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Monday, November 13, 2006


World Usability Day

[This is a guest post, written by David Vaile -- Catherine]

14 November 2006 is World Usability Day

(Sydney event:
“Every citizen on our planet deserves the right to usable products and services. It is time we reframe our work and look at a bigger global picture. The time is right, the interest is here. 'User friendly' is a common and understandable term; people understand that the world should work well. Now, we have to encourage them to take the message to the streets and say, "We will not stand for it anymore, we want our world to be usable.”

“No more excuses, no more managers complaining about budgets and schedules. No more marketing people selling functionality and power that is more than we need. No more consumers buying things we cannot or do not need to use."

- Elizabeth Rosenzweig, "World Usability Day: A Challenge for Everyone"

This global day of celebration of usability (one of my favourite risk management tools) invites a speculation about usability and our domain of open content licences or free/open source software licences.

We could also ponder the significance of 'open standards' for the development and adoption of intuitive common interfaces or document models. Such commonality and predictability is important for supporting learning and intuitive guessing about how similar things work: you can learn one system and then guess how others work.

See also the current GPL v3 discussions, including inter-version compatibility

This prompts consideration of the negative impact of increasing complexity of the range of licence options (both between licences, and among options for a given licence); and the potential difficulty for neophytes in interpreting how the specific provisions of particular licences will actually operate in the real world (and hence, whether a given licence will do what they hope, or raise other problems).

Users must struggle with a double hit of complexity: in both the law (copyright law is notoriously complex and perverse!?) and technology (a magic black box for many people who just want to get on with it).

It can thus be hard for mere mortals to 'grok' (comprehensively understand) how a given open licence and its technology or content interact.

Finally, it is worth distinguishing between "User-centred design" and "Usability Evaluation" approaches. Both rely on going back to the actual users, not relying on your own guesses. But "Usability evaluation" is more common, and more limited - it can be done any time, and here lies the trap. In practice it is often done at the end of a project, seen merely as part of testing. But this is usually too late, since it is by then too expensive to fix fundamental or conceptual bugs. "User-centred design" however is much preferable, as it starts with the early design stage and goes through, giving feedback at every stage. Done right, it can catch the fundamental errors early enough to change or dump the plan.

Applied to open licences, this might encourage early resort to real world research into what the users actually think, want and need, and what gets in their way, rather than further expert elaboration based on received assumptions from earlier rounds of these licences. Is anyone doing this?


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