Subject: User-facing applications
From: David Fetter <>
Date: Wed, 27 Mar 2002 11:34:33 -0800

Kind people,

I've been mulling over this, had a quasi-random thought on the
subject, and would like to get some discussion going.

I've noticed that free software has a wide range of quality, from
amazingly poor to astoundingly good.  That's not exactly a revelation.
Another thing I've noticed is that the "amazingly poor" end tends to
be cluster the realm of user interfaces, most especially when they
come from all-volunteer projects, and I've got a little theory on why
this is so.

First, I believe that hackers as a class are easier to qualify than
one might na´vely suppose.  To test this, I've done the following:
Rather than giving people pictures or descriptions of other hackers
for a meeting in a public place, I simply give directions to the place
and say "look for the geeks."  This has not yet failed.

OK, so to a pretty good first approximation, one could describe
hackers as a social group that can recognize other members of the
group through visual cues, the nature of which are not important for
this discussion.

Now, back to software development.  Hackers, being a social group,
inevitably have feelings about where they are hierarchically among
other social groups.  A quick look at any discussion board or hacker
mailing list makes it abundantly clear that they feel themselves
either to be very high up, or very low down, or trying unsuccessfully
to convince themselves that there is no hierarchy.  In all the cases
just mentioned, the net perception is that they're far removed from
most others.  It's this perception of social distance that makes it
very difficult for an all-hacker-volunteer group to look for feedback
from people outside the group, e.g. the wide variety of people so
essential to user testing.  Lacking this feedback, it is almost
impossible for them to make good, usable user-facing applications.

What's to do about this, and what have I missed?

David Fetter
phone: +1 415 235 3778