Tue, April 30, 2002

Open Source UI, patches not welcome

David Hyatt raises some interesting questions in his recent “It’s just the UI, stupid” blog. He says that Netscape is being hampered in user interface development for the Netscape browser of fights with random Mozilla contributors who block bugs and make comments that some features are “bad for Mozilla.” He notes that no company develops a product this way and says Netscape should have complete control over the UI of their product. Okay. The sticking point is what happens with Mozilla. Mozilla is not a company.

So far, Mozilla has been fairly open to anyone logging UI bugs and submitting patches. Unfortunately, these patches frequently cause usability problems. There are no UI review and polish requirements other than module owner approval. This needs to change. Matthew Thomas has already pointed out many of the problems with free software usability and its design process. A better process needs to be worked out.

If Netscape and Mozilla were to fork UI, what would happen with nightly builds? Would they continue to have the Mozilla UI? Would there be more than one UI? The current interfaces are similar enough that Netscape may feel it’s getting resonable testing. If they were to diverge more, how would Netscape react?

Fri, April 26, 2002


Blake Ross describes work he’s been doing on the mozilla/browser project and includes a screen shot. It was uncanny to compare the screen shot with a theme I’m hacking on and notice that they are virtually identical. (I have Address instead of Location as the label for the URL box and haven’t yet revised the sidebar.) Hooray! It looks like mozilla/browser is going to be quite cool. I’m particularly impressed with Blake’s comments about improved startup and new window speed. Now if only we could get some builds…

Wed, April 24, 2002

More variation is good for Mozilla

Matt Judy defends the development of Chimera for Mac OS X as good for the Mozilla project. I believe he’s right. The more browsers that are using the underlying Gecko engine on various platforms, the better the code will become. As long as the Mozilla derivatives just swap out the UI but keep the Gecko engine it still helps to build a better and more standardized web. My only concern is that these new browsers will be perceived as separate entities with small marketshare and therefore dismissed by web developers.

Mozilla ’zilla Blogzilla Banana Fana Blogzilla

Blogzilla has good and timely content about Mozilla with beautifully clean page design. Go. Read it. Enjoy.

There are some who call me… Tim

Well, duh.

Which “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” character are you?

Tue, April 23, 2002

Street kids learn to web surf in 8 minutes

I found a prequel article from BBC News that provides an additional detail about the computer setup the experiment used: MSN was apparently the home page.

Sun, April 21, 2002

You’re a luser if you can’t use this

Matthew Thomas has posted an article identifying additional reasons that open source software has poor usability. Unlike the previous list, this one is more specific to the open source development model. (Failing to design the interface before coding is a problem that also affects commercial software.)

I believe both of these lists have missed the biggest reason for poor usability: difficulty of coding. Creating custom controls and behaviors are more time consuming than using whatever common controls are provided. Common controls are therefore frequently misused. When the interface is designed in advance, developers have a good idea for how things should work and can plan to create custom widgets as necessary. However, if developers are just hacking something up to be functional, as likely as not they’ll just use any easily coded control whether or not it is appropriate. This is especially evident with the standard Yes/No dialogs. Even with excellent interface design, developers will often take a shortcut and use a control that is easier to code than writing a special one as dictated.

In an ironic twist, the converse is also likely, especially with multiplatform products. Instead of using a system standard common control, developers go out of their way to create widgets that work on all platforms, but resemble the common ones. Inconsistencies between platforms and expected behaviors yield additional user confusion and frustration. The problem is still the same: lack of developer energy invested in completely duplicating expected platform behavior.

Fri, April 19, 2002

Kids can learn anything

In a fascinating experiment, slum kids in India teach themselves to surf the web and use paint software but ask “What’s a computer?” I’m not sure what I find more interesting, the kiosk and hardware setup (including video cameras and screen recording software) or the fact that kids taught themselves to do this. Use of a touch pad probably contributed to the ease of learning. (A touch screen might be even better.) I originally saw this story on slashdot and can’t stop thinking about it.

Why should we talk about being computer-literate but not bicycle-literate? If you can use something should you need to know all the names for its parts? If you do, I suspect a majority of the population isn’t car-literate. This reminds me of a friend who said he encouraged his mom to call the CPU of her computer a “box”.

Thu, April 18, 2002

Out of toilet paper?

Fear not! Designer Don Norman is developing a solution. Who would have thought that people are driven to tear paper from the larger roll when given a choice between two?

After reading any of Don Norman’s writings (I highly recommend The Design of Everyday Things), you look at the world in a different light. He makes you wonder why we put up with horrible—or worse, dangerous—design. Once you’ve used something with good design, it’s frustrating to go back to an inferior product. Thankfully, when you’re sensitized to good design you’re less likely to make that change.

Wed, April 17, 2002

Gimme some of that Open Source Religion

This is your father’s IBM, only smarter.

Yeah, but can my mom use it?

I started a discussion with mpt about why open source software has such poor usability and agree with his response. Much of what he says also applies to the closed-source commercial software world where good interface design is also rare. The main distinguishing characteristic seems to be polish. In comparing two programs that have similar functionality, it’s the little things that make or break it. I had hoped that Mozilla hackers would concentrate on polish bugs prior to 1.0, and to some extent that has happened. There are still too many usability problems that directly relate to polish.

Usability problems need to be considered as important as broken functionality bugs. If users cannot use the feature it matters little that it technically “works”. David Hyatt’s comment that Chimera can automatically detect and offer to block evil popups is an example of 1) understanding the target user and 2) devising elegant solutions. Disclaimer: I haven’t seen this in action. If only this user-focused mindset was more prevalent in software development.

Hmm… I forgot some.

I apparently overlooked Scott Collins’s Journal/Hacking Outline thingy. Makes me wish I kept such complete records about my work.

Joe Hewitt also has a website with beautiful photos and some Mozilla dhtml. Perhaps he’ll join the party?

Protecting the Palisades

For obvious reasons, the Nature Conservancy is seeking to acquire land along the Kentucky River that likely includes the abandoned railroad line. I hope we can work with them in protecting the land and developing the rail-trail.

Tue, April 16, 2002

Blogs, blogs, and more blogs

Looks like many in the Mozilla community have blogs or recently started them. Chris Waterson has had a hardcore log of what he’s hacking for quite a while. There’s also Ben Goodger, Mike Pinkerton, Stuart Parmenter, Andrew Wooldridge, even Blake Ross. And it looks like David Hyatt’s and Asa’s blogs have moved to Mozillazine. There’s been a lack of news about the Mozilla project and now we have all these blogs. The more the merrier.

Mon, April 15, 2002

I really should test this

Because I’m feeling brave, or perhaps because I’ve been testing Mozilla so much that I don’t feel like doing more, I’ve decided to go ahead and launch my blog. At the same time, I revised my site’s home page and added a site map. I can already tell that the site map needs a few more levels of detail, but I’m tired and should be finishing my taxes anyway. Ick.

Fri, April 12, 2002

Hello, web!

Motivated by Matthew Thomas’s challenge and inspired by David Hyatt’s excellent start, I’ve finally gotten around to starting a blog. This will undoubtably be an eclectic blog—just look at my varying interests. This is my test message. Watch this page.

And greetings!