Tuesday 02 March 2004

User Interfaces and the Luxury of Ignorance

Eric Raymond author of the Art of Programming rants against user interfaces in the Unix world; he is particularly not happy with open source programmers who have contributed to the non-technical user running away from Unix into the arms of Microsoft and their "crappy insecure overpriced shoddy software."

Eric believes that GUI Application designers ought to allow their users the "Luxury of Ignorance" and uses the fictional example of "Auntie Tillie", a non-technical user to make his point.

If Auntie Tillie "has to read documentation in order to use software, then it has been designed wrong. The interface of the software should be all the documentation that Auntie Tillie needs". However, given the state of most Unix/Linux software, is it any wonder that Auntie Tillie decides to "chuck this whole Linux thing and go back to the old Windows box? It blue-screened a lot, but at least it allowed her the luxury of ignorance".

The focus of his rant this time is the Common Unix Printing System (CUPS) but the rant also applies to every open source designer out there.

He cites many experienced computer users who have either tried to migrate to Linux or have been using Unix or one of its variants for years but have run into one of the usability issues surrounding the platform.

Eric Raymond offers some questions which needs to be answered by every programmer designing GUI Applications for Linux:

  1. What does my software look like to a non-technical user who has never seen it before?
  2. Is there any screen in my GUI that is a dead end, without giving guidance further into the system?
  3. The requirement that end-users read documentation is a sign of UI design failure. Is my UI design a failure?
  4. For technical tasks that do require documentation, do they fail to mention critical defaults?
  5. Does my project welcome and respond to usability feedback from non-expert users?
  6. And, most importantly of all...do I allow my users the precious luxury of ignorance?

Via Jon Udell and Dave Winer