Computing Education Research Blog

Open Source Development: Not Very Open or Welcoming

We had a visitor at Georgia Tech today, alum Mike Terry, who has been studying the usability practices of open source development teams, like for Gimp, Inkscape, and Firefox.  The short answer is, “There are no usability practices,” but that’s a little too pat.  It’s a little bit more complicated than that, and actually even more concerning from an education perspective.

The folklore is that open source developers start because they have “an itch to scratch,” something that they want developed.  Mike thinks that that’s true, but that scratching that itch doesn’t actually take long. Social factors keep open source developers going — they care about their developer community and working with them.

Mike finds that few projects really care about usability.  The argument, “If you made your usability better, you’d increase your user base,” is not enticing to most open source developers.  Open source developers have no layers (like salespeople or tech support) between themselves and the public users.  Thus, they get inundated with (sometimes ill-informed and even downright stupid) bug reports and feature requests.  The last thing open source developers want is more of those.

Since open source developers soon stop being users of their own software, and they don’t want to talk to lots of users, how do they deal with usability?  Mike says that the top developers develop close relationships with a few power users, and the developers design to meet those users’ needs.  So there is some attention to usability — in terms of what high-end, power users want.

So what happens when a User Experience person wanders into the open source fold?  Mike has interviewed some of these folks (often female), and finds that they hate the experience.  One said, “I’d never have done it if I wasn’t being paid to do it.”  I guess there’s not much of an open source usability developer community.  The open source developer community is not welcoming to these “others” with different backgrounds, different goals, and most of all, not a hard-core software development background.

Mike believes that the majority of our software will be open-licensed.  I expressed concerns about that future in terms of education.

I found Mike’s work fascinating, and well grounded in data.  I just find the world he describes a little disconcerting.  I hope that  the open source community considers the education issues of its next generation of developers.