I love open source and the philosophy behind open source. I’m a Linux user because it is open and I can do whatever my dang mind wants with it and that is why I love it. I love open source because it provides me independence and freedom to use, modify and create something new if I ever wish to. Although I have to use closed source applications in some places and occasions, most of my power tools are open source, such as GIMP, Inkscape, Penpot and many more. While I find these tools easy to use. Many people do not find some of these friendly enough, specially those who came from Adobe family or other closed source professional tools. So why do they find open source applications hard to use?
User friendliness means how much the design of the software is friendly to a user. Even if the user is totally new to the app. Although I disagree with some of the other definitions that say “user friendly is when a software looks like another industry standard”. I personally find Illustrator harder than Inkscape and Inkscape will become harder for me if they ever choose to copy Illustrator UI.
So an app is user friendly if a user finds it easy to use and successfully gets the task done. If an application can provide the right options in the right place and helps a user get his or her work done in time without making any fuss, then that app can be considered user friendly.
There are some big reasons why some open source applications are not user friendly according to many users. Some of the reasons are trivial and can be fixed easily. So the first reason for why some open source applications are not user friendly is:
This is the most obvious and big reason why some open source apps are not user friendly. Designing an app takes a lot of effort and time and right skills. Often open source applications have smaller teams with either developer heavy skillset at their disposal. Without proper funding, they often do not get to hire dedicated UI/UX architects or a team of designers. And since the developers are the ones who design the app, it ends up being developer friendly instead of user friendly. One big example here is GIMP. Here in this credit page, you won’t find a “Design team”. As a result, GIMP is painfully hard to master for many and not beginner friendly at all. It also does not have non-destructive editing but that’s another topic.
Some applications do not want to focus on users, rather the apps are purposefully designed to keep out novice users. One such project is DWM. There are also other projects that purposefully keep out novice users. VIM is so hard to use, that it became a meme that ran through decades. One big reason behind this is that catering to beginners requires a special pattern and attention to development that the developers of those applications don’t want to go through. Instead, they just make it difficult so that novice users do not complain about it and simply abandon it.
Some team forgets that design is also necessary for an app to be user friendly. Lack of planning in the open source and free software world makes everything clunky. It yields an output that users need themselves to adapt to it instead of it adapting to users’ needs. Despite being one of the oldest projects, many BSD projects are not user friendly. The community is even harsher than those of DWM and Suckless. While some BSD forks are working toward a user friendly operating system, the main project is lazy on that. Some projects actively avoid being user friendly simply because they don’t need to. The Kali Linux project is an example. Recently they opted for less polished XFCE instead of more polished Gnome Desktop.
Designers are a different breed. They do not mix well with the open source world, and I’m saying this as a designer myself. Designers in an open source community are rare and most of their philosophies do not adhere to free software philosophy. Working for free is not only deemed sinful by them, but also hated. I think this quote from Calvin Huang sums it up:
“Open source is a pretty big thing in software development and slightly less so in science and engineering disciplines. The UX and graphic design communities, OTOH, are rabidly opposed to volunteering (which they consider “spec work”). And without good designers willing to contribute their expertise to FOSS projects, it’s much harder for FOSS software to have the same level of polish as commercial counterparts.”
Despite all this, the scene is changing. Where I work, there is a harmony of volunteers and hired team and some new faces are joining who are volunteering in the design and UI/UX department. This is a positive thing, and I hope more of you designers onboard with the trend. Let’s make open source great by design.
Despite the reasons and issues discussed in this post, some applications have the nicest application even compared to some closed source alternatives. I already gave the example of Inkscape which I find user friendly to some extent. But there are better examples. Krita is a free and open source art tool and whomever I suggested this application found themselve using it fine or even better than Photoshop. Although some issues can be seen here and there, KDE is doing a better job here. These are the applications I find the most user friendly (not sorted).
- Firefox – Best browser in the world, at least for me.
- Audacity – Even better than Adobe counterpart, darn easy to use.
- VLC Media Player – Media player can’t get any simpler.
- LibreOffice – Uses the same set of standard formulas and very easy to use UI.
- Android OS – Of Course I’m an Android guy.
- Ubuntu – Canonical is one of the companies that focuses on users.
- GIMP – Just kidding, this shouldn’t be on the list.
I discussed a few reasons why some people think open source applications are harder to use compared to pricey closed source applications. This should be concerning and a matter to solve for the community and it is quite easy to solve. All we need is the right contributors with the right skillset and some push from the open source community.