Competing on Good Design

Last Updated Aug 4, 2008 1:23 PM EDT

Windows Vista start buttonA critique of free software usability (via Slashdot) may offer insights into how volunteer software projects could improve, but it also gives some good tips for profit seekers on how to compete.

As Matthew Paul Thomas pointed out in his critique, there are some basic factors that often make good interface design a stranger to free software projects. Here's my own take:

  • People working on free software projects tend to be programmers, not designers, and a programmer may not understand usability and appeal any more than a designer would be able to write a b-tree database in C++.
  • Volunteers are already giving away their time, so asking them to spend lots more learning the basics of design isn't going to be met with sighs of sublime exaltation.
  • Not only do programmers not understand design principles, but they don't want to hear about them.
  • Measuring usability is tough, making good design even harder.
  • Too many people can monkey with the look and feel, and too many programmers mimic what some of the major companies have already done.
  • Products are written by the computing cognoscenti for their peers, not for beginners.
  • Program files are small, more easily distributed, and opened with your favorite programming editor. Design files are big and general require specialized software.
That's not all of the factors, but enough. And while Thomas says that he thinks all the problems he sees are solvable, there's a big difference between "can be solved" and "will be solved." When the solution requires changing the way people are doing what they aren't paid to do, you've got a major hurdle.

All this should be good news for software businesses. People like features, sure, but if you talk to users, you'll see how many hate pretty much everything they have to use on a computer. They may like software if it's free, but they really want something they can use, and people will judge free software in that manner. Heck, they have been judging it that way, which is why free programs have largely lagged behind commercial software in adoption.

That leaves a market gap for the commercial applications. Companies could spend a lot less energy cramming in new features and instead transform their products into something that customers actually enjoyed using. It's hard to see how that could do any worse in selling a new version of a software standby than yet another round of additions that almost no one will use anyway, and it would help cement the reputation of commercial providers as people who care about people -- namely, their customers.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.