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!