This journal was initially powered by the excellent Movable Type. I had the ability to write entries via a neat interface, and it allowed people to comment on each entry. It came with a nice default template, but as a designer I modified this template to my own design.
But Movable Type is a commercial product, and eventually I saw more benefits in the rapid development of the open source WordPress, so I migrated.
As it would turn out, open source is not always great…
The priority recipe for any most commercial pieces of software is the following:
- Build the best product ever
In comparison, the recipe for most open source projects only include the first of these priorities—the product. Contrary to what one might think, this is commonly bad for usability. Having to design a product for profit means the designer has to pay very close attention to usability, because if the new user doesn’t understand a product, that user won’t purchase the product. Open source, not having this goal, often treads lightly on the area of usability. Particularly because usability is really just good design, and when it comes to design—everybody has an opinion.
Recently a friend of mine, Michael, decided to improve on the default WordPress template. The result (dubbed Kubrick) swayed some of the core WordPress developers, resulting in the possible adoption of this template as the new default template. Not soon after the announcement, the WordPress forums were boiling.
This is just an example, and in fact applies to most open source development communities. The same goes for Firefox, where any sudden visual change creates a spur of discussion. For instance, with the recent change of visual theme, I even partook in the critique myself. But knowing what I know today, I probably would’ve trusted that the core developers knew what they were doing (which in this case, they were).
As I said on Michaels site,
War is too important to leave to the generals… wait, I meant to say the design is too important to leave to the coders. Let me elaborate.
Essentially, the default WordPress theme has two purposes.
First and foremost, it is to gather a huge user base for WordPress. Secondly, it should be so user friendly, and so simple that the layman user that would otherwise have used Blogger, will actually consider WordPress instead.
In this case, WordPress suffers from too many features, all enabled by default, all fighting for attention.
The focus on profit is clearly non-existent, and the focus on attracting new users is all but ignored. If we take an objective view of the baby-boom in the blogosphere, new bloggers seek to WordPress and Movable Type mainly for their great comments and archiving features. Both applications sport many more features, but that’s really just icing on the cake.
The problem is, if these basic commenting and archiving features are not so user friendly that anyone can easily and quickly identify, decode and use them out-of-the-box, then these up-and-coming bloggers will choose the CMS that “does it better”.
When asked to rate the usability in open source software vs. proprietary software, Jakob Nielsen (internet usability guru) replied:
Poorly, I’m sorry to say. I think the reason is that it’s biased highly for one specialized area which is the very technical such as IT systems administrators. But Linux for the average user or other open source solutions for someone who is not a geek rates particularly low.
The reason is, the motivation for open source is not because the person gets paid but the person gets prestige. The developers are designing for each other and they are so feature rich—geeks love features—and you get more prestige by adding features. For the average person fewer features is better and easier to understand.
“Firefox is the exception”, says Michelle Levesque:
I have five major complaints about Open Source software development, but in advance I would like to clarify two things. First of all, there will always be exceptions to every rule. For example, I believe that relatively few complaints listed here apply to the Open Source browser Firefox which continues to surpass my expectations.
Currently, WordPress is a great free open source project that enjoys wide community support and shows lots of promise. As opposed to Firefox, however, it has not yet had it’s real breakthrough. Using and loving WordPress, it would be so sad not to see it reach it’s full potential.
As I see it, there is only one way to go forward, and that is to copy the Firefox recipe. In order for WordPress to achieve a true breakthrough, focus needs to be on the following things:
- WordPress developers and designers must pretend that profit is a concern, and always focus on the new user—not the power user
- WordPress should have a tight closed developer circle that has absolute power (to my knowledge, that is the case currently). As Firefox developer Asa recently experienced, this means having to make difficult decisions.
- Appreciate and listen to constructive criticism from the community, and blatantly ignore the rest
- Disable all but the necessary features, but document and comment inside the code, so the users that want particular disabled features can easily access them
- Features that are nice but not crucial should be visually tucked away, so their use will benefit only those who actually would use the features in question
In the end it all comes down to the end user. Starting out simple is always easiest, and let’s face it—power users will change the default template anyway.