Don Marti

Sun 17 Apr 2005 08:33:53 PM PDT

Software rants

First of all, independent usability testing for Free Software is fundamentally a good idea. It's great to see people come at something with a fresh set of eyes and point out when a task is unnecessarily complex.

Usability isn't just a "can we get regular people to use Free Software" issue, it's a security issue too. Social-engineering-based email worms have an easy time spreading because so much of the documentation for computer tasks is counterintuitive. The instructions that worms give me for spreading them make more sense than the instructions for lots of legit software.

So, if you're going to test the usability of some free program, and report your problems, hooray for you.

I would like to make one suggestion for new "free-range usability testers" and ranters. Even if you're doing your testing as part of a review for publication, or for something that you're going to put on your web site, please take the time to report your problems through the project's recommended channel -- and let your rant reflect the fact that you did so.

Every project has a bug reporting method of some kind, whether it's just a maintainer's email address, a mailing list, or a full-out web-based Bug Tracking System with a capital BTS.

When you finish your rant or article, link to the bug report from it, too. Two good reasons to do that are first, other people who are having the same or similar problems will be able to check the status of the bug, and second, other new usability testers will follow your good example and take up the bug reporting habit.

Don't be shy about calling a usability bug a bug. If a program costs you extra time to do what you want to do, it's probably imposing unnecessary work on others, too.

If you don't know what project is responsible for your problem, or if the issue could be fixed on either of two projects, file with the distribution you're using, or the project that has the easier BTS.

If a project maintainer ignores, "WONTFIX"es, or mocks your bug report, you just got material for another article. Usually, though, good bug reports are the natural manure of good software and will get you appreciation and attention.