Subject: Re: User-facing applications
From: "Karsten M. Self" <>
Date: Wed, 27 Mar 2002 13:12:23 -0800
Wed, 27 Mar 2002 13:12:23 -0800
on Wed, Mar 27, 2002, David Fetter ( wrote:
> 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.

I'd disagree somewhat.

The interfaces vary widely.  Some of this results from the lack of a
single toolkit on the platform(s) of development -- Unix, now GNU/Linux,
starting with Athena, then Motif, OpenLook, Tk, Gtk, GNOME (a class of
Gtk), KDE....

Familiarity itself is considered a Good Thing® in interfaces, and this
divergence has cost us some.  Even in "nonstandard" interfaces I see
things I really, *really* like.  xv, the non-free graphics app, has some
UI features that are subtle but very nice.  But our nonstandard widget
sets also mean that we can practice evolutionary design, looking at the
good and not-so-good aspects of approaches tried from time to time.

There are also interfaces which IMO  are  best of breed.  I simply retch
when I use a browser other than Galeon.  And that's a completely
volunteer project.  WindowMaker suits me to a tee for a window manager /
desktop (it's not fully the latter, but close enough for my work).
Though imitative (NeXT -- which I never used, BTW), it's  good 
imitation, and this is a great way to drop the development curve.

You're also discounting the CLI.  There are a number of things that
distinguish GNU/Linux from Legacy MS Windows, one being the GUI toolset
(with MS Windows having a largely usable, though not particularly good,
one), and GNU/Linux arguable trails, slightly.  But Legacy MS Windows
has an *amazingly* horked CLI.  It doesn't support the user (at either
the novice or advanced level), and gross levels of system functionality
are utterly inaccessible from it.  This becomes painfully apparent when
attempting remote admin on MS boxen.

<Social commentary snipped>

> In all the cases just mentioned, the net perception is that they're
> far removed from most other [social groups].  

Hardly unique among specialized professionals, guildsmen, or other
trades.  Hookers have their "johns".  Con men and street performers
their "marks".  And in any business, the customer is always
right...until the Friday afternoon happy hour recap.  We're no more
special than anyone else.

Good UI design is hard like a lot of things are hard.  It means
listening to what the customer says, watching what they do, thinking
about what you know, and then giving them, more often then not, not what
they ask for (because they really  don't  know), but what they want or
need.  Occasionally you'll be blessed by someone who  does  understand
what's going on, and the trick there is to let down your guard enough to
actually admit it.

I covered this with my Mom, out for a visit, recently.  Like many (but
by no means all) non-native English speakers, her own communications
skills vary, and are occasionally rocky.  I was explaining to her that a
large part of my current job (sysadmin/webmonster) was listening to
people, and finding the truth concealed in what they were telling me.
"Thanks, Mom", I said.  "You were really good practice".  (OK, just
nobody tell her I said this).


Karsten M. Self <>
 What Part of "Gestalt" don't you understand?
   The best damned coffee on the planet:
     Graffeo Coffee, 735 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, California

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