by Ostatic Staff - Jul. 10, 2009

Matt Asay has an interesting item up today called "What open source can learn from Apple," in which he notes that "as a developer-driven phenomenon, much of the best open source software ends up being written for other developers." He points to the success Linux is on the server, where it reaches a technical audience, but notes that it largely loses on the desktop, where a less technical audience is present. "Apple has the opposite problem," he writes. "It is religiously focused on usability, but struggles to open up to outside developers." Can open source take a usability lesson from Apple?

Something that jumped out at me from Asay's post is: "Companies like Canonical and MindTouch can mitigate this [usability problem] by paying for usability design." Apple pays a lot up front for that, too, as it designs products that get huge volumes of welcome from users. So how can the great unwashed masses of open source projects make products easier to use, when there often isn't funding for top-notch usability designers? I think the answer might be a centralized, federated usability lab for open source projects of every stripe.

Years ago, I used to write about usability labs, and I visited many of them. At Microsoft's campus, at least a few years ago, there was a usability lab with windows you could see through from the outside but that you couldn't see through from the inside. This allowed developers to observe users' reactions and problems as they got used to new software. The users in the lab were often average Joes and Janes, and they provided comments on what pleased them and exasperated them about software that was new to them.

A lot of other organizations over the years have taken advantage of usability labs for obtaining user feedback during the software design process. For example, they are found at many universities. Here is a photo of a small one at Brighton University, and it's worth noting the window and separate room from which users can be observed at the computer:

OpenUsability is an organization that hooks up usability experts, students with software skills and others up with open source projects. Companies with business models surrounding open source projects can contact OpenUsability here. As far as I can tell, though, it doesn't provide a centralized lab and staff that provide for testing with average Joes and Janes.

Over the past few years, we've seen many centralized, federated organizations arise in support of open source initiatives, such as The Linux Foundation. Through donations, and through the support of a powerful body like the Linux Foundation, I could see the launch of a professional usability lab that opens its doors to FOSS projects of all types. Usability is indeed an Achilles' heel for open source software, and this may be an area where the money and effort that proprietary software companies put into usability are worth emulating.