Improving Computer Interfaces & Usability

What’s the best way to: a. Improve usability in software applications? b. Review usability of existing software? c. Generate, encourage and review new ideas on software UI design? d. Make all this research work freely available to everyone (open source, proprietary, etc.)? e. Connect with all developer groups and individuals out there to share this work with them? Read more to find out.I’m an idealist when it comes to software and computing in general (not so much in other aspects of life I admit!) and I think software usability is lacking on a very basic level. There have been efforts – big, structured and commendable efforts – to try and improve application usability – like the Gnome and Apple HIG. These efforts, however, do not work for improving or generating new ideas in UI design and usability. Instead, they are in place to make sure applications conform to set guidelines – guidelines which do not push the boundries of interface design.

Between all this, I think there is a gap in the development process where-in new UI ideas are not voiced, encouraged and built upon. The only place where this goes on in a structured manner is in companies with big R and D budgets, e.g. Apple, Microsoft, Macromedia (now Adobe), etc. We need an alternative, not to replace what these big companies are already doing, instead, to
build our own open forum (for lack of a better word) for everyone to
discuss and build new interfaces and improve usability.

Aim of the Project:

To help increase awareness
about interfaces and usability (or the lack of it), to help raise the
standards of what is considered acceptable, push new ideas into the
open for discussion and in the end, make sure every Mum in the
world can email/ nag her son/ daughter who is half way around the

Simple, and with good direction
— easily achievable aims — expect for the ‘Mum’ bit …

Basic Principles of the Project:

  1. It must be accessible to everyone; Absolutely everyone…
  2. Everyone should be allowed to borrow ideas, designs, etc. from this forum and use them in their projects, without restricting it only to open source projects. So, if Microsoft come to visit and decide they like a UI idea, go back and build an entirely new OS out of it, so be it; good luck to them.
  3. Credit must be given whenever anyone uses a design/ UI idea(s) in their software which first originated on this forum.
  4. The forum should encourage people to submit demos and not simply write up what they think is a good idea. This, for obvious reasons cannot be a blanket rule. More details below …
  5. The forum should not be restricted to desktop applications. Mobile applications, Web applications, etc should all be welcome.

All this throws up a lot of questions, a few obvious ones which I’ll try and list below.

Project Structure:

From whatever little thinking I have done about this, here is how I
think the Project should be structured:

Program Structure

For every type of application, for e.g. News readers, users can submit
their design/ demos/ write-ups all which can be commented on, rated and
improved by everyone else.

Project License:

Licensing is always a contentious issue, today more so than what others
experienced a few years ago and this is something that we’re going to
need a strong consensus on. I think we need to keep one thing in mind
when discussing this: the license should give credit where it is due
and should be open to everyone.

The way I see it, we can go two ways with this:

  1. A blanket license for the project that every submission should
    adhere to. Or,
  2. Let each contributor decide which license they want their work to be
    available under.

With either option, we need to decide who other than the original
author/ creator should also get the credit. Should everyone who has
commented and helped improve the idea and design also get credit?

Personally, I think they should.

As for which license we use: based on my limited understanding of
licenses and their idiosyncrasies, I think the Creative Commons license
would be ideal for such a project.

There may be other licenses out there that can achieve the same which
is good but I think we should avoid trying to write a new license which
would only end up confusing the issue more than it
needs to be and distract everyone from the project’s main aim.

As for why not a more ‘closed’ license, this project would be
effectively useless if we locked out all the major software vendors who
build and supply so much of the software out there. There is no point
in building good UI’s if only a handful (lets not argue about the specifics,
please) of desktops will ever see them while the rest of the
proprietary world is left to the whims of the companies. This way, at
least the companies can choose whether to adopt an idea or not instead
of simply blocking them out of it.

Demo Tools

If we are going to be reviewing and proposing new UI’s, we need a
to show it to everyone on the forum and not just describe it in words.
Flash demos are good but I can’t see many people going for that, simply
because it does not come cheap. The other way could be simple
slideshows built using S5, scans of sketches drawn on paper or even
research tools like Denim which are ideal for such initial prototyping.

This I imagine will be a very open topic with lots of options all of
which can fulfil our aim of providing demos.

How do we start?

I suggest we start small. That is not to say that we shouldn’t put everything we have and can behind it, but, rather, we keep it measured and grow incrementally.

  1. Get some general consensus on the idea: This is going to be tricky but it always is and with good reason.
  2. Set up the project somewhere: This would include looking in to existing project/ source management tools Sourceforge, etc. and seeing if they fit our needs. If not, build our own.
  3. We will also need a place to host it, administer it, etc.
  4. Try and get OSS projects like Gnome, KDE, and other major
    contributors along with distributions to join in and pledge their
    support. Companies and other vendors will follow — hopefully.
  5. Let the community take it from there…

About the author:
I’m currently working as a project manager in the UK. I’ve only recently started writing and working on getting my own website running. For now, I’m temporarily parked at

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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