Maletsabisa Molapo

people design technology | africa women leadership

Category: GNOME OPW

Surveys on Circumvention Tools & Usability in Open Source Projects

As mentioned in previous posts, we at OpenITP, are working on guidelines for improving user experience and internationalization approaches in open source projects, with emphasis on tools used for anti-surveillance and anti-censorship online (circumvention tools). As part of this exercise, we have drawn out three surveys, please take part in the one(or those) that apply to you as indicated below.

1. If you have never used/heard of circumvention tools, then please take this survey:

2. If you have used (or are using) circumvention tools, then please take this survey:

3. If you are a developer/designer/product manager(or other form of contributor) in open source projects(regardless of the target/nature of the open source product/project), then please take this survey:

Please note that we will not allow any personally identifiable information to be public. Your input is highly valued and will help improve the various open source circumvention tools that we support at OpenITP.

Thank you!

More details on this project are available here:


The Past, Present and Future of Circumvention Tools

Circumvention tools are used to bypass internet censorship and avoid surveillance on the internet. Some of these tools have been around for a while now, and are being increasingly used by different people in different settings to achieve different purposes on the internet. Some of the reasons why people use circumvention tools are:

  • To reach blocked websites
  • To avoid being surveilled online by governments
  • To avoid being surveilled online by businesses and other entities
  • To be anonymous for blogging or journalism purposes
  • Their online security has been compromised in the past
  • To generally manage their identity online

Many people have these and other needs on the internet, but do not use circumvention tools. Part of our work is to discover what discourages people from using these tools; is it simply that they do not know of them, or that they are afraid of using them, or is it because they slow down their connection, or because none of the existing tools are  available in their preferred languages, or is it because existing tools seem too techy for most people, etc.? Using the answers to these questions, we will be able to provide guidelines to the present and future developers of circumvention tools.

What will it take to ultimately make the internet free and open for everyone?

This particular survey is focused on reaching out to present users of circumvention tools, to find out what needs are currently being met by existing tools, and what challenges with online communication are not being addressed by these existing tools. We are also reaching out to people who have never used circumvention tools through this survey, to discover, from people in different parts of the world, what limits  freedom on the internet, and perhaps why they have never resorted to circumvention tools to overcome their challenges with freedom and openness on the internet.

At an internet-focused meeting I attended recently, someone asked, “how can we help people have the freedom and privacy that they need online, without breaking the internet?” Well, this question was directed towards internet engineers(those people who define standards and protocols for the internet), but it got me thinking: on the internet, as in life overall, people need to be safe, feel safe, and live safely, even if they do not know how to protect themselves. What will it take to make the internet this kind of place for even the least knowledgeable internet user – in internet protocols and policies, and in applications developed over the current version of the internet?

Some of the articles that I have read on circumvention are:

Input invited!

Developing for Internationalization

I have mentioned internationalization briefly in previous posts, but  have learned more about the different aspects to it in the last few weeks. In software engineering, internationalization involves designing software in such a manner that it can be easily localizable  to work in different cultural and language environments.  Localization is the process of actually translating the messages, labels, and other interface elements of an application into another language/format.

So how then do we develop localizable software?   In the Article Internationalizing GNOME Applications, internationalization is defined as the phase in an application’s development where the developers incorporate the pieces needed to assist the translators and to subsequently display any message using the translated version for the appropriate locale.

Through our developers’ surveys, we seek to understand current processes used in software development to achieve internationalization, and will then develop guidelines based on lessons we’ll learn from the developers who do focus on internationalization in their software design.

An interesting aspect that we seek to understand from developers is: what is the focus of internationalization? Is language the only aspect of a tool that needs to be changed to make the tool more appropriate to the target audience? How(if at all) do developers prepare software to be transformed to accommodate culturally and politically dependent aspects of a tool’s design(such as icons, sounds, colours, data representation, etc.)?

If you have further thoughts on issues of software internationalization and cultural considerations in design, please take this survey or drop a comment below.


Before Documentation: Involve Users Early, Maybe?

We come across many claims about how FOSS tools were created with ease of use in mind, and how documentation and user support are provided. But are documentation and post-launch user support enough for ensuring usability and promoting global adoption of FOSS products? Many studies in HCI and product management have shown the importance of involving potential users early in the process of developing new products. How, then, given the dynamics of the FOSS community can this be ensured? Part of our research work will be to develop guidelines on how to include more HCI methods (like early user participation) in the development cycles of FOSS projects.

On the question of cultural differences(especially with circumvention tools), researching the users’ background/culture helps developers build more culturally/contextually appropriate tools. We will seek to understand what challenges are faced in the attempt to involve users in the design process, and based on that recommend ways in which these challenges can be overcome to promote the process of engaging the user population in design.

If you are a developer/designer/project manager/or other form of contributor in open source, please help us in this work by taking this survey here.

Thank you!

Usability Guidelines for Open Source Projects

For our User Experience-at-large project, we are working on producing a guidelines document on how human-centered design techniques can be best incorporated into the development of Open Source software, to improve the usability of open source tools.

In Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) products’ development, more focus tends to be on building features, more than on usability and international appropriateness. With this code/feature-centered culture of development, user experience is normally compromised, and this is increasingly becoming a matter of concern as more and more users of FOSS products are non-technical and originate from very diverse parts of the world.  In this project, we are researching the FOSS product development process more closely, and from this we will write up guidelines that can be followed in future projects to bring more user centered practices into the process of designing and developing FOSS products.

The question of user-centered design extends to the fact that most FOSS products are developed for global consumption – for people of different cultures, contexts, and needs. Our guidelines document will also seek to answer the question of how, then, can open source tools be developed to cater for internationalization and diversity?  Recommendations will be made after our discussions, surveys, and interviews with developers, designers, product managers, and users.

I have collected and read a lot of what has been written on the subject of usability in open source projects (academic and non-academic pieces). In our document, we will also include an aggregation of the lessons presented in this existing literature and present them in an actionable fashion for the FOSS development community. The goal is to make this set of guidelines more reachable to the FOSS community, and we are designing means of content presentation that will make the guidelines easy to use and follow, while we are also looking at how to best publish the document in the right circles – getting it to the right people.

The GNOME Usability project produced a similarly focused set of guidelines, user interface guidelines to help design and develop tools that are easy to use and consistent with the GNOME desktop.  The target audience of the document we are working on is the developers and designers who contribute to FOSS projects, with focus on developers of internet surveillance and censorship circumvention tools (free and open internet tools), the kind that OpenITP particularly works on.

Over the next few weeks, I will be conducting interviews and surveys with developers, designers, product managers, and users of circumvention tools. In the next post I will discuss the key issues we wish to elicit in the surveys and interviews and present the lessons that we have already learned from existing documentation on usability in open source projects.

Till then!